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Laughed at by ISIS Is it too soon for Russia to declare victory over extremist groups in the North Caucasus?
Ten years ago, in January 2011, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. He died on the spot and 37 others died later in hospitals. Like most terrorist attacks in Russia at the time, it was organized by religious separatists from the country’s North Caucasus region. The Russian government declared the defeat of the North Caucasian terrorists a national priority back in the 1990s. Today, they seem to have finally succeeded: Moscow hasn’t seen a major terrorist attack for ten years. But is it too soon for Russia to declare a complete victory over this type of extremism? To find out, Meduza correspondent Maxim Solopov spoke with Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, about the roots, progression, and ostensible defeat of the jihadist movement in the Russian Caucasus.
Please note. Meduza’s full interview with Ekaterina Sokirianskaia was published in Russian on January 27, 2021. You can read it here.
For much of the past few decades, residents of Russia’s major cities have lived with the fear of terrorism. As the Chechen separatist movement of the 1990s morphed into religious extremism in the aughts, Moscow became a frequent target of attacks, many of which resulted in dozens of deaths.
In recent years, however, the threat seems to have dissipated. According to Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, this is because the groups that drove the violence simply don’t exist anymore.
On the one hand, Sokirianskaia says, this can be explained in part by global jihadism’s shift toward the Middle East starting around 2014. While the Chechen separatist movement was a largely secular project, under Aslan Maskhadov — the president of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria — “it transformed into an Islamic Chechen state, and finally into Caucasian Emirate, a regional jihadist project, in 2007.”
While the separatists of the 1990s only wanted an independent Chechen state, supporters of Caucasian Emirate aimed to institute Sharia law in an Islamic state that would eventually encompass the entire territory of the North Caucasus republics. By the end of 2015, however, most of the Caucasian Emirate’s surviving emirs had pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (commonly known as ISIL or ISIS).
With its sophisticated structure and modern propaganda, ISIS ideologically outbid the Caucasian Emirate. “ISIS fighters in Iraq termed their war a ‘five-star jihad,’ mocking their rivals from the Caucasus,” Sokirianskaia tells Meduza. “As a result, they attract some of the fighters, but mostly radical Muslims who hadn’t themselves participated in jihadist movements but had sympathized with the Caucasian Emirate and made up a significant portion of their support base.”
This ideological decline coincided with the Russian government’s preparations for the Olympics in Sochi. “The Emirate lost a large number of fighters as Russian law enforcement cracked down — its communication channels, logistics, and ability to launch attacks were virtually paralyzed,” Sokirianskaia explains.
Radicalized in plain sight
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Chechens watched as a number of their fellow former Soviet republics gained sovereignty. While Chechnya hadn’t been a union republic like Georgia or Ukraine, Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1991 Union Treaty draft spurred their hopes of independence from Russia.
“The First Chechen War was seen as a success for the separatists, as the Chechen Republic was virtually independent for the two years following the war,” Sokirianskaia recalls. “Underground separatists maintained the hope of establishing an independent or quasi-independent state in the Caucasus until the mid-2000s. But by the end of the 2000s, it became clear that the Caucasian Emirate was a utopian project that could not be realized.”
But in the period between the two Chechen Wars, the leader of the radical wing of separatists Shamil Basayev and Saudi mujahid Ibn al-Khattab had led an initiative that would have far-reaching consequences throughout the Caucasus. They organized camps for young people from across the region, where they pushed jihadist ideology and taught basic subversion tactics. Law enforcement made no attempt to interfere, and the camps were visited by hundreds of young people between 1996 and 1998.
The Russian security services first got involved outside of Chechnya in 2002, when they began conducting counterterrorism operations in Chechen refugee camps in neighboring Ingushetia. As Sokirianskaia explains, human rights violations were rampant — both Chechen and Ingush people were kidnapped, tortured, and disappeared. Support for the insurgents who routinely attacked police officers grew also among the radical Ingush.
The Caucasian Emirate was first declared in October 2007 by Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed leader of the Republic of Ichkeria at the time. “By that point, the idea to create a Caucasian coalition in the fight against Russia had already been circulating for a while among fighters,” Sokirianskaia says.
She also says an armed insurgency was active in various republics throughout the Caucasus by the mid-2000s. Some of the local youth who had traveled to Chechnya to fight in the war alongside their “Chechen brothers”, including men from Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Dagestan, now formed armed groups in their own republics.
“In Kabardino-Balkaria, almost all mosques were closed and young Muslims were detained,” Sokirianskaia says. “According to human rights workers, the detainees’ beards were shaved and alcohol was poured into their mouths. Torture and harassment were used in Dagestan as well — especially on people who had participated in the attack led by Shamil Basayev. Police brutality radicalized parts of the youth, who began attacking and killing law enforcement officials in at least five Caucasian republics.”
The Caucasian Emirate was divided into seven districts called wilayahs, which were in turn divided into sectors, each with their own emir. Each emir was in charge of a group of people who would plan and carry out attacks together. They financed their operations largely by extorting businessmen and government officials.
“As long as they continued to pose a threat, the militants were paid pretty consistently,” explains Sokirianskaia. “For several years, it was a matter of life and death for local businessmen. I know of a number of cases when people were given flash drives — that’s how it was done back then — with videos that named an amount and a deadline.”
When a store owner Sokirianskaia knew refused to pay up, he was killed and his business was burned down. “He’d gone to law enforcement, but they didn’t provide any real help,” she says. “He hired a private security company, but they couldn’t protect him either. So some people were forced to pay just to save their own lives.”
Naturally, this took a heavy toll on the local economy. “I heard stories about how outside investors would come to the mountainous regions of Dagestan with interesting proposals, but their local partners would immediately be approached by men with beards and the projects would get rolled back,” Sokirianskaia recalls.
The problem was particularly bad in Dagestan, where corruption was rampant and insurgency was everywhere. “While the insurgency in Chechnya was already deeply hidden, its members were always nearby in Dagestan,” says Sokirianskaia, who spent a lot of time there in those days. “You got the feeling you might run into a member at the supermarket.”
Militants soon began turning against the civilian population, punishing them for failing to obey Islamic law. “They blew up liquor stores and planted explosives on the beach,” Sokirianskaia recalls. “I remember how, in Makhachkala, a teacher had her leg blown off. Then they started killing teachers who banned hijabs in class, fortune-tellers, and Sufi imams.”
A bridge too far
As the movement grew, Emirate leaders relied on increasingly ambitious acts of violence to prove their power and attract new supporters. Another source of motivation was the internal competition that arose between militants in Dagestan and Chechnya — between 2009 and 2013, each side continually sought to commit larger and more high-profile terrorist attacks.
“Meanwhile, the Chechen rebels were dealing with infighting of their own,” explains Sokirianskaia. “For one thing, there still remained supporters of the Chechen state, they were Muslim, but nationalists. They didn’t support the creation of Emirate, and they continued to support Ichkeria.”
In June 2013, self-proclaimed Emir Doku Umarov publicly called on his supporters to commit violence at the Sochi Olympics. Multiple attacks were committed in Volgograd and Pyatigorsk in October and December of the same year.
“With just a year left before the Olympics, the North Caucasus remained an active military zone, with constant clashes between militants and law enforcement,” Sokirianskaia says. “American and European delegations seriously considered withdrawing from the Olympics due to security concerns.”
Russian officials cracked down brutally. A number of Emirate leaders were killed, and those who could get across the border fled to Syria.
Security officials also began taking measures against peaceful Salafi communities, severely restricting their freedoms. As a result, Salafis began emigrating from Russia en masse. Some moved to Turkey, while others moved to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other anti-Assad groups.
Out of sight, out of mind
While Sokirianskaia can’t prove that Russian officials facilitated Salafi emigration before the Sochi Olympics, she’s confident they saw it as desirable. “On the one hand, they made conditions intolerable for peaceful Salafis; on the other hand, they turned a blind eye to the mass migration of Salafis to Turkey and Syria,” she says. “They saw it as rational: destroying the most active militants in security operations, and pushing (whom they viewed as) potential sympathizers out of the country.”
Everyone who left was put on a federal wanted list, including many people who had never been to Syria, having fled to Turkey. The wanted list prevented all of them from returning to Russia, as legislation was amended to intensify the punishments they would face if they did.
When Russia entered the war in Syria in 2015, Russian citizens were told outright that it would be better to bomb the terrorists there than to wait for them to return home. “Russia had essentially exported its jihadist movement to the Middle East,” Sokirianskaia underscores.
Still, it’s difficult to believe that the Russian government was truly incapable of stamping out Caucasus terrorism for so many years — after all, it didn’t take long for them to neutralize the threat when the stakes were raised by the Sochi Olympics.
“Law enforcement officials and bureaucrats were in no hurry to eliminate the militants completely,” Sokirianskaia confirms. “For them, the reports, statistics, and criminal cases necessary for fighting terrorism went hand in hand with career growth, bonuses, and surcharges for special operations.”
Sokirianskaia doesn’t see a resurgence of terrorism as a threat in the near term. For one thing, young people have become disillusioned with projects like ISIS. Secondly, Islamic enlightenment promoted resilience to manipulation. In addition, the FSB has gotten better at preventing violence.
On the other hand, the social and political problems that drove the rebel movements of the last quarter-century still haven’t been solved. “In Chechnya, for example, an armed insurgency was crushed by military force, then a totalitarian leader was put in power, and now the entire republic lives in fear,” Sokirianskaia emphasizes. “There’s no less anger and frustration than before — there just aren’t any attractive alternatives on the market. If they do appear, there is certainly potential for mobilization in the North Caucasus.”
While analysts like to speculate about the possibility of new areas of turbulence and conflict in other regions, such as Central Asia, Sokirianskaia still sees Chechnya as the region most at risk for a new wave of violence.
“It’s very difficult for Chechen young people right now,” she says. “There’s a lot of trauma, hopelessness, and no place to vent these emotions, even if you just want to discuss what is happening safely and constructively. You know you can be tortured and imprisoned for a joke on Facebook in Chechnya. So these emotions are somewhere bubbling deep into society, and someday, of course, they will spill out. The only question is when.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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