As Russia deepens its involvement in Syria, it risks more than a military quagmire. Its intervention exacerbates a growing domestic threat, one that could destabilize the whole country. A new brand of radical Islam is rising in Russia, fueled by Russian fighters eager to perpetrate acts of terror at home.
Even a decade ago, the scope and depth of this emerging terrorist network would have seemed inconceivable. While Russia has suffered its share of domestic terrorism, those crimes were largely perpetrated by Chechen fighters based in the North Caucasus region. When Moscow declared an end to its counterterrorism operations in Chechnya in 2009, it suggested that the threat of radical violence had been largely contained.
But militant Islam didn’t disappear. In fact, the fundamentalist teachings have spread from Chechnya throughout central Russia. They’re propagated by Russian imams trained in the Middle East and are finding new audiences among the country’s indigenous Muslims, as well as Central Asian migrants in Moscow. Even younger and seemingly long assimilated believers are becoming radicalized. Like their counterparts across Western Europe, they’re turning to internet videos and social media messages aimed at arousing anger at Western “crusaders.”
This is creating real danger for Russia. The country has become a new front in the war against militant Islam, a battle that Europe’s largest Muslim country is largely unprepared to fight.
Russia is no stranger to Muslim radicalism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chechen independence movement became more militant, propelled by a growing belief in Islamic fundamentalism.
Moscow responded harshly. In 1999, newly appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched a scorched-earth campaign that made the Chechen capital, Grozny, look like the ruins of Stalingrad. Chechen fighters struck back, often with spectacularly gruesome terrorist attacks, such as the 2002 seizure of a Moscow theater and the 2004 attack on an elementary school in North Ossetia. But this didn’t derail Moscow. After a decade of brutal fighting (accompanied, often, by massive human rights violations), the Kremlin declared the end of the antiterrorist operation in 2009.
Since then, the number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus has dropped precipitously. But that’s not because Russia’s Muslim radicals have been wiped out. Militant Islam’s center of gravity has simply begun to shift to the Russian heartland.
Today, an estimated 20 million Muslims (including 6.5 million migrants from Azerbaijan and Central Asia) live in Russia, up from 14.5 million in 2002. While the vast majority of these men and women are peaceful, a small but growing number follow the fundamentalist teachings of Salafism and Wahhabism, ultra-conservative movements within Sunni Islam. In many cases, these teachings are spread by Russian-born imams (numbering in the tens of thousands) who trained in the Middle East.
The impact of that radicalization is already apparent in central Russia, home to the Tatars, Russia’s largest Muslim ethnic group (there are about 5 million). Imams who share Wahhabi views are said to preach and serve in dozens of the 1,000-plus mosques in Tatarstan. In 1999, Irek Hamidullin led several Tatar families to Afghanistan. That group went on to start Uighur-Bulgar Jamaat, an al-Qaeda offshoot reportedly set up with the direct participation of Osama bin Laden, that waged attacks on Russian troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Soon UBJ refocused its energies. Encouraged by al-Qaeda leadership, it worked to create a network of cells throughout Russia. In 2006, one such cell was founded in the autonomous republic of Bashkortostan. Its mission: attack critical infrastructure and law enforcement in the region. The group’s leader, a 36-year-old ethnic Russian convert named Pavel Dorokhov who reportedly trained with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, was killed by Russian special forces in August 2008; nine UBJ members were eventually arrested.
The crackdown did not stem the UBJ’s violent efforts. In July 2012, affiliated terrorists attacked the chief mufti of Tatarstan and his deputy, both moderate clerics who had opposed what they saw as the spread of Salafism and Wahhabism, and who had fired imams and madrassa teachers whom they thought nurtured radical Islam. The deputy mufti was fatally shot, and in a separate attack, the mufti was badly injured by a car bomb. Later that day, a cavalcade of cars under the black-and-white banners of global jihadists raced through the city. The UBJ also was also likely behind a November 2013 rocket attack on a major oil-refining facility in Tatarstan.
In May 2013, Russia had an unsettling first. Another group of radicalized Muslims was captured by anti-terror forces in an apartment building outside Moscow. They were accused of planning bomb attacks on the capital. They were ethnic Bashkirs, Russia’s second-largest Muslim ethnic group; it was the first time an act of terrorism was allegedly plotted in Moscow by Muslim extremists who were not from the North Caucasus.
Tatars have joined the international jihad as well. Six of the nine Russian nationals held at Guantanamo Bay were ethnic Tatars. The first Taliban officer tried in a U.S. civilian court, Irek Hamidullin, is from Naberezhnye Chelny, the most radical of Tatarstan’s large cities and a focal point for Salafism in the region.
There are other forces at work, too. Russia hosts millions of guest workers, most of them from Muslim Central Asia. An estimated 2 1 / 2 to 5 million Uzbeks, 1 million Tajiks and 1 million Kyrgyz reside in Russia today, up from 3600,000 migrants in 2002. There are an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Muslims in Moscow alone, making Russia’s capital the largest Muslim city in Europe.
These men live in the shadows, often without work permits. They are culturally and ethnically marginalized, and often subject to abuse, extortion and occasional racist violence. According to one recent poll, 40 percent of Russians have a negative opinion of Islam.
In the face of this, many understandably turn to the faith of their grandparents as a means to sustain dignity. As a result, some Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks who would not have known the way to the nearest mosque in Dushanbe, Bishkek or Tashkent have become zealous Muslims in Moscow. At least some fall under the influence of radical clerics.
International terrorist organizations have taken notice and have begun to ramp up their activities in Russia. Moscow has become the base of operation for an estimated 300 to 500 Islamic State recruiters. According to reports in the Russian media, most Islamic State fighters from Central Asia have been recruited at construction sites in Moscow, including an estimated 300 ethnic Uzbeks. Nusrat Nazarov, the leader of Tajiks fighting with the Islamic State, was radicalized during his working stints in the Russian capital. (He was quoted saying there are 2,000 ethnic Tajiks under his control in Syria; in June the Tajik Interior Ministry put the number of Tajik fighters in Syria at 500.) The secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev, admitted recently that the authorities lack the means to stem the flow of volunteers.
The Russian Foreign Ministry estimates that there are 5,000 people from Russia and the former Soviet Union fighting alongside the Islamic State (independent observers put the number as high as 7,000). Today, Russian is the third-most-popular Islamic State language, after Arabic and English. Russian graffiti reportedly seen in Darayya, Syria, reads: “Today Syria, tomorrow Russia! Chechens and Tatars rise up! Putin, we will pray in your palace!”
The Russian authorities appear to be waking to the danger. Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said many of the Russians who have fought with the Islamic State have returned home, presenting a direct threat. In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September, President Vladimir Putin declared that, having “tasted blood” in Syria, fighters will come back to Russia to “continue their evil doings.”
But Russia’s security services are used to fighting terrorism in the relatively small, sparsely populated and largely rural North Caucasus. They are not ready to take on radicalizing Tatars and Bashkirs, disaffected Central Asians in large cities and the Islamic State’s growing penetration of their homeland. The task is especially challenging because the new jihad is geographically vast (Russia media have reported arrests of militants as far as Eastern Siberia) and far more urban. As a result, terrorist networks will have an easier time organizing and hiding.
Putin has further multiplied the risks of terrorism by casting his lot with Shiites in Syria, though the overwhelming majority of RussianMuslims are Sunnis. Already, 55 Saudi Wahhabi clerics have called for a jihad against Russia for its military intervention in Syria. On Thursday, the Islamic State released a video threatening attacks against Russia. “Soon, very soon, the blood will spill like an ocean,” a narrator says in Russian, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. And of course, there’s mounting consensus that a bomb planted by Muslim extremists brought down a Russian charter jet last month, killing all 224 people on board.
These threats need to be taken seriously — not because they are novel or because of the credibility of those who issue them, but because of the clear and present danger of a Russian jihad.
Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.