Russia’s North Caucasus Insurgency Widens as ISIS’ Foothold Grows

Russia’s North Caucasus insurgency has gone relatively quiet, but reduced casualty numbers belie a still-worrying situation where long-standing grievances remain. As more and more fighters join the cause of globalized jihadi groups, most of all the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS), Moscow may find that it has only transformed and widened its war.

A thwarted suicide bombing outside a police station near the Northern Caucasus city of Stavropol on Monday was the latest sign. Adding to the threat is the fear of blowback at home of previously dormant ISIS-inspired terrorist cells. This comes after a remarkable reduction of violence in Europe’s deadliest conflict since 2014. For two years in a row, the numbers of casualties in Russia’s North Caucasus insurgency have been halved each year. Security sector successes were partly responsible, but the insurgency was not entirely quashed, nor did the root causes of the anti-Russian upsurge in the region disappear.

Rather, a major ideological and operational transformation continues to change the nature of the insurgency, from an anti-Russian nationalist rebellion that emerged in the mid-1990s as part of the Chechen separatist movement, toward what its adherents saw as a regional jihadi project in the late 2000s and what today has become a global jihad under the leadership of the Islamic State.

In 2007, then-Chechen leader Dokku Umarov declared the “Caucasus Emirate,” an attempt to create a Sharia-based Islamist state in the entire North Caucasus, made up of five provinces, or vilayats: Dagestan; Nohchi-Cho, or Chechnya; Galchaiche, comprising Ingushetia and Ossetia; Kabarda, Balkariya and Karachay (KBK); and the Nogay Steppe. Russia, the United States and the European Union all declared the Caucasus Emirate, which loosely allied itself with al-Qaida, a terrorist organization.

The group was paralyzed in 2013 after Umarov called on his fighters to prevent the 2014 Sochi Olympics from taking place; Russia’s security forces responded by crushing their cells.

As a result, many North Caucasus radicals saw their future in the Islamic State. The first declarations of allegiances to the Islamic State were made in 2014 by local insurgent leaders, or emirs, in Dagestan. In 2015, Aslan Buytukaev—Chechnya’s emir and the Caucasus Emirate’s strongest military commander—swore allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on behalf of Chechen fighters. Other Caucasus Emirate “provinces” soon followed. By June 2015, most insurgent groups had sworn allegiance; the Islamic State later declared the North Caucasus as it own province, known as Kavkaz or Qawqaz. Only small groups in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkariya remained loyal to the Caucasus Emirate.

While its security services crushed the insurgency in the North Caucasus, Russia failed to address adequately the grievances that fueled it.

In all, a few thousand North Caucasians have gone to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, both from their homeland and their diasporas in Europe and the Middle East. The export of the North Caucasus jihad to the Middle East has made Russia new enemies and transformed the problem from a national to a regional phenomenon.

In addition to the Islamic State, North Caucasus militants also fight for the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, as well as other, unaffiliated rebel groups. The commanders are mostly Chechens, who rise quickly through the ranks due to their reputation as fearless fighters.

The flood of fighters out of the North Caucasus can be traced back to security measures around the 2014 Olympics, when Russian services allegedly opened the border for local radicals to leave the region, even though Russia also criminalized participation in armed groups abroad. A Russian security source in the North Caucasus bluntly told the International Crisis Group, “We helped them all out and closed the border behind them by criminalizing this type of fighting.”

Since the second half of 2014, however, the authorities have reduced the outflow and systematically hunted down recruiters and fundraisers, as well as fighters. It is not clear how many North Caucasus militants are fighting today in Syria and Iraq. Official figures give an estimate of 2,900, but the actual number could be much higher. The Commonwealth of Independent States Anti-Terrorism Center estimates around 5,000 Russian citizens have joined the Islamic State.

While its security services crushed the insurgency in the North Caucasus, Russia failed to address adequately the grievances that fueled it. More than al-Qaida and other groups, the Islamic State was able to act as a channel for the anger and frustrations of Sunni Muslims in the region, serving them visions of a better future under its umbrella.

Most Salafis in the North Caucasus interviewed by Crisis Group in a recent report insisted that the main motivation for radicals joining the Islamic State was religious. Islamic State recruiters often convince people, particularly the young, that joining their caliphate or fighting for it is the individual obligation of each Muslim and is a way to restore the dignity and power of subjugated Muslims.

Unlike the weakened Caucasus Emirate, crushed by Moscow, the Islamic State posits itself as a viable political project. At the same time, it assuages people’s socio-economic grievances by portraying itself as an egalitarian welfare project with the promise of social order—and thereby an alternative to the authoritarianism, clan-based nepotism, economic inequality and corruption of the North Caucasus. The desire to avenge perceived humiliation, or the experience of war atrocities at home, is also a powerful recruitment factor, and is especially strong among diaspora Chechens.

Russian officials like to say their experience of countering terrorism in the North Caucasus is the world’s only successful example of deradicalization. In reality, heavy-handed methods, grave human rights violations, enforced disappearances, summary executions and widespread use of torture, especially in Dagestan and Chechnya, continue to radicalize many Salafi communities. Russian policymakers need to recognize that the Islamic State exploits legitimate grievances, including a sense of disenfranchisement and deprivation of basic rights among fundamentalist Muslims, along with inequality and a lack of economic opportunities.

Instead of authoritarianism and a heavy-handed counterterrorism policy, Russia should promote a more open and just system of government in the North Caucasus, improve the rule of law, stop prosecuting religious dissent, continue investing in development, especially education, and attempt to counter radicalization with soft power.

All that will require the involvement of several actors on the ground. The Russian government should get support of religious leaders and encourage a genuine transformation of the North Caucasus’ sectarian conflict between traditional and fundamentalist Muslims by facilitating dialogue between Sufi and Salafi communities in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia. Of course, this means that the government will have to distinguish between violent and nonviolent fundamentalists and cease repression of nonviolent Salafis who have not committed crimes.

Moreover, Moscow’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee could create programs that allow radicals who have not committed grave crimes and wish to return from Syria and Iraq to do so. To deal with returning jihadis and combat violent jihadi ideology, Russia should revive republican commissions for the rehabilitation of ex-fighters and sponsor more constructive engagement with their families.

In short, Russia needs a three-step policy approach to deprive the Islamic State of an important source of recruits and deny it the chance of widening its foothold in the North Caucasus. It should address the root causes of radicalization, prevent further radicalization, and facilitate actual deradicalization. Only on a platform built with these tactics can Moscow hope to achieve long-term success in the fight against violent extremists in its backyard and their global supporters.

Ekaterina Sokirianskaia is Europe and Central Asia project director at the International Crisis Group.

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