The Islamic State Comes to Russia?


The first anniversary of the Islamic State’s declaration of its caliphate has been marked by quite a few successes for the group. It has achieved many victories in Syria and Iraq. In Yemen, it has come to be a strong rival to al-Qaeda. In Tunisia, it mounted yet another successful terrorist attack claiming lives of tourists. It even issued its own currency — gold dinars. Riding this wave of successes, the Islamic State has started receiving pledges of allegiance from other militant groups. In March 2015, it accepted the pledge from Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Soon, Russia’s Caucasus Emirate followed suit: On June 21, an audio recording announcing the pledge of the group’s mujahedeen to the Islamic State appeared on the Internet. In response, the Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani confirmed the creation of the Caliphate’s branch in the North Caucasus, called Vilayat Kavkaz.

In April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the Islamic State Russia’s biggest threat. The declaration of the pledge to the group by the Caucasus Emirate has only heightened such security concerns. Days after the declaration, Russian President Vladimir Putin reached President Barack Obama on the phone, breaking months of silence between Moscow and Washington. The war against the Islamic State and cooperation in the fight against radicalism became highlights of the conversation. The Islamic State seems to have achieved a significant strategic victory in Russia.

The ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus dates back to the first Chechen war in the 1990s, and started as a separatist project. Since then, the movement has spread to other republics of the North Caucasus and has expanded ideologically. In this regard, Islam has served as a unifying force for the distinct North Caucasus republics. The insurgents have successfully drawn on Islam as a justification for the fight against the perceived Russian domination. The idea of the unification of the North Caucasus republics into a state independent from Russia has since replaced Chechen separatism. An independent Islamic state was proclaimed in 2007 with the founding of the Caucasus Emirate, and this unrecognized insurgent body has persistently challenged Russia’s security.

While the recent developments in the North Caucasus are certainly alarming, the alignment of the Caucasus Emirate with the Islamic State might not be as straightforward as it seems. Individual factions of the Emirate started deferring to al-Baghdadi back in November 2014. At the time, the Caucasus Emirate’s leader, Aliaskhab Kebekov, denounced such moves as detrimental to the group’s unity. The recent announcement has not been published in the traditional insurgent outlets such as Kavkaz Center or Vilayat Dagestan web sites. Kebekov was killed in April, but his recently confirmed successor, Magomed Suleymanov, has yet to issue any statements in regard to the declaration of the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State.

Historically, the Islamic State has not been the only terrorist outlet to claim the North Caucasus insurgency. Since the beginning of the first Chechen war in 1994, al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have referred to the North Caucasus as one of its battlefields. The Russian government has claimed that it is fighting nothing less than bin Laden’s emissaries in Chechnya. Indisputably, al-Qaeda and the North Caucasus insurgent command have exchanged fighters, tactics, and operational knowledge. At the same time, since its inception in 2007 the Caucasus Emirate has issued no formal pledge to al-Qaeda. The group has also been cautious in delineating the Russian state as its sole enemy. To date, the Caucasus Emirate has not claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks outside Russia. Immediately following the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 the Caucasus Emirate leadership issued a reminder to the world that it was waging jihad exclusively against Russia in order to disassociate the North Caucasus insurgency from the Tsarnaev brothers.

What makes the Islamic State’s current attempts to portray the Caucasus Emirate as its own, similar to those of al-Qaeda in years past, is the turbulence within the Caucasus Emirate itself. While no formal allegiance has been formed between al-Qaeda and the Caucasus Emirate, the North Caucasus insurgents have strategically relied on the al-Qaeda brand. In the early 2000s, the insurgency experienced existential turbulence. As Operation Enduring Freedom started, foreign funding and fighters were redirected from the North Caucasus to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Seeking new sources of support, the North Caucasus command started increasingly relying on the rhetoric of global jihad, while at the same time retaining local features of the insurgency. Similarly, today the Caucasus Emirate is going through a time of restructuring, trying to rebrand the movement to remain relevant. Aligning itself with the Islamic State, whose popularity has been on a rapid rise, might be another calculated maneuver aimed at regaining momentum.

While the exact nature of the connections between the Islamic State and the Caucasus Emirate remains to be determined, Russia cannot afford to lose ground in its counterinsurgency initiatives. Moscow needs to act fast, learning from global counterinsurgency lessons. First and foremost, the Putin administration needs to start addressing the local grievances feeding into the North Caucasus insurgency. Since the early 2000s, the Kremlin has relied on a Chechenization policy in which Moscow has devolved federal control over Chechnya to the local level. In this process the Russian government has traded a large degree of political autonomy, backed by financial allocations from the federal center, for a seeming pacification of Chechnya. Superficially, the approach paid off. But it depended heavily on a newly created security force known as kadyrovtsy — followers of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow first president, Akhmad Kadyrov, and his son and current president, Ramzan. And in reality, such overreliance on a forceful solution to the insurgency has pushed it further underground, spreading the fighting to other republics of the North Caucasus.

Further, the Russian government needs to reconsider its preferred method of dealing with the Caucasus Emirate — decapitation of its leaders. While the eradication of such insurgent leaders as Doku Umarov or Aliaskhab Kebekov can be touted as successful operations carried out by the Russian security services, with each successive leader the Caucasus Emirate has been changing into a more amorphous and unpredictable entity. Under the founding leadership of Umarov the Caucasus Emirate retained a somewhat coherent structure with clearer lines of command. Umarov discouraged his sometimes rebellious units from leaving the North Caucasus to join jihad elsewhere. As leadership transferred to Kebekov, the organization became plagued by fissures and divisions that transformed it into a more decentralized system of combat units with impenetrable lines of command. Kebekov attempted to reign in the Caucasus Emirate factions that individually pledged allegiance to the Islamic State but did not remain in the leadership position long enough to amend the structural ties of the insurgency. Today, the Caucasus Emirate is no longer a single organization, and Magomed Suleymanov is unlikely to restore the rigid organization-wide control that characterized Umarov’s tenure. Thus, while decapitation of insurgent leaders seems a reasonable priority, this method can backfire by making insurgent cells ever more fissiparous, and, as a result, harder to counter.

Today, the Islamic State already counts on hundreds of individuals from Russia’s North Caucasus fighting in Syria and Iraq. If and when these individuals start returning home, they will bring with them a much more extreme version of jihad than the one that has underwritten the North Caucasus insurgency in recent decades. To prevent this, Russia should limit its overreliance on the military counterinsurgent methods and diversify its counterterrorist approaches. Meanwhile, the rest of the world should learn the lessons from the North Caucasus, which demonstrate the pitfalls of strategies that push insurgencies further underground without addressing their underlying causes.


Dr. Elena Pokalova, author of the recent book Chechnya’s Terrorist Network, is an Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs at National Defense University. The views expressed here are her own.