The Coming of the Russian Jihad: Part I


On June 28, three suicide bombers entered the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, where they killed 45 people and injured 229. Although only one of the terrorist was from Russia (the other two were Uzbek and Kyrgyz), it is almost certain that that their last words to one another were in Russian. It is estimated that between 5,000 to 7,000 Russian-speaking jihadists have made Russian the second most popular language of ISIL, after Arabic.

The Changing Demographics

That Russian should be the lingua franca of jihadists from the former Soviet territory is surprising. Many, perhaps most, younger Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks (judging by the gastarbeiters from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan) do not know Russian well or even at all. That Russia is becoming widely-spoken is indicative of the explosive internationalization and the vastly expanded recruitment patterns of what might be called the Russian Jihad based in Russia and former Soviet Central Asia.

With an estimated 2,400 of its citizens fighting with ISIL, Russia is surpassed only by Tunisia and Saudi Arabia in the number of its nationals in the extremist group’s ranks. It is far ahead of the top four European suppliers of ISIL soldiers: France with 1,800 fighters, Britain and Germany with 760 each, and Belgium with 470. Russian language graffiti has been spotted in Darayya, Syria (“We will pray in your palace, Putin! Tatars and Chechens, rise up!”), and there is an Univermag grocery store in the “Russian” district of ISIL’s de-facto capital of Raqqa, alongside Russian-language schools and kindergartens.

Behind this development is a confluence of broad demographic, religious, and political trends that have swept across Russia and post-Soviet space in the past two and a half decades — and that continue to be present today.

With an estimated 20 million Muslims (14 percent of the population), Russia is the largest Muslim country in Europe outside of Turkey both in absolute terms and as a share of the population.  In 2002, the numbers were 14.5 million and 10 percent respectively. The 40 percent increase since 2002 is due mostly to migrants laborers from Central Asia and Azerbaijan: an estimated 6.5 million migrants in Russian today compared to 360,000 in 2002. Between 1.5 and 2 million migrants have also made Moscow the second largest Muslim city in Europe behind Istanbul.

Often without work permits, marginalized, subjected to abuse and extortion as well as not infrequently racist violence, many of these guest workers understandably turn to their faith as a means to sustain dignity. A Tajik, Kyrgyz, or Uzbek who would not have known the way to the nearest mosque in Dushanbe, Bishkek, or Tashkent becomes a practicing Muslim in Moscow, with at least some falling under the influence of hardline clerics. There are only four mosques in Moscow, and the shortage of space forces thousands of believers to gather in private apartments, where radical preachers feel more secure than in public.

The result:  With an estimated 300 to 500 ISIL recruiters in the Russian capital, Moscow has become a key hub and a way station to Syria for fighters from Russia and the former Soviet Union. Between 80 to 90 percent of ISIL fighters from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan have been radicalized and recruited while in Russia as migrant workers. According to Russian sources, all of the 300 ethnic Uzbeks who are members of ISIL were recruited during work stints in Russia — as were 80 percent of the ethnic Tajik fighters, including their leader, Nusrat Nazarov. In response, in January of this year, Russia’s Migration Service issued a list of  333,391 Tajiks barred from entering the country. According to the National Security Council of Tajikistan, 700 Tajiks have left for Syria and 300 have been killed there. Nazarov has claimed that there were 2,000 Tajiks with ISIL.

The Pan-European Trends

Draconian anti-migrant measures may be useful for short-term security, but they are useless against a more dangerous trend: the expansion of militant Islamism from the North Caucasian periphery (mostly Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria) into other parts of the country, especially the south-eastern heartland between the Kama River and the Ural Mountains.

Russian experts, among them Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center and Roman Silantiev of the Ministry of Justice, estimate that there are thousands of Salafist prayer groups in Russia today, with Islamism having spread “practically to all regions of Russia, including Siberia and even the Far East.” Russian scholars put the number of Russian Salafis at 700,000, and while far from all Salafis are militant Islamists, those “sympathetic” to ISIL are estimated at between 200,000 and half a million.

Protestations to the contrary by Russian authorities and the official Russian Muslim clergy notwithstanding, Russia has not been spared the pan-European turn to Islamism by a fringe of seemingly –well-assimilated Muslim minorities, especially younger men.  Like most of the known terrorists in Western Europe, their Russian counterparts grew up “with little or no contact with mosques or Muslim organizations,” followed no behavioral or dietary laws, and grew increasingly estranged from their parents.

As in largely post-Christian Europe, Russia is grappling with the spiritual vacuum that the Soviet Union left in its wake. Despite Vladimir Putin’s efforts to boost the prestige of the Russian Orthodox Church and make Orthodoxy a de-facto national religion, the legacy of the 70 years of the militantly atheistic Soviet regime has proven hard to overcome.

Again as in Western Europe, the ranks of Russian Muslims are filling with converts from traditionally non-Muslim ethnic backgrounds, mostly ethnic Russians but also Russian speakers of other ethnicities. So far, the estimates of converts to Islam run from 5,000 to 7,000.  As has happened with religions for millennia, Russian converts have been eager to prove themselves and, according to the Russian scholar Rais Suleimanov, have supplied terrorists at a rate greater than Muslims born into the faith. This trend in converts is similar to that in other European countries: In late 2014 the French Interior Minister estimated that every fifth French jihadist in Syria was a convert.

An ethnic Russian Pavel Kosolapov was one of the organizers of the February 6, 2004, suicide bombings in the Moscow Metro (41 killed) and of the August 13, 2007, explosion on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express railroad (360 injured). Another convert, Pavel Dorokhov (nom de guerre Abdul Mudzhib) was the leader of the “Uighur-Bulgar Jamaat” in Bashkortostan. Dmitry Sokolov (Abdul Jabar) assembled the suicide vest which his wife, a Dagestani named Nadya Asiyalova, used to kill seven people and injure 36 on a Volgograd bus in 2013. And when two months later, a suicide bomber killed 16 and injuring 41 people in a Volgograd trolleybus, the first suspect was another ethnic Russian, Pavel Pechenkin (Ar-Rusi) who joined the mujahedeen of Dagestan in 2012.

As he was beheading a fellow Russian speaker on an ISIL video, another ethnic Russian, Anatoly (“Jihadi Tolik“) Zemlyanka from Siberia, had this to say in his native tongue: “Listen to me, Putin, you dog, and let your henchmen hear me too,” Anatoly Zemlyanka says in native Russian on the video:

You are bombing us. But nothing has come of it, apart from the fortitude and conviction that we are on the side of truth. … O people of Russia, you will once again be dragged into an unwinnable war. You will not be safe. We will kill your children for every dead child here, and we will destroy your homes for each destroyed here. … Blood for blood, and destruction for destruction.

Russia has not been immune from yet another European trend. European jails have become “breeding grounds” of Islamist radicals, particularly in Belgium and France, with several of the Charlie Hebdo and the December 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels terrorist attackers prison  “graduates.”  Russia has, by far, the largest prison population in Europe.  As of July of this year, it stood at 650,633. There are approximately 1,000 Muslim communities in Russian prisons and penal colonies, and prospective converts to Wahhabism in Russian prisons and penal colonies are often promised assistance by “brothers on the outside”:  a job, an apartment to rent, a loan. Russian experts have noted that “the penitentiary system in our country has become a kind of ‘factory of Islamism,’” where conditions are suitable for the “creation and expansion of ‘prison jamaats.’” The “spread of Wahhabism in prison,” one of them wrote, “threatens the security of the country.”  While author, Rais Suleimanov,  represents what might be called the alarmist wing of Russian experts on Islamism, a recent prison uprising by Muslim inmates, who demanded that they be permitted to pray at any time and who shouted “Allah Akbar,” lends a measure of credibility to his warning.

Between the Kama and the Urals

Perhaps the greatest potential danger stems from the spread of Islamism among Russia’s largest Muslim ethnicities — the Tatars (population 5.3 million) and the ethnically and geographically proximate Bashkirs (population 1.6 million).  Europe’s oldest Muslim minority and its largest indigenous Muslim people, the Tatars are presumed to be the Bulgars, a Turkic people who inhabited a flourishing medieval kingdom in the mid-Volga and Kama River region and were conquered by the Golden Horde Mongols in 1236. The Bulgars converted to Islam in 922 by emissaries of the Baghdad Caliph, Ja’far al-Muktadir.  Tatars thus can rightly claim to be not just the first Muslims of Russia but also the first Russian monotheists, with Russian Islam preceding Russian Christianity by more than six decades.

The Tatars have been part of the Russian state since Ivan the IV (“The Terrible”) took their capital, Kazan, after a long siege in 1552. Since then the Tatars have evolved into Europe’s most assimilated and patriotic Muslim minority, attesting themselves admirably in the defense of Russia and the Soviet Union against aggressors from Napoleon to Hitler while adhering to the traditional moderate Hanafi school (madhab) of Sunni Islam.

This historical makeup began to change with the emergence of a radical fringe in late 1990s to the early 2000s. Of the nine Russian prisoners at Guantanamo (more than any other European country, save for Great Britain, which also has had nine) six have been ethnic Tatars . In 2006, 17 members of an “Islamic Jamaat” were convicted and sentenced in Tatarstan. According to the prosecution, the Jamaat’s goal was “an Islamic state in the Volga region.” Between 2006 and 2008, a Uighur- Bulgar Jamaat (UBJ) was set up in Bashkortostan. Its leader, the ethnic Russian convert Pavel Dorokhov reportedly trained in Taliban and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. In June 2010, the members of the Jamaat attacked a police station and attempted to blow up a gas pipeline. Tracked down to a forest camp two months later and surrounded by FSB and police in an early morning raid, at least twenty terrorists refused surrender and were killed in a firefight.

The UBJ’s most significant operation was the July 19, 2012, attack on Tatarstan’s two top anti-Wahhabist clrerics: the Grand Mufti Ilduz Fayzov and his deputy in charge of religious education, Valliulla Yakupov. Yakupov was killed by a shot to the head and Fayzov was badly injured.

A year later, a UBJ detachment was reported among the militants from Russia fighting in Syria. It was led by Airat Vakhitov (nom de guerre Salman Bulgarsky), who had been a prisoner at Guantanamo,  transferred back to Russia and released “for lack of evidence” in 2004. A leading Islamic State recruiter, Vakhitov was captured by Turkish authorities after the Istanbul airport  bombing.

By the end of last year, the number of supporters of various militant Islamist movements in Tatarstan was estimated to be 3,000. At least two hundred Tatars were fighting with ISIL. The percentage of the population supporting militant Islamist movements is higher than that of any other European people and second only to the Tatars’ Crimean cousins, with an estimated 500 fighters out of a population of 232,000. In annexing Crimea, Putin may have gotten far more than he bargained for.     

The Life and Times of Irek Hamidullin

If there is a life that epitomizes the trajectory of the radical Islamist fringe in Tatarstan, Irek Hamidullin’s comes the closest. Born in 1959, he graduated from the Kazan Tank Officer School and served in the Leningrad Military District. He retired from the military in 1989 and settled in Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan’s second largest city, which was to become, in the words of a Russian expert,  the “focal point for the Salafis in Tatarstan.”

From 1996 to 1998, he studied at the Yoldyz madrasa in Naberezhnye Chelny. The madrasa’s students would later be spotted among the fighters of the Chechen Islamist warlord Shamil Basaev, whose invasion of Dagestan ignited the Second Chechen War (1999-2006). The madrasa was closed down after two of its graduates were arrested in connection with the explosion of the Urengoy-Uzhgorod natural gas pipeline in December 1999. Airat Vakhitov, the future Guantanamo inmate and the UBJ’s commander in Syria, was among the Yodyz graduates as well.

“At first I was not a real Muslim,” Hamidullin told FSB interrogators during a brief detention in Moscow in April 2004, according the transcript of which was obtained by a Russian newspaper:

I became [a Muslim] only later. I went to mosques, talked to the knowledgeable Muslims who lived by the sharia laws. And I realized that to be a Muslim one must live only in an Islamic state. Because I must live by the sharia laws.

In 1999, Hamidullin travelled to what he thought was such a state: the then de facto independent “Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.” He was disappointed. “[There was] no sharia in Chechnya. I saw a Chechen woman on a street with her head uncovered. [They] drink [alcohol] and smoke there. I understood then that there was nothing in Chechnya for me.”

Returning to Naberezhnye Chelny, Hamidullin set up Russia’s first cell of the ultra-fundamentalist Takfir wa al-Hijra movement, or Excommunication and Exodus. Originating in Egypt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Takfir wa al-Hijra is considered more extreme than al Qaeda. The Takfir ideology regards as kafirs (or non-believers) not just Christian or Jews but  also Muslims who do not share its interpretation of Islam. The movement considers any measure legitimate against the unfaithful and advocates the exodus from “apostate” states.

Later in the same year, Hamidullin led 17 men, women, and children from Naberezhnye Chelny into Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan. “I did not bribe anyone [to join me],” Hamidullin told the FSB interrogators. “I have not given any one so much as a kopek. I simply was telling them: ‘If you are with me, you are on your way to the Paradise.’”

Asked if he could become a suicide bomber, Hamidullin said, “Everyone has the wish to become a shakhid (martyr). And so do I. But this does not depend on me. I don’t know when Allah orders me to become a shakhid.”

-And when this happens, what would be your target:  a store, a metro station, anything else?

– “This depends on Allah. But all of this [would be done] in the name of the Almighty.

— Why are you attacking civilians?

…We are not doing anything that is not written in the Koran. We are fighting the army of infidels. Peace will come to Earth when there is a caliphate – in all the territories where Muslims live.”

“- And what about Russia?

– When the Great Caliphate is established, his warriors will come to the Russian border and ask you to convert to Islam. If the Christians don’t agree, they will have to pay a tax to the Muslims. This is not violence—this would mean that Russia is under the protection of the Great Caliphate.”

The Hamidullin’s brand of Takfirism became the ideology of the Bulgar Jamaat set up in Pakistan’s Northern Waziristan region. Sometime in the early 2000s, the Jamaat, by then “a detachment within Taliban,” was renamed — reportedly with the direct participation of Osama bin Laden — as the “Uighur Bulgar Jamaat” (UBJ) to include the Uighurs from China and Kazakhstan. The Jamaat was ordered by al Qaeda to “create a network of cells” throughout Russia — and, as we have just seen, it did just that. Until the Russian authorities blocked the Jamaat’s site in 2011, it posted video and radio materials, including interviews with Russian “resistance fighters” inside the Jamaat.

Five of Hamidullin’s fellow-Takfiris would be killed fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Three — Ravil Gumarov, Airat Vakhitov, and Ravil Mingazov — would end up in Guantanamo.  Hamidullin was captured by U.S. troops in November 2009 when he led an attack on Camp Leyza on the Pakistani border by a detachment of the Haqqani network, a Pakistani-based militant group allied with the Taliban. He was one of the last remaining maximum security prisoners in U.S. custody in Bagram prison outside Kabul before being transferred to Afghan control in 2014.

In imposing the life sentence, the judge in Richmond cited Hamidullin’s threat to an FBI agent:  “If I see you on the street [sic], I (will) have to kill you as an infidel.”

Tatar Radicalization

The seemingly sudden upsurge of Islamism among the Tatars and Bashkirs has been shaped by “risk factors,” most of which are very much present in Russia today. To start, the post-Soviet pent up demand for religious instruction in the wake of the collapse of the atheistic state was met with a dearth of Muslim clergy. As the number of mosques in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan grew in the last 20 years from barely two-dozen to over 1,500, the need for imams to lead the congregations has sent tens of thousands of young Russians to study in the Middle East, mostly in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia. Many of the future imams were exposed to fundamentalist or even radical versions of Islam. This happened not only in such notoriously Salafi-leaning centers as the University of Medina, the Jeddah University, or the King Abdul-Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. A leading moderate Russian Muslim cleric and rector of the Makhachkala Institute of Theology and Religious Studies, Maksud Sadikov, has even blamed schools with a more moderate reputation, such a as Al-Azhar in Cairo, Abu-Nour in Damascus, and Zaytunah in Tunisia.

As a result, according to Russian experts, imams who share Wahhabi views today preach in dozens of the 1,000 Tatar mosques. One of such clerics was Ramil Yunusov, a Saudi university graduate and until 2013 the Imam of Tatarstan’s main mosque (Qul Sharif) inside the Kazan Kremlin, the seat of Tatarstan’s government.

Tatarstan may also be in danger of following Chechnya’s recent path from the secular struggle for independence to fundamentalism and Islamism. Tatarstan is the only Russian “autonomous republic” with its own president and broadly defined autonomy, originally established by a bilateral treaty the republic signed with Moscow in 1994.  Even under Putin’s centralizing “power vertical,” the Kremlin has mostly closed its eyes to separatist sentiments among Tatarstan’s youth and intelligentsia, rightly considering such transgressions an acceptable price to pay for control over Russia’s largest Muslim homeland. The Kremlin has even put up even with Kazan’s quiet defiance after the downing of a Russian fighter plane by Turkey: Not only has Kazan failed to join in the condemnation of Turkey, it has so far refused to even downgrade (not to mention sever) its extensive cultural, religious, and economic ties with Ankara.

“Will the joining of Islamism and separatism tear Russia apart?” asked the headline in one of Russia’s most popular newspaper, Nezavisimaya gazeta, this past January. This is not a new question but it has loomed large over the past decade.  Russian students of radical Islam have warned of a possible nexus between separatism and fundamentalism.  “Ichkeria” became  a “field study” for many “Islamists from the Volga area,” wrote one of the experts.

And that “field” is still there. Rightly considering the “pacification” of Chechnya his most important domestic national security achievement, Putin has given free rein to the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, who has steadily introduced what might be called “sharia-lite” to his fiefdom, challenging Russian laws and even Russian police. Women have been pressured to wear headscarves in government buildings.  In contravention of the country’s Family Code, polygamy and marriage of underage women have been at least tacitly encouraged. Last year against her and her family’s wishes, a 17-year old Chechen girl was forced into a marriage with an already-married local policeman at least thirty years her senior. Kadyrov approved of the arrangement and even attended the wedding.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris tens of thousands of Muslims from all over Russia came to hold a “Defense of Prophet Mohammad” rally in the Chechen capital of Grozny. A video posted on some of the most popular Russian social media sites shows 20,000 “volunteer” Chechen policemen and special forces, in uniforms and armed, screaming, after Kadyrov, “Allahu Akbar!” by way of pledging loyalty to the “Commander-in-Chief V.V. Putin.”


Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Born in Moscow, he graduated from Moscow State Pedagogical Institute with a degree in English Philology and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University. His most recent book is Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press)