The Coming of the Russian Jihad, Part II


On November 12, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) released a statement that it had arrested “10 terrorists” in Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to the FSB, the men had “a total of four IEDs” and “planned a series of gun and bomb attacks in Russia’s two biggest cities” and had “contacts to leaders” of the Islamic State. The operation followed the killing of two “suspected terrorists” in a shootout that took place in Nizhny Novgorod three weeks before. Overall, according to Russia’s first deputy prosecutor general, Alexandr Buksman, in the first half of 2016, the number of “terrorist crimes” in Russia rose by 73 percent from 2015. The increase, according to Buksman, was not merely a result of better policing but “a reflection of growing threats.”

By all indications, the Russian jihad continues to remain alive and dangerous. As outlined in the first installment, this development has multiple and deep roots. Changing demographics due to migration which have made Russia the largest ethnic Muslim country in Europe and Moscow a key international ISIL recruiting ground. Additionally, pan-European trends such as alienation, unemployment, discrimination, and prison radicalization play increasingly prominent roles in converting citizens of the Russian Federation. Perhaps the most troubling development has been a gradual shift of the locus of militant Islamism from the north Caucasus and into the Russian heartland of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

In this installment, I explore the domestic impact of Russia’s involvement in Syria’s civil war and the strategies deployed by the Russian authorities to contain these effects. I sketch a few other tendencies that might energize and expand the Russian Muslim radical fringe. While virtually all Russian and Central Asian Muslims are Sunnis, Putin has effectively allied himself with Shiites in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Following the deployment of Russian troops in Syria in September of last year, 55 Saudi Wahhabi clerics called for a jihad against Russia. Soon thereafter, the Islamic State released a Russian-language video threatening Russia, claiming that “the blood will spill like an ocean…soon, very soon.”

The fatwa might have been dismissed as one of ISIL’s many idle threats, were it not for similar sentiments among Russian Muslims, detected by Russian public opinion experts. When Russia became involved in Syria, one of them explained, “many [Russian] Muslims perceived this as a war against the Sunnis and for Assad’s Alawite sect.” In this view, “on the one side are Assad, the Alawites, Shiites, and Russia,” and on the other, “almost the entire Sunni world.” Russia’s participation in the Syrian war may have alienated many younger Russian Muslims, who were already skeptical with respect to “official” Islam. To them, it was no longer “a [limited] special operation but an unjust war in which on behalf of Assad, Russian bombs fell on the hospitals and kindergartens of a Muslim country.”

Sensing the danger, Moscow has pressured Tatarstan authorities to resume Mufti Fayzov’s purge of Muslim clerics “suspected of sympathies toward radical Islamic movements.” Disguised as a “re-certification” of all the imams in the Republic, the campaign has reached all the way up to the top of the Tatar Islamic hierarchy, including the dismissal of Ramil Yunusov, the Imam of Tatarstan’s largest mosque, for suspected Wahhabist leanings. (The Chief Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Faizov had tried and failed to fire Yunusov shortly before the assassination attempt on Faizov’s life in 2012.)

The Muslim Spiritual Administration of Tatarstan (DUMT is the Russian acronym) also has ended the use of Saudi textbooks in the madrasas of the republic and terminated the contract with a hajj tour operator that reportedly spread Salafism among pilgrims during their trips to Mecca. The DUMT has established a special department for the “coordination” of the administration of prisons and colonies. The department is supposed to monitor 14 mosques and prayer rooms inside the republic’s 11 penal colonies and confiscate “Wahhabist” publications. The new department also has licensed over a dozen imams to work with prisoners.

The government’s strategy in the North Caucasus has been far more direct. When Syria and ISIL began to loom large in 2011, Russia adopted what might be called a “push-out-and-shut–the-door” approach: emptying Russia of potential terrorists by encouraging them to go to Syria to die there and prevent the survivors from ever coming back. According to Russian independent investigative reports, the “green corridor” was opened as early as 2011 as part of a thorough and merciless security sweep in advance of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The FSB even facilitated travel to Syria, especially for the “men from the forest,” as local jihadists are known in the North Caucasus. Acting on behalf of the FSB were the so-called peregovorshchiki or “negotiators.” One such “negotiator” was said to “guide” several leaders of the local underground from the “forest” to Syria. “Our [terrorist] underground grew weaker, we are happy,” a witness told a Russian reporter. Later on, many local boys who had never taken up arms before followed their older brothers and friends to Syria. “We opened borders, helped them all out and closed the border behind them,” a source in the security services told the International Crisis Group. “Everyone’s happy: they are dying on the path of Allah, and we have no terrorist acts here and are now bombing them in Latakia and Idlib.”

“The traffic light was bright green in the direction of Syria,” commented a Russian journalist. “While Western countries sounded the alarm and drew up the lists of Islamist terrorist organizations, all was quiet in Russia. The [North] Caucasus fighters left for a foreign war.” Russia did not designate ISIL as a terrorist organization until December 2014.

Yet, while the export of jihad has indeed been significantly reduced, the number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus have proved not to be as tightly closed to terrorists as the authorities had hoped. In October 2015, Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, acknowledged that many of the Russians who fought with the Islamic State have “returned home, presenting a direct threat.” In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last September, Putin declared that, having “tasted blood” in Syria, foreign fighters will return to “continue their evil doings.” This past November, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told an interviewer:

You probably know that thousands of Russian citizens and individuals from other post-Soviet republics are fighting in Syria. These completely brainwashed people return home as professional murderers and terrorists. And we don’t want them to stage something similar in Russia after their Syrian stints expire.

Anticipating the issue, in 2013 the criminal code was amended with an article meting out up to ten years in jail for the “participation in unlawful military detachments in the territory of a foreign state with the goals opposed to the interests of the Russian Federation.” Reversing the one-way ticket policy, the authorities began to intercept those “suspected” of going to Syria. Last year, over 100 Russian citizens were reported to have been “stopped on the border.”

Anticipating the return of at least some of the fighters, the authorities have begun to keep track of those who left for Syria and open criminal cases against them. The number of such cases grew from 650 last year to 1,000 so far in 2016. In Dagestan, 15,000 men and women, including widows of fighters have been registered: They have been routinely followed, stopped in traffic, and even taken off of commercial flights.

Still, the number of Russian leaving to join ISIL has continued and even grown. In June 2013 the FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov talked about 200 citizens of the Russian Federation in Syria “under the flag of al-Qaeda and other affiliated structures.” In September 2015, again by the official count, there were 1,800. In March this year, the number was 3,417. That month, 18 ISIL recruiters, all of them from Central Asia, were arrested in Moscow. Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev complained last summer that Russian authorities did not have the means to stem the flow of volunteers to ISIL. According to a Russian expert, the ISIL recruitment network has expanded into “a permanent and effective part of pan-Russian Islam.”

The geography of ISIL’s appeal continues to expand as well. Russian experts estimate that there are at least 5,000 Russian citizens with ISIL and thatonly 2,000 are from the North Caucasus. And it is no longer only Tatarstan and Bashkortostan either. ISIL appears to be targeting Northern and Western Siberia.   Criminal cases against ISIL fighters have been opened as far North as Yamalo-Nenetsk, where 90 percent of Russian natural gas is produced, as well as in Russia’s key oil-producing region of Khanty-Mansiysk in West Siberia. An estimated 200 men have recently left the Tyumen region, where Khanty-Mansiysk is located, to fight for ISIL, and at least one Tyumen resident has been arrested for “participating in ISIS.”

Time will tell how effective these measures have been. So far, the statistics have not been encouraging. This past April, Russia’s Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, spoke of 1,538 terrorism-related crimes (mostly “participation in illegal armed groups”) in Russia in 2015: a 36-percent increase over 2014. The FSB claimed to have killed 156 boeviki (terrorists) terrorists in 2015 and arrested 770. While most of the attacks occurred in the North Caucasus, the steepest rise has occurred in other regions of the country.

“The state has proven unable to resolve any one of the problems that act as suppliers of fresh blood to the [jihadist] underground,” wrote Elena Milashina, a top investigative reporter with Russia’s opposition newspaper, Novoe vremya. Among these problems, she lists “corruption, laws that don’t work, the absence of social mobility, the degradation of all spheres of life, which render the society increasingly archaic.”

Milashina focused her comments on the North Caucasus, but the ills she listed increasingly plague Russia as a whole and, because of the deepening recession and the plunging oil prices, can no longer be palliated by the windfall from oil and gas imports.

Economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, lack of social mobility, and inequality are never the explanation for religious militancy of any kind. But they are certainly powerful contextual enhancers that offer negative incentives, as they pull people from an increasingly bleak reality toward the beguilingly simple and shining solutions that extremist religious doctrines offer. Last year, in a country that is already among in the world’s most unequal, the number of Russians below the poverty line ($145 a month by the current rate of exchange) grew to 19.2 million people in 2015, a 20 percent increase from the previous year. The World Bank expects that more than 20 million people in Russia will be below the poverty line in 2017.

In addition to the return of Russian fighters from Syria, the probability of Russian Muslim radicalization and militancy is heightened by several other developments. There is, to begin with, the continuing position of the Russian Orthodox Church as the country’s de-facto official religion. This is a key element of the “conservative wave” launched by Putin on his return to the presidency in 2012. The Russian president declaring the Church as the “anchor [of] the moral framework of public life and national mores” was bound to be interpreted by many in the Russian Muslim community as an effort to Christianize Russia and is just as likely to cause alienation and anger at best and, at worst, radicalization, especially among younger Muslims.

Such an impact would exacerbate another potentially radicalizing tendency that has affected Western European Muslim communities. Known as the “second generation problem,” the phenomenon has been evident in the demographic characteristics of Western European terrorists, who are overwhelmingly second-generation Muslim immigrants. Children of millions of labor migrants from Central Asia are coming of age or growing up in Russia. For instance, in some St. Petersburg schools, 60 percent of students in early grades are children of Central Asian immigrants. They face many of the same problems, like alienation, low job skills, and unemployment. But they are also likely to experience racial slurs and verbal and, not infrequently, physical abuse at a much higher level in Russia than their counterparts in the West. According to Russian experts, these young men and women tend to “live in ethnic communities [and] practically don’t know the local culture. They don’t have prospects that interest them since they find it hard to get good jobs.” Unlike their parents, the second-generation migrants (who in the largest Central Russian cities are mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks) are no longer used to hard manual labor, yet “cannot find themselves in post-industrial cities.” As a result, a leading Russian expert contends, “the younger generation [of ethnic Muslim migrants] finds refuge in Islam, which helps overcome psychological consequences of ethnic discrimination,” and, at the same time, hides them from the challenges of competition in a global market.

“The Syria virus,” concluded Elena Milashina, “has spread widely throughout Russia. What we have is an epidemic.” Time will tell if this decidedly pessimistic scenario is realized. But if she is right, it will not be just Russia’s problem, it will quickly become ours as well.


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 MA, M.Phil, and 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)