Russia and Islamic State (updated)

Earlier this year, I recently participated in a class discussion in which we were asked if we thought the Islamic State (IS) would attempt to expand into Russia’s North Caucasus. Many in the class thought that IS would in fact try for the North Caucasus because it was, as one student put it, the obvious next step. The North Caucasus is predominantly Muslim and somewhat adjacent to the Middle East, the students argued. The ones who believed IS could make an attempt were citing the relative ease at which they overran parts of Syria and Iraq. Islamic State’s sheer determination and barbarity, they argued, allowed them to quickly overtake poorly defended towns and Iraq’s less-than-stellar army. In Syria, the chaos of the civil war made for easy inroads for IS. Those who disagreed pointed to the Islamic State’s preoccupation with Syria and Iraq, basically IS is too busy to threaten the North Caucasus. Not a single student mentioned Russia.

When it comes to dealing with terrorists, Russia has a reputation of not messing around. Diplomacy is not an option. One of the most infamous cases of the Russian response to terrorism happened in 1985. In September of that year, a group going by the name Islamic Liberation Organization took four Soviet diplomats hostage. The group demanded that Moscow lean on pro-Syrian militia to stop shelling northern Lebanon or they would kill the diplomats one by one. One was wounded in the initial capture and was subsequently shot as the first warning. Any chance of negotiation disappeared when his body was found in a dump, shot through the head.

In a short time, the KGB discovered that the Islamic Liberation Organization was really Hezbollah. The KGB responded to the killing of the diplomat by kidnapping the relative of a top Hezbollah leader, castrating him and sending the parts to the Hezbollah leader with the message that this would continue unless the diplomats were freed. The remaining diplomats were quickly dropped off, unharmed, at the Soviet embassy in Beirut. Their ordeal lasted less than a month.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians had to deal with another kind of terrorism, that from militants in the Republic of Chechnya. These militants were born from the 1994–1996 Chechen War, during which they fought the Russians for an independent Chechnya. This period also saw the rise of radical Islam in the North Caucasus.

The rise of an insurgency after the war gave the Russians enough of an excuse to once again invade Chechnya in 1999, beginning the Second Chechen War. While the first war ended in a sort of defeat for Russia, the second would not end the same. Russia, now led by newly-elected president Vladimir Putin, launched a full assault on Grozny in order to crush the insurgents. This resulted in the near-total destruction of Grozny and the deaths of an estimated 25,000 [this figure is still disputed] Chechens. Many of those deaths were civilians as a result of indiscriminate shelling by Russian forces. Their goal was to kill all the insurgents, no matter what.

The Second Chechen War effectively ended when the Russians took control of Grozny in February 2000. The Chechen government and the insurgents fled the capital, and the Russians installed a pro-Russian government, led by Akhmad Kadyrov, father of current Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.

The Chechen insurgency didn’t give up their fight, nor did the Russians. After the major fighting stopped, the insurgents began terror attacks. Some of the most notable also highlighted Russia’s response to terrorism. In 2002, a group claiming to be aligned with the Chechen insurgency stormed the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, taking nearly 900 people hostage. Among the hostage-takers were several women strapped with explosives, some of the infamous ‘Black Widows.’ They demanded that Russia withdraw all troops from the Chechen Republic. After two days, Russian security services, including Alfa Group, began pumping gas into the theater in hopes of subduing the terrorists. This was followed by the Russian special forces storming the theater, resulting in a firefight. In all, 130 hostages and 40 terrorists were killed, and nearly 700 were injured during the siege. Afterward, the Russian were heavily criticized for using excess force rather than negotiation to resolve the situation.

In 2004, the Russians once again demonstrated how they deal with terrorists, this time at Beslan. On 1 September 2004, a group of more than 30 heavily armed men stormed the School Number One. It was the first day of school, a day filled with festivities, so there were many parents and relatives gathered as well as students. Some managed to flee but the gunmen managed to herd nearly 1,100 people into the school gymnasium. Their demands were the same as from Dubrovka: All Russian troops must leave Chechnya. The terrorists also rigged the gymnasium with explosives, telling the Russians they would blow up the school if any attempt was made by Russian police or security forces to retake the school. The Russians provided a negotiator, as requested by the terrorists, but those efforts were unsuccessful, though a handful of hostages were released.

On the third day of the siege, two explosions were heard in the school. While unsure the origin of the explosion — reports vary from an accidental bomb detonation to Russian sniper fire triggering a bomb — Russian forces took this as a cue to storm the school. During the ensuing chaos, some hostages managed to escape. But in the end, 334 people had been killed, most during the assault by Russian forces. As with the Dubrovka siege, the Russians were heavily criticized for using extreme deadly force in dealing with the terrorists rather than less lethal means.

In the years following Beslan, Russia doubled-down on anti-terror operations in the North Caucasus. Since 2007, most of their efforts have focused on the Caucasus Emirate (CE). Divergent from the traditional Chechen form of Islam — Sufism — CE is based in the more radical Salafism, a form of Islam that claims to follow the literal meaning of the teachings of the Qur’an. It was formed not only to fight for an independent Chechnya, but also to establish a Chechen caliphate.

In the years since their formation, and under the leadership of Doku Umarov, CE have launched regular attacks against Russians, both in the North Caucasus and in Russia itself. The most notable of these attacks involved suicide bombings by the so-called Black Widows. The Russian response to these attacks have been swift and deadly: security forces arrest any persons thought to be involved in the attacks, including relatives. Regularly, militants are “neutralized” while “resisting arrest”. Still, CE remained a cohesive movement. It wasn’t until the death of Umarov in Spring 2014 that cracks began to show. New emir Ali Abu Mukhammad made an announcement that CE would no longer attack indiscriminately, as was the case under Umarov. He also stated that militants should no longer employ suicide bombers, especially women. Not all CE commanders were happy about these orders, but major attacks largely stopped.

Since November of 2014, a half dozen Dagestani commanders from the Caucasus Emirate (CE) switched allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. It is unknown whether the reason is the poor leadership of CE emir Ali Abu Mukhammad or if the draw to al Baghdadi’s vision of a caliphate is more enticing. FSB (Russian Security Services) director Alexander Bortnikov recently estimated around 1,700 Russians are fighting with IS. The most prominent is Omar al Shishani, a Georgian from the Pankisi Gorge region. In October, al Shishani’s father said he got a phone call from his son who vowed to bring the jihad back to Russia to retake Chechnya. Chechen president Kadyrov, a loyal supporter of Putin, promised to crush any attempt. In fact, when CE attacked Chechen capital Grozny in December 2014, Kadyrov responded by expelling the militants’ families and destroying their homes.

Pure speculation only, there have been rumors of links between Russia and al Qaeda without any concrete evidence. Ayman al Zawahiri was known to have spent time in FSB custody in 1996 after trying to enter Chechnya with two other Egyptians. He was released after being detained nearly six months, but nothing has been reported as to what happened to al Zawahiri while he was in FSB custody. Former FSB Aleksandr Litvinenko once had said that al Zawahiri was one of many links between al Qaeda and the FSB. As John Schindler wrote in a piece last year, this is not the first instance of Russian intelligence getting involved with Islamist extremists. Schindler writes:

Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.

So if Russian intelligence has been able to get inside the insurgency in the North Caucasus, is to too much of a stretch to ask if they could have gotten into the Islamic State, given the number of Russian-linked fighters?

While IS was able to easily take over parts of Syria and Iraq, it stands little chance of doing so in Russia. They would have to overtake the Russia security services, which have proved over the years that they will whatever means necessary to defeat terrorists. This is not to say there won’t be an attempt. When Russian fighters return to the North Caucasus they will bring the IS ideology with them. It’s possible the terror attacks will increase. Both IS and al Nusra Front have called for jihad against Russia. Counterterror operations (CTOs) have increased in the North Caucasus in recent months. Since the death of Umarov, and subsequently Ali Abu Mukhammad earlier this year, along with the increasing number of IS supporters among the remaining members, the Caucasus Emirate’s future is uncertain.

Within the last month, Russia has, with permission from Syrian president Bashar al Assad, begun airstrikes against what they call terrorists. Despite Russia’s claims that they are helping Assad in the fight against IS, most of Russia’s bombing campaign has been focused on Syrian rebel-held positions. That Russia is supporting Assad’s quest to stay in power is no secret. What is not widely reported, if at all, is the identity of who Russia is bombing. One of the major targets of Russia’s bombs is al Nusra Front, the Syrian al Qaeda branch whose members include a large number of Caucasian fighters. Meanwhile, IS has been successful in making gains against Syrian rebels. In addition to helping Assad, Russia has taken its fight against Caucasian Islamists to Syria.

What is not known is if the remaining CE members and the Russian IS fighters will work together in the attempt to oust Russia from Chechnya. Despite calls to wage jihad against Russia, there has been little activity in that direction. If, in the future, there is, the two groups need to find a common ground and not fight each other because the results could be devastating for Chechnya. This is a country that has spent billions of roubles repairing the infrastructure and economy that had been destroyed by the wars. Should another war break out, even among rival militants, the result would only hurt the people of Chechnya. Russian IS fighters could try to “liberate” Chechnya, but Russia would destroy the country to stop them. By taking the fight to Syria, Russia is making an attempt to prevent the fight from coming back to the Caucasus.