Thinking about women’s roles in terrorism

“To underestimate or neglect women jihadists would be a huge mistake for security services…– and one they may pay for in the near future.” – Abu Haniyah

I recently read two article about the roles of women in extremism (specifically, Islamic State), and how we need to change how we view them.

In Article A, the authors list four ways extremists manipulate gender norms. The first way is in the way recruiters customize their message for women. They promise a better life for the women, free from oppression. The second is that Islamic State (IS) uses sexual violence for bonding or intimidation among the fighters. Third, IS and other terror groups exploit the lack of women in security roles (i.e. police) when they execute operations. This is true, to a point. But more often are reports of women being used in places where their presence will not attract attention (such as markets), and knowing they cannot be searched. Finally, IS has developed a narrative about its attacks that highlights the targeting of women and girls. This is a bit skewed. The authors open the article specifically mentioning the targeting of girls at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. The problem with this message is that in the claim of responsibility, IS does not mention girls or children, but Crusaders. There have been instances in the past of messages from IS threatening revenge for the killing of Muslims, including women and children.

Women play MANY roles in & around IS. And women’s roles have evolved under IS. There are brides, recruiters, planners, fighters, and victim/slaves (as with the Yazidi women). The brides of jihadis often get passed around after their husbands are martyred. Fighters, in IS, is a newer development.

The article doesn’t give much as far as changing the way of thinking. The most important point in the article is tucked in at the end, almost as an afterthought, as a passage briefly mention of the role of women in countering extremism. In my opinion, this is important, not just in a professional capacity. Wives and mothers can play a role in dissuading their sons (and daughters) from joining IS. This is something that should be discussed more in countering extremism, along with how the roles of women in terror groups evolve. This leads me into the second article I read.

Article B is more articulate. It tells of women of IS being “trivialized” or “marginalized” by the media & public. (They’re victims or brainwashed). Societies have a hard time coming to terms with women being violent, and ACTUALLY believing in the IS cause. Because of these societal views, women who join IS or other terror groups usually get lighter sentences. The public just has a hard time believing women are joining these terror groups because they actually believe in the cause. This is true of many terror groups. One point I would like to counter is the statement in the article about al Qaeda relegating its female members to raising the next generation of jihadists. Al Qaeda has used women in support and operational roles, something I’ve written about before here.

Unfortunately, the authors mention, is that cultural attitudes in Muslim societies can make it difficult to conduct investigations. In more conservative societies, a man talking alone with women is not allowed. In some extreme cases, this is being exploited, as women can operate without the scrutiny that some Muslim men involved in terror face. The women are just harder to watch.

As the roles of women in these groups evolve, those in the business of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism need to shed the preconceived notions of women-as-victim. Women are increasingly playing active roles in the organizations, and doing so voluntarily. The terror groups will certainly use this to their advantage, whether we accept it or not. But the sooner we do, the sooner we can address these issues.

Unanswered Questions About St. Petersburg.

On Monday 3 April, a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg, Russia, metro, killing 14. At first, there was some confusion about the identity of the perpetrator, having originally been blamed on a man from Kazakhstan. After he turned himself in and was cleared, the real attacker was identified as 22 year-old Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, an Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan. Initially, no claims of responsibility came. Then, on 18 April, a claim of responsibility showed up on al Qaeda’s North African channel, Agence Nouakchaott d’Information (ANI). In the statement, it was said that Dzhalilov was a member of a previously-unknown AQ group called Iman Shamil Battalion. The statement also said that Dzhalilov was acting on instructions from Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, to coincide with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to St. Petersburg, and threatened more action:

“To the Russian government, which apparently has not taken a lesson from its defeat in Afghanistan, we say: This operation is only the beginning, and what is to come will make you forget it, Allah permitting.”

Following the attack, 8 people from Central Asia were detained in connection to the investigation. Several weeks later, 12 people were detained in Kaliningrad, suspected as being part of a terror cell there. The Kaliningrad cell was said to be led by an Uzbek wanted on extremism charges, and are supporters of Islamic State.

Terrorism in Central Asia is next to nonexistent. Economic conditions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have many seeking to find work elsewhere. They often end up in Russia, where they are treated as lower-class citizens. The alienation they experience can, in part, lead to their being vulnerable to extremist via recruiters, as I wrote here. In recent years, more of their numbers have shown up in terror attacks outside of the region. In June of last year, the attack on Turkey’s Ataturk Airport included Central Asians. The New Year’s Eve attack at an Istanbul nightclub was perpetrated by an Uzbek. This year’s truck attack in Sweden was also carried out by an Uzbek. These attacks, however, were directed or inspired by Islamic State.

Despite the claim of responsibility by AQ, many questions remain. First, why was the claim of responsibility was released on a side channel and not on AQ’s main channel? New York Times writers Rukmini Callamachi and Ivan Nechepurenko spoke of this in an article on 25 April. They raised the question of why this showed up on ANI, AQ’s North Africa channel, but not on their main channel, where they speak of European operations. The statement was first released in Arabic, then later in Russian.

Second, the suspect did not show any of the signs typical of recent terrorists. Dzhalilov was, by most accounts, not an overly religious person, he did or didn’t pray (depending on the report), and save for a couple of “liked” Islamic groups, his social media showed no clues. He, likewise, did not have a criminal record, and did not do drugs. It had been reported that he had quit his job and “disappeared,” rumored to have gone to Turkey and Syria. How did this young man end up following orders from Zawahiri to blow himself up in St. Petersburg? One of the suspects arrested after the attack said in a court appearance that he was acting on someone else’s orders, and that he didn’t know he was part of a terror attack. Whose orders was he following, and what was he told? Dzhalilov told people he had an uncle in Turkey, but was that the real reason he went there? Was there someone who can confirm that he was in Turkey, and who, if anyone, did he talk to there?

Third, the Imam Shamil Group was an unknown group prior to this attack. Who are they? The group is named after a Caucasus imam who led the fight against the Russians in the nineteenth century. Shamil’s name is used frequently in the Caucasus, and it is not out of the question that this group was formed specifically for this attack. It is not an uncommon practice; the most well-known example may be the Madrid bombings in 2004. Mark Youngman, who follows extremism in Russia, gave a lengthy response as to why this group and the claim should be viewed with some skepticism.

One possibility is that al Qaeda is looking to become relevant again. With the rise of Islamic State, al Qaeda has been pushed out of the spotlight, and has lost members to IS. They could be seeking to expand their network outside the Middle East and the Caucasus, with the Imarat Kavkaz (IK) insurgency in the North Caucasus having been largely contained. There have been attacks, but nothing on a large scale. Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been particularly effective at neutralizing the threat. Recruiting Central Asians already in Russia’s cities is one way of expanding their network inside Russia. Although there are factors in place to recruit Central Asia migrants as terrorists, it has not been a common occurrence. Despite the numbers of migrant workers in Russia, there have been very few instances of terror attacks involving them in the country. Most Central Asians involved in terrorism seem to be mostly aligned with Islamic State in the Middle East.

Another (conspiratorial) possibility is the involvement of the Russian government. They have used terror before as a pretext to launch operations, most notably the apartment bombings leading up to the Second Chechen War. And there was once a known Russian-AQ connection. In the 1990’s, the FSB had Zawahiri detained for six months. Besides the apartment bombings, Russia has also aided terrorists in the past for their own gains. Security services allowed known insurgents through checkpoints near Beslan, knowing an operation was possible in the area[1]. The inclusion of the Russian message on ANI by itself means nothing; the attack was in Russia. Maybe an insider had a contact with ANI and not AQ’s main channel. The question here is why would the Russian government need to set up Central Asians as terrorists? Would it be merely to show they can be tough on migrants (who are already treated poorly in Russia)? One result of the apartment bombings was a great increase in the approval rating of the president which, at the time of Yeltsin/Putin, was abysmal. That is not currently the case; Putin enjoys an 80% approval rating.

It has been months since the metro attack in St. Petersburg, and so many questions remain unanswered. Given that this happened in Russia, getting those answers anytime soon is unlikely. The only clues may come from Russia’s future response toward those from Central Asia.

1. David Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 104

The Spanish Threat

In March 2004, ten explosions ripped through the Madrid train system. The blasts killed 192 people, and are widely attributed to an al Qaeda-affiliated organization. The previously unknown group calling itself Abu Nayif al Afghani claimed responsibility for the attacks. Those attacks happened at the time the current government had cooperated with the US on the invasion of Iraq, causing many people to vote in the opposing party, who called for the removal of Spanish troops. The bombings in Madrid achieved what terror is meant to do: cause fear, and change policy.

Since 11-M, as the Spanish refer to the Madrid bombings, there have been no reported incidents of terrorism in Spain. Abu Nayaf al Afghani has all but disappeared. In recent years, eyes have turned to France and Belgium, both countries having been victim to numerous attacks, large and small. But given the number of cells detected and militants captured in Spain, it is only a matter of time before Spain falls victim again, and with it more of Europe.

Since 2011, there have been nearly 200 people arrested on terror-related charges. That is approximately three times as many as were arrested between 1996 and 2012. In late 2015, Spanish terrorism experts released a report revealing the statistics about who made up Spain’s terror threat. Nine out of ten arrested were affiliated in some way with a known terror organization. Of those arrested, over half were born outside of Spain. This year alone, Spain has arrested almost 30 on terror-related charges. A pair of Moroccans were arrested in July were charged with financing a terror organization.

At least 75% of the terror suspects have been residents of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in northern Morocco, but cells have been interrupted all over southern Spain. The would-be terrorists captured by Spanish authorities are sometimes found to be plotting attacks inside Spain itself, or are involved in recruiting and support efforts. In August 2012, three al Qaeda-connected men were caught plotting to attack Gibraltar. Curiously, two of the men were Chechen, claiming to be in Spain seeking asylum. One Chechen, Eldar Magomedov (AKA Ahmad Avar), was said to have been former Spetsnaz before leaving to join terror training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mohammed Ankari Adamov is also said to have trained in Afghanistan, and is rumored to have been involved in 2011’s Domodedovo Airport bombing.

This is not to say Spanish terrorists are happy to plot inside Spain. Their efforts have reached into neighboring France. One individual was arrested in Malaga in April 2015 on charges of supplying Paris supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, with arms. While the 27 year-old was a French citizen from Sainte Catherine, the fact that he was in Malaga should be no coincidence. Other potential jihadis have been caught in Malaga, some caught coming from or going to Syria. Months later, Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan-born Spanish resident from Algeciras, was tackled on a Paris-bound train, disrupting an attack.

Yet, Spanish jihadis are not exactly streaming out of the country to join the cause. As of December of 2015, there were an estimated 150 Spanish fighters in Syria and Iraq. A more recent report stated than fewer foreign fighters are joining Islamic State. Does this mean there are fewer individuals willing to join the cause? The answer is likely ‘no.’ Given the recent attacks in Europe – specifically France and Belgium – it makes more sense to assume the fighters are staying put to plan attacks at home. Since Islamic State’s rise to power, more terrorists have switched support from al Qaeda, including affiliate al Nusra, to supporting the cause of IS. Years ago, support for a group calling itself Nadim al Magrebi briefly appeared on the radar. This is notable because of the group’s call to liberate Ceuta and Melilla from Spain. (It is interesting to recall that Ayman Zawahiri once called for the reconquering of al Andalus.) There had been concerns about Islamist infiltration into the Spanish military based in the enclaves. In 2013, there was a document issued by the Spanish Ministry of Defense reporting the detection of radicalism among the ranks.

The trend in terrorist attacks is leaning toward those inspired, rather than ordered directly by, Islamic State. A May 2016 message released by the group called on supporters to attack Europe and the U.S., encouraging lone wolf attacks. Other messages have encouraged Paris-style attacks in Germany and elsewhere. There is no reason to believe that Spanish IS supporters won’t eventually heed the call.

In the last 18 months, France, Belgium, and now Germany have been hit with several terror attacks, from large coordinated events (such as in Paris) to individual attacks, like the most recent in Germany. Since withdrawing from Iraq after the Madrid attacks, Spain has made little waves in the Muslim world. By contrast, France, Belgium, and Germany have actively fought both at home and in the Middle East against Islamic extremism. One attack in France came after that government began airstrikes in Syria, another after they announced they were moving their aircraft carrier to rejoin the fight. Spain, while not committing to airstrikes, vowed to support other countries in their fight against Islamic State.

For now, Spain has been lucky. Many of those arrested have been suspected of supporting terrorists rather than plotting their own attacks. We can hope that the number of arrests by Spanish authorities mean they are getting more proficient at identifying and apprehending the threat. However, we must not kid ourselves into believing that is the only case. That another major attack has not happened in Spain since 2004 does not mean there will not be another. Somebody may just be waiting to take advantage of Spain’s inaction and unpreparedness to attack.

The Roles Women Play: al Qaeda and Islamic State

“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous. I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”

 It has been over a month since the husband and wife team of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed an act of terrorism is San Bernardino, California. In the aftermath, as a way to determine a motive, investigators initially focused on a garbled message on Facebook left by Malik. The message purported to claim an allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. This led many in the media – and armchair analysts online – to confirm that the attack was at least inspired by IS. But digging deeper into the lives of Farook and Malik revealed a more al Qaeda-style ideology. The fact that Malik was involved in the shootings suggests more al Qaeda than Islamic State. Why? Because of the roles women play in each organization.

In 2008, al Qaeda’s then second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri issued a statement saying women are not to be suicide bombers, but should stay at home raising a family. Just a year later, Zawahiri’s own wife went online encouraging more women to be more active in jihad.

But the role of women as active participants in al Qaeda’s jihad goes back further. Long having been linked to terrorist through a marriage to a Jamaah Islamiyah leader Abdul Rahim Ayub, Australian Rabia (Robin) Hutchinson played an active role in supporting terrorism. While there is no proof, it is rumored that she engaged in some violent activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of her activities involved teaching and training. After marrying her fourth husband in 2000, Osama bin laden confidant Abu al Walid al Masri, Hutchinson ran a hospital for mujahideen.

Women associated with al Qaeda have done more than teach and work in hospitals. Many have been involved in operational support and have even conducted operations themselves. Malika el Aroud, also known as Oum Obeyda online, was a Belgian of Moroccan decent who was thought to be a recruiter. She began her online propaganda in 2001, after her husband was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. A marriage to a second husband led her to Switzerland, where she and her husband were charged in 2007 with running pro-al Qaeda websites. After serving a six month sentence, she returned to Belgium. Again, she was detained, this time for allegedly plotting with other women to free a convicted terrorist, and for conducting surveillance for a forthcoming attack.

Another Belgian, Murielle Degauque, is said to be the first Western woman suicide bomber for al Qaeda. It was after marrying her second husband that she went down the path of jihad. Her husband, Issam Goris, was known to Belgian authorities as an Islamist. After their marriage, he was recruited into Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Iraq network. Degauque followed. Six months later, 6 November 2005, Degauque strapped on a suicide belt and detonated herself near a US Army patrol in Buquba.

That same November, Sajida al Rishawi’s suicide belt failed to detonate when her and her husband attempted to bomb the Amman Radisson Hotel. Her husband was successful, but al Rishawi was able to escape. She was eventually caught, becoming the first woman of al Qaeda arrested. She has since been executed by Jordan.

Fast forward to 2014. Tashfeen Malik marries Syed Farook, entering into a marriage that included copies of Inspire magazine (official magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and sermons by Anwar al Awlaki. After having attended conservative madrassas in Pakistan, as well as having exposure to more radicalization through her husband, Malik would have been easily influenced. She may have pledged an allegiance to al Baghdadi in a Facebook message, but Tashfeen Malik was more al Qaeda than Islamic State.

So what of women’s roles in Islamic State?

In a manifesto released early 2015 by supporters of Islamic State, it was written that the main role of women shall be in the home. It is only in certain circumstances that women would be allowed outside the home. The first is the study of religion. Female doctors and teachers may be allowed out if they follow Sharia. And finally, via fatwa and only if there not enough men, may a woman engage in jihad.

Another role women play in IS is that of propagandists. As in the manifesto, women from IS flood social media with messages of the paradise that awaits new recruits in the caliphate. Their message, mostly directed toward young women and girls, is one of freedom, freedom from the perceived constraints placed on them by the Western world. The women on Facebook and Twitter proudly pose, fully veiled, with shopping or eating fast food, saying their lives are normal. They brag about the free apartments and televisions they are given by IS, all in exchange for supporting and marrying the fighters. Women, they say, are needed to support the men fighting the infidels, and to raise the next generation of fighters. Their job as wives and mothers, they say, is important to the Caliphate. And if they are lucky, their husbands and sons will become martyrs.

It is not just propaganda, either. Some women in Islamic State are part of what has been called ‘morality police.’ Based in Raqqa and Mosul, al Khansaa Brigades are in charge of making sure women are complying with Islamic State’s form of Sharia. They make sure the women are dressed appropriately and are accompanied by men. They arrest non-compliant women and issue lashings – or worse –  as punishment. Members of al Khansaa Brigades are the few women in IS that are allowed to drive and carry weapons.

Despite the propaganda, the reality is that most women in Islamic State are captives. Whether they join as al Khansaa Brigade members or travel to Syria to become brides, they can never leave. Some, once widowed, are married off to others, sometimes becoming slaves. Once the reality of living under IS sets in, some women try to leave. Those women are beaten and sometimes killed, such as the case of Samra Kesinovic.  Samra was a 17 year old Bosniak from Austria who left her family because she thought she could be free to practice her religion and “serve Allah.” She tried to escape Raqqa after saying she was sickened by the IS brutality, only to be beaten to death by supporters.

A few have managed to escape, but continue to live in fear that IS members will find them. The brutality of the Islam State is widely reported yet girls still make their way to Syria.

In the case of what roles women play in terror groups, female members of al Qaeda have the upper hand, so to speak, over Islamic State. Women in al Qaeda have a sort of operational equality that isn’t afforded to those in IS, up to and including conducting attacks. The have a part to play, something women in IS do not. The lucky ones get to be wives and mothers, for the alternatives are much worse.

 

I previously wrote about women and Islamic State here.

 

 

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.

 

A “Black Widow” Comes to Istanbul?

On 6 January, a woman walked into a police station in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, claiming – in English – that she lost her wallet. Moments later she detonated explosives hidden under her coat, fatally wounding one policeman and seriously wounding another. Turkish left-wing militant group Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Partisi/Cephesi (DHKP/C) posted a message on their website claiming responsibility. One week prior, on 1 January, DHKP-C attacked a police station near the prime minister’s Dolmabahçe Palace. That attack, which failed to cause any casualties or damage, was said to be in response to Turkish police killing 15 year old Berkan Elvan, an anti-government protester. Elvan was hit in the head with a teargas canister in June 2013 and later died in March 2014. In their statement about the suicide bombing, DHKP-C mentioned Elvan again. They also identified the bomber as Elif Sultan Kalsen, saying she committed an act of sacrifice. 

Kalsen is known to Turkish authorities as a known member of DHKP-C. In 2010, she was convicted of being a member of the group, and served two years in prison. She was subsequently named as someone who could be planning future attacks for the group. However, when Kalsen’s mother went to identify the body, she claimed is was not her daughter. So who was the suicide bomber?

Without mentioning sources, a Turkish news agency reported that the suicide bomber was in fact Diana Ramazova. They reported that Ramazova had foreign phone numbers in her phone, and that she spoke Russian to a taxi driver. Russian media outlet Kavkazpress has since reported that Ramazova was a Russian citizen from Dagestan who was living in Turkey with her husband and children, and was a radicalized Wahhabist. She entered the country in June 2014 as a tourist. Kavkazpress also reported that Russian authorities were conducting an investigation in Dagestan following the attack.  Since it was revealed that it was Ramazova responsible for the attack, DHKP-C has since taken down their statement. No other group has claimed responsibility, but Turkish police are looking into whether Ramazova had any connections to Islamic State or al Qaeda.

What was a Dagastani woman doing blowing herself up in Istanbul? Details are limited at this time. Turkish police aren’t talking. This bombing doesn’t fit with past suicide bombings by women from the Caucasus. Those attacks generally target Russian interests. In December, Russia announced they would build a natural gas pipeline to Turkey, but attacking a Turkish police station in protest of a Russian-Turkish partnership doesn’t make sense.

It may be as simple as Ramzova sympathized with the DHKP-C message. But where did she get the explosive belt? Did she or her husband have a connection to a terrorist group? Turkey has been somewhat ambivalent in regards to terrorists using the country as an entry point into Syria, but they have been helping train Kurdish Peshmerga to fight IS. Unlikely, given the target was a police station.

Until more details emerge, it is mere speculation. As they do, I will update this space as needed.

UPDATE (16Jan2014): In the week since the suicide bombings, details have been slowly emerging. Three persons of Dagestani origin had been arrested in the days after the attack, but no details have been released. Turkish authorities have said that Ramazova was a Russian citizen – Dagestani – but the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) has denied that she ever held a Russian passport or that ‘Ramazova’ is even a Chechen surname. Just this morning, The Guardian reported that Ramazova’s husband – Abu Aluevitsj Edelbijev – was a Norwegian citizen of Chechen origin, who was recently killed in Syria. The newspaper also claims that the couple had traveled to Syria in Summer 2014. After her husband was killed, and she returned to Istanbul, Ramazova met with an unknown Russian woman shortly before the attack. No one has yet to claim credit for sending Diana Ramazova to blow herself up at the Istanbul police station, but the Jamestown Foundation offers a possible explanation to why, and why this attack may be just the beginning:

For the entire period of the existence of the Caucasus Emirate, none of its members considered attacking Turkey, since all the institutions of the Caucasus Emirate, such as its media, finance and representative offices, are all located on Turkish soil. IS members, however, are likely to strike at Turkey, and to portray the attacks as having been carried out by the Caucasus Emirate.

The Istanbul suicide attack by the Islamic State was a warning to Turkish authorities, who are blocking IS efforts to collect funds in local mosques and recruit young militants to fight in Syria. The main aim of the attack, however, was to displace the people who are working for the Caucasus Emirate in Turkey.

It bears repeating that within the last two months, six North Caucasus commanders switched allegiance from Caucasus Emirate leader Ali Abu Mukhammed to ISIL leader Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi, possibly signaling a schism in the CE.