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

Propaganda of the Deed, or Russia in Syria

Propaganda of the deed has its origins in the anarchist/revolutionary movements of the 1800s. The actors then tried to spread their message through actions, feeling that would have a bigger impact than traditional propaganda. Those early anarchists and revolutionaries used violence to attract more attention and gain a bigger audience than any speeches or pamphlets had done.

Today, propaganda of the deed is used regularly to describe the terrorist playbook. Spectacular attacks, such as September 11 by al Qaeda and the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (IS), capture the attention of the world. The names become recognizable, and put the messages on a world stage.

But propaganda of the deed isn’t just for terrorists. We are witnessing it right now in the geopolitical power play between Russia and the West. Several weeks ago, Russia began moving military equipment into Syria, a move welcomed by President Bashar al Assad. Russia and Syria watchers took notice, awaiting the reaction from the Western nations – especially the US. As early as 2012, the US government began backing the Syrian rebels*, whose intent was to overthrow the Assad regime. By 2014, Islamic State had established a foothold in Syria. Later that same year, the US began conducting airstrikes against IS. Despite White House reports to the contrary, the strikes have not been overly effective in stopping IS.

Enter Russia.

Russia, a major ally of Syria, moved in with the promise to help Assad defeat IS. Almost immediately, Russian planes began bombing not only IS targets, but Syrian rebel positions as well. To those who know Russia, their true intent is no secret.

In Russia, image is everything. The intensity of their bombing campaign is designed to show the world how effective Russia is compared to the West (read: US) in defeating an enemy in the Middle East. In recent years, the gains made by the US in the region seem to have been lost. Russia, looking to improve their image tarnished by their annexation of Crimea, wasted no time stepping in. During his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Vladimir Putin all but called out the US for acting superior to the world, and for creating the power vacuum that now exists in the Middle East. He also announced a strategy to stabilize the region, in this case providing military and technical assistance to Assad.

Putin’s speech was a message to the world that Russia is still a superpower. Russia’s actions in Syria deliver a bigger message that the West is ineffective when dealing with terrorists and unrest in the Middle East. Russia is asserting its (perceived) dominance while increasing its presence in the Middle East, traditionally dominated by the US. Putin is also showing the world that he is a real leader, that President Barack Obama and other Western leaders are weak. In the wake of US failures to train and aid the Syrian opposition, Putin is stepping in with guns blazing.

The image of a strong, manly Russia has long been feed to the masses, from the New Soviet Man to Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photo ops. Putin openly challenging the West in Syria is more effective propaganda than any UNSC speech. Any attempt to show Russia as a great power, all the while showing up the US, is a great victory for Putin. The outcome of Russia’s actions in Syria remains to be seen. In the meantime, those actions are speaking volumes

 

*On 9 October, the Pentagon announced it was ending its program of training Syrian rebels, focusing instead on supplying weapons.

 

The Twisted Saudi Connection and Ramzan Kadyrov

Could Chechnya’s one-time thorn in the side be just what they need to make the move toward independence?

During the Russian invasion of Chechnya in the 1995, a Jordanian (though he identified as both Jordanian and Saudi) named Ibn al Khattab quietly slipped into the country under the guise of being a reporter. His goal was not to report about the Chechen War, but rather to fight in it. With him he brought an impressive jihadi resume, and the highest of connections.

Ibn al Khattab began his mujahideen career in the late 1980s, fighting with in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army. It was in Afghanistan that al Khattab met Osama bin Laden, becoming a close follower of the al Qaeda founder. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, al-Khattab traveled to Central Asia to fight in the Tajik Civil War. After seeing on television Chechen fighters praying before going into battle, al Khattab felt compelled to fight along side them against the Russians. By then, he was an experienced and respected fighter, even having lead an Arab unit in Tajikistan.

Once in the Caucasus, Emir Khattab (or Khattab, as he was known by then) used his influences to secure funding for the fighters. It has been reported that Khattab set up training camps in the Caucasus, much like those used by al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He is also said to have taken Chechens back to Afghanistan to train, including Chechen commander Shamil Basayev.

While in Chechnya, Khattab produced videos to aid in fundraising, and acted as an intermediary between the fighters and the charities that funneled funds to aid the insurgency.

One of the most well-known of these charities was al Haramain. Al Haramain was an NGO founded in Saudi Arabia. Its stated purpose was to distribute food and aid to poor Muslims around the world, but it also operated as a front to funnel money to various al Qaeda-linked organizations. In 2010, an Oregon man was convicted of tax fraud related to a donation to Checnhya. Pete Seda, the man who founded al Haramain’s US branch, was charged with failing to report $150,000 the charity sent to help fund the Chechen insurgency, via Saudi Arabia. Although that conviction was overturned, Seda plead guilty in 2014 to tax fraud stemming from his work with al Haramain. The US government has since declared al Haramain a terrorist organization.

Another well known charity-slash-terror funding organization is Benevolence International Foundation. Originally founded in Saudi Arabia, BIF was at one time one of the largest Islamic charities in the US, as well as having offices in nearly 20 countries. During a 2002 raid on BIF’s Bosnian offices, authorities found material offering proof the organization was funding al Qaeda. And as with al Haramain, BIF’s director, Enaam Arnaout was charged with financing terrorism. Like al Haramain, the US government designated BIF as financiers of terrorism.

After the end of the Chechen Wars, Saudi money began to show up elsewhere in the Caucasus. Religious school teaching Wahhabi doctrine began to spring up, most notably in the Pankisi gorge. Finding the source of the backers of these schools is difficult to uncover but it’s believed Saudi-backed charities are part of the funding.

In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Saudi Arabia guaranteed the security of the Games during a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Prior to that, Caucasus insurgents were threatening to attack the Games. Two months prior, a pair of suicide bombers linked to the insurgency struck Volgograd in separate attacks. The Sochi Olympics went off without incident, leaving few to wonder of the Saudis really did have a hand in keeping the insurgents at bay.

Enter 2015.

In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya have been building relations. On the surface it may seem strange that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Sufi Chechnya are cozying up, especially since Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been at the forefront of the fight against the insurgency.

One school of thought is that Russia is using Kadyrov to repair relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia. It is entirely plausible, given Russia’s recent support of Iran – a rival of Saudi Arabia – during nuclear negotiations. Iran and Russia are viewed by many as international pariahs, whereas Saudi Arabia, despite a raft of human right violations, is welcome in most international political circles. There could be a second reason for Kadyrov’s new found friendship with Saudi Arabia. Kadyrov could be making a move away from Russia, to establish more independence.

In the past year, Kadyrov has been taking many steps in what appears to be in defiance of the Kremlin. Following the December terror attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the houses of the perpetrators’ families to be destroyed, a move that the Kremlin chastised. A month later, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin. Those charged with the crime had close ties to Kadyrov, leading many to believe he played a part in the murder. During recent security operations in Stavropol by local police, Kadyrov publicly announced he would not tolerate this and told his own security forces to shoot any foreign service members, including Russian. This is all in addition to a well-known mutual dislike for FSB, a feud which spawned the infamous incident of Kadyrov ordering the doors of the local FSB building welded shut after they refused his men.

One reason for Kadyrov to make friends with Saudi Arabia has to do with economics. In an interview in June, Kadyrov announced that Chechnya has as much oil as Saudi Arabia, saying it hasn’t been capitalized due to “chronic underinvestment.” He all but said it was Russia’s fault, citing Rosneft’s command of Chechen oil reserves, and Russia’s refusal to grant Chechnya licensing.

If Kadyrov is indeed looking to break free from Russia, gaining economic independence is the beginning. If he can lure Saudi investors – and get the necessary licensing – he might be able to build up the Chechen economy, one that sees nearly a 22% unemployment rate.

Beyond economics, Kadyrov seems willing to do anything to secure his republic against any threat, internal or external. Though effective in anti-terror operations in the region, effectively quashing the insurgency, his kadyrovtsy aren’t an army. One line in a Jamestown article regarding Chechen-Saudi relations and Islamic State may offer a veiled explanation: “the Chechen government is prepared to cooperate with anyone to prevent the group’s emergence in the North Caucasus.” If Kadyrov is willing to partner with Saudi Arabia – the very country funding the Chechen insurgency, many of whom support IS – to fight IS, what else are they willing to partner for? As Kadyrov keeps straining at his Russian leash, acquiring a wealthy and powerful partner could be just the thing that leads to Chechen independence.

Of course Ramzan Kadyrov will be fully aware of what happens to those who defy the Kremlin. Russian soil is soaked in the blood of dissidents. Is Kadyrov so important in keeping terrorism out of Russia that Russia is willing to look the other way, as it has in previous incidents? Or will Kadyrov finally take one step too many? Ramzan Kadyrov, like Putin, will keep pushing until someone pushes back. Except for Ramzan, that might mean a bullet to the head.

Caught in the middle: Zaur Dadaev & the murder of Boris Nemtsov

On the night of 27 February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was walking with his girlfriend on Moscow’s  Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge when someone fired at least six shots into Nemtsov’s back. A car quickly pulled up, providing a getaway for the shooter. The biggest political assassination to happen during Vladimir Putin’s presidency happened in the shadow of the Kremlin, the most secure place in all of Moscow.

Six days after Nemtsov was killed, investigators announced they had arrested five men in connection with the crime. Not surprising to Russia-watchers, the suspects were Chechen. Two of the men, Zaur Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev, were charged with the murder. The other three, Shagid Gubashev (Anzor’s brother), Tamerlan Eskerkhanoz, and Khamat Bakhayev, were charged as accomplices. Dadaev and Anzor Gubashev were both members of Battalion Sever, part of the ‘kadyrovtsy,’ paramilitary Chechen police named after Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Dadaev was deputy commander of Sever until he reportedly stepped down the day after Nemtsov’s murder.

Almost immediately following Dadaev’s arrest, Chechen leader Ramzam Kadyrov made a statement on his Instagram account calling Dadaev a “as a patriot of Russia,” “a profoundly religious man,” and implied that Zaur may have murdered Nemtsov over the politician’s comments following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. It was at this time, on 8 March, that word came out that Zaur Dadaev had confessed to the crime.

Within a week of Dadaev’s confession came word that it may have been made under duress. Russian Human Rights Council member Andrei Babushkin reported that Dadaev had wounds on his wrists from handcuffs and marks on his legs from rope. He also claimed that Dadaev said he had been tortured with electricity and that he had signed a confession only in exchange for the release of a friend who was arrested with him.

Nearly a month after the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a new witness stepped forward. Previously, only Nemtsov’s girlfriend had been the only witness but she claimed not to have seen the shooter who came at them from behind. This new witness, identified only as Yevgeny, said he was walking behind the couple, wearing headphones and looking at his phone. He said he didn’t hear the shooting but looked up right after to see Nemtsov on the ground and the shooter leaving the scene. Most importantly, Yevgeny provided a description of the shooter: medium height, slim build with dark, possibly wavy hair about four centimeters in length. This is not a description of Dadaev, who is tall and athletically built. Yevgeny also gave a different description of the getaway car.

During the first week of April, news came out that Dadaev had been arrested in Ingushetia but unidentified men and held for two days in an unknown location. Dadaev said he was not told why he was picked up, but that it was at this time he was “told what to say and how to say it.” At the same time, Unian posted a story claiming Dadaev had confessed and was cooperating with officials despite earlier reports of him pleading not guilty and having an alibi.

Nemtsov was killed steps away from the Kremlin, arguably the most secure place in Moscow. Coincidentally, security cameras facing the bridge where Nemtsov was murdered were down “for maintenance.”  One camera did manage to record the moment Nemtsov was shot, but at the exact moment a snowplow drives by, obscuring the couple and the gunman. Perhaps another coincidence, but it appears to be a coordinated effort to hide the identity of the shooter.

With Zaur Dadaev vehemently denying his involvement in the murder, theories abound as to who was really behind the killing of Boris Nemtsov. Given what is known, the most likely scenario is that Kadyrov had Nemtsov killed as a sort of present for Putin. Kadyrov has continually expressed his loyalty to Putin, even calling him a father-figure of sorts. Although no proof exists, it is said that Kadyrov was behind the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Nemtsov could be just another “gift,” a way for Kadyrov to show his devotion by killing a popular rival of Putin’s. But it could also be Kadyrov sending a message that he is more than just Putin’s lapdog in Chechnya. In recent months, Kadyrov has become more bold in his actions and words. After the December 2014 militant attack in Grozny, Kadyrov ordered the removal of the families of those involved, and the destruction of their homes, earning a reprimand from Putin. In late April of this year, Russian security forces and local police from Stavropol conducted operation inside Chechen territory, during which an armed Chechen man was killed. Having not known of the operation, Kadyrov replied by saying “open fire if someone from Moscow or Stavropol appears on your turf without your knowledge.”  The statement appeared on Grozny TV and has since been taken down, but not before the statement reverberated back to Moscow. Many, and not just in Moscow, saw Kadyrov’s statement one of insubordination, openly testing the reach of his power.

The alleged involvement of another Chechen in the Nemtsov murder leads some to believe Kadyrov was behind it. Ruslan Geremeev was an officer with Sever Battalion, and is a member of a prominent Chechen family. It had been reported by Novaya Gazeta that Geremeev was not only wanted for questioning in connection with Nemtsov’s murder but that was actually the organizer. When authorities went to Chechnya to arrest him, they found his home guarded by Chechen agents. Geremeev has since disappeared, and is thought to be hiding in Dubai.

Why Zaur Dadaev? If Ruslan Geremeev was truly behind the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Dadaev may be a convenient patsy. He served with Geremeev in Sever Battalion, and was on leave around the same time as Nemtsov’s murder. That in itself is a flimsy argument as to Dadaev’s involvement. The truth – if it is ever revealed – will only come from those directly involved: the one who really pulled the trigger and the one who ordered it. In the meantime, it seems Zaur Dadaev is a pawn in a Kadyrov game.

 

Preying on the vulnerable: Islamic State targets migrants in Russia

When it comes to foreigners traveling to Syria to join Islamic State, worldwide media tends to focus on the Europeans, especially the girls. Writing about young women being lured by false promises of love certainly draws in readers. But they are not the only vulnerable ones being targeted by IS. Central Asians from Russia are joining the ranks of those being recruited by IS.

Workers from Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan migrate to Russia looking for work. Once these migrants from the former Soviet republics arrive, they usually are only able to low paying jobs due to lack of experience as well as knowing little to no Russian. Much of what little money is made is sent back home to their families. In addition to the poor work situation, these workers also have to deal with Russia’s notorious xenophobic attitudes. Even before the current economic crisis, these workers have led tough lives in Russia. Migrants from Central Asia have long been treated with disdain in Russia. They are viewed as a lower class of people, much like Blacks in early 20th Century America. But like so many all over the world driven by economic despair in their home countries, these migrants traveled looking for work to support their families.

Since Russia’s economic downturn many of these workers have lost their jobs. And many have experienced harassment at the hands of Russian authorities cracking down on migrants. Russian officials cite regulation enforcement as the reason for the crack down. In order to work in Russia, these migrant workers have to deal with a myriad of paperwork and fees. It is not uncommon for workers to be rounded up in searches for illegal immigrants or even those whose paperwork is not in order. 2014’s Operation Migration was one of the most recent of such round ups, during which many workers reported harsh treatment up to and including severe beatings. It is not surprising that those who could have fled Russia, going back to their home countries. The migrants who could not leave face unemployment, loneliness and fear. And this is exactly what Islamic State recruiters are using to their advantage.

Central Asian migrants in Russia turn to the familiar, either in local groups or online communities. Far from home and alone, these workers look for whatever they can find that is familiar. Often, this is either a local mosque or online communities. In these places the workers find people with similar backgrounds, language and religion. The under- or unemployed migrants find a connection, but are also susceptible to the messages of radicalization. IS uses these mediums to tell these poor migrant workers that a better life awaits them in Syria. They will have jobs, but more importantly they will be able to fight against an oppressive regime for the establishment of an Islamic state. The socioeconomic situation faced by the migrants is one of the biggest factors used by IS to recruit Central Asians in Russia. The desperation of some workers may lead them to become “indebted” to the recruiters. Not widely reported in the recruitment tactics is the offer to help the migrants with their work status. In exchange, the migrants are obligated to attend sermons by certain religious leaders. This all but guarantees the migrants hear the “right” message.

Preying on the Central Asian migrants’ vulnerabilities is only part of the story. Why are the IS recruiters working in Russia rather than in the Central Asian countries themselves? In many of those countries, radical Islamic groups have been banned. Unable to operate openly in the Central Asian countries, they establish groups in other place to recruit for their cause.While not directly linked to Islamic State, one such group is  Hizb ut-Tahrir. They are an Islamist group who supports the establishment of a caliphate, although they insist their support is through peaceful means. Whatever their ideology and methods, they have in recent years set up cells in cities, like Moscow, where large populations of Central Asian migrants have settled. The migrants are attracted to groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir because of the connection to their home countries. Religion plays almost a secondary role – a common bond – in the recruitment where much of the emphasis is on financial security and freedom from the anti-immigrant attitude of Russia.

There are no solid estimates of the number of Central Asians fighting for Islamic State. Numbers range anywhere from low hundreds to nearly 4000. It’s unclear how many of these fighters have come from Russia because of the number of migrants in the country illegally. Regardless of legal status, these migrant workers in Russia continue to be a target for IS recruitment. Their vulnerability make them easy prey for recruiters promising better living in Syria under the caliphate. The combination on the economic conditions in both the Central Asian countries and in Russia, as well as the anti-immigrant attitude in Russia, all but ensures the recruitment of migrants will continue.

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.

 

Does Transdniestria Matter?

Mention Transdniestria and most people will look at you sideways. It’s a funny word, the name of this place that exists but for a small population. Officially, Transdniestria is still part of Moldova. To a half-million Russian speakers in the east bank of the Dniester River, it is an independent republic. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moldova declared its independence, but not before Transdniestria beat them to the punch. A year earlier the pro-Soviet population in eastern Moldova proclaimed themselves the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic (PMSSR) with the hope of remaining part the Soviet Union. Despite the PMSSR wanting to remain part of Russia, the Russian government failed to recognize the republic as legitimate. War broke out over Transdniestria, during which Russia’s 14th Army backed the separatists. There had been smaller skirmishes going back to 1990, but fighting intensified in late 1991 and into 1992. Supported by the Russian army, Transdniestrian separatists held their claimed territory. A ceasefire was finally signed in July 1992. The Russian 14th Army, along with Moldovan forces, make up a peacekeeping for in the region. The only problem is that it was supposed to be temporary.

Russia’s 14th Army is still stationed in Transdniestria. It is not a very big show of force – about 2,500 troops- but it does present a problem and a threat to the region. During an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul in 1999, Russia promised to withdraw its troops from Transdniestria by 2002. As long as the 14th Army stays put, Moldova has little to no chance of joining NATO. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said, as recently as December 2014, that NATO is the biggest threat to Russia. Putin has frequently cited the presence of troops or weapons in the countries bordering Russia to be direct threat. However, Moldova becoming a NATO member is only talk at this point; Moldova’s constitution does not allow for it to join military alliances. And as recently as September 2014, Moldova has said there are still no plans to join NATO.

After the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Transdniestria thought they could be next. Despite having a mixed population of Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians, Transdniestria still considers themselves a Russian republic. Even if “little green men” don’t appear to aid Transdniestria in their wish to secede from Moldova, the fact that the Russian 14th Army is in Transdniestria ruffles feathers. Just being in Moldova keeps Russia in the periphery of the former Eastern Bloc. Simply put, having one of Russia’s frozen conflicts in the region causes the unease of not knowing if the standoff could suddenly become hot. If the conflict were to flare up again, it is possible that Romania could come to the aid of Moldova. Romania is Moldova’s largest ally in the region, as well as a member of the European Union. This is a scenario that Russia would not want because Romania is a NATO member and any military action against Romania by Russia would invoke NATO’s Article 5.

It bears mentioning that Moldova was part of Romania until the Soviet Union annexed them in 1940.

The bigger threat may be not to Moldova but to neighboring Ukraine. Having Russian military on Ukraine’s western border makes for an easy start of a western front, especially if aided by local sympathizers. But given the current situation in Ukraine and the state of the Russian economy, the likelihood is small but not completely out of the question. If the war in Ukraine were to escalate further, the Army’s location makes it so Russia could launch a western offensive toward Odessa, a prized port on the Black Sea and current home of the Ukrainian navy. Odessa in one of the keys to the idea of Novorossiya (New Russia), something that has been mentioned off and on since the annexation of Crimea. Launching an attack from the west may be a way to divert Ukraine’s precious military resources away from the fighting in the East, giving the advantage to the Russians and the local fighters who are slowly making gains westward, despite having agreed to a ceasefire.

So it may not be that Transdniestria itself matters, but what it represents: Russia’s influence in Europe, specifically the former Eastern Bloc countries. Moldova recently signed an association agreement with the EU. Russia responded by stopping exports from Moldova. Nearly half of Moldova’s exports go to the EU, while about a quarter go to Russia. It was 15 months ago when Ukraine was set to sign their EU association agreement until then-President Viktor Yanukovych bowed to Moscow’s pressure to join a trade agreement with them instead. It was this move that spawned mass protests against the Ukrainian government in Maidan Square. So far, Russia is focusing all their efforts on eastern Ukraine but as they make more territorial gains there they could become emboldened to try for the west. That could very well mean stirring up the population of Transdniestria and making the conflict hot once more.

Rising Tensions for Armenia

While most of the world is focused on the war in Ukraine, terror acts in Europe and the atrocities committed by ISIL and Boko Haram, tensions are brewing in the South Caucasus. And Armenia is at the heart of it all.

Since summer of 2014 there has been an escalation in the ongoing skirmishes on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Fighting between the two countries is nothing new, as they have engaged in wars before, the first 1918-1922, and the second 1988-1994. While the two countries are technically still at war, major fighting has largely ceased since 1994. Most of this tension comes from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area that lies within Azerbaijan but is inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians. In the midst of the last war, Nagorno-Karabakh declared themselves an independent republic, albeit one that isn’t recognized by any country.

In November 2014, Azerbaijan shot down an Armenian military helicopter, claiming it violated Azerbaijani airspace. Since the beginning of the year, there have been almost daily reports of dozens of ceasefire violations by both sides. Since the increase in violence, Azerbaijan has said it could easily defeat Armenia if necessary. Armenia, on the other hand, has Russia on their side. Russia’s largest military base in the South Caucasus is the 102nd Military base in Gyumri.

Unfortunately, tensions between Armenia and Russia may be on the rise after a Russian soldier stationed in Gyumri killed an entire family of seven. On 12 January, Valery Permyakov is suspected leaving the base and barging into the home of the Avetisyan family, shooting six of the family members to death and leaving a six-month old with mortal stab wounds. Inexplicably, Permyakov left his uniform, boots and his AK-47 in the house before fleeing. He was caught a short time later trying to cross into Turkey. Permyakov was remanded to custody at the base, where he currently awaits trial, allegedly admitting to the murders.

For several days after Permyakov was detained and identified, large crowds – numbering in the thousands – gathered outside the Russian consulate demanding he be handed over to local authorities in Gyumri. Since then, a group of Russian-speaking activists called on Russia to send in troops to protect Russian-speakers, and place Permyakov – whom they call a ‘prisoner of conscience’ – under Russian protection. On 20 January it was reported by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Permyakov would be tried in Armenia with a Russian military court, but that report was contradicted one day later by Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said Permyakov would face trial in Russia.

The move to try Permyakov in Russia will likely cause Armenians to take to the streets again in anger. But Russia will likely want to appease Armenia, mostly because of the 102nd Military base. Its location is strategic not only to Turkey and Iran, but to Georgia, whose relationship with Russia has been considerably strained since the 2008 war during which Russia took control of South Ossetia. The base, which the Russians have leased through 2044, is unpopular with some Armenians who think the Russians have too much control in the country.

On top of the back and forth at the border with Azerbijan, and the massacre of an Armenian family at the hands of a Russian soldier, Armenia’s non-existent relationship with Turkey in making news. 2015 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, carried out by the Ottomans in what is now Turkey. In 1915 an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed, while hundreds of thousands more were deported. Turkey has continuously denied the genocide, calling the killings justified because there was an threat to the nation from Armenians. Beyond denials, Turkey has even gone so far as to threaten those who criticize the government over the Armenian Genocide. Vocal critic and Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered in 2007 by a teen “ultranationalist,” who said Dink was insulting Turkey.

Despite the tense relationship between the two countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergogan invited Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to Turkey to partake in the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign – on the same day Armenia will be commemorating the Armenian Genocide. Sargsyan immediately declined the invitation, but not before issuing his own to Erdogan to attend the events in Yerevan, Armenia’s capitol. There are those in Turkey’s government who are calling for the two countries to heal their differences. Armenians, however, see it differently, foregoing any sort of normal relations with their neighbor until Turkey admits their role in the genocide, which is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Unfortunately, these are all wait-and-see events. If the violence continues to escalate along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev could use that as an excuse to take the Nagorno-Karabakh region by force. A more immediate concern is the upcoming trial of Valery Permyakov. If it truly goes ahead in Russia as reported, then there will probably be mass protests in Armenia with the possibility of turning violent. Relations with Russia could very well sour quickly, also, depending on the outcome of the trial. Armenians will want nothing less than maximum punishment for the killing of the Avetisyan family. And while it is doubtful the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide itself will spur unrest, these other events could have the country on edge. 2015 looks to be a very tense year for Armenia.

 

 

The Attack in Grozny: a Resurgent Insurgency?

After the 4 December attack on Grozny, the question was asked whether this was the beginning of a new insurgency by the Caucasus Emirate or a one-off attack. The answer may in fact be both. The insurgency in the Caucasus has never gone away. Skirmishes still happen, and Russian and Chechen anti-terror units are still “neutralizing” terrorists.

The real question that needs to be asked is why. Why did the Emirate choose that time to launch the attack? The timing is curious. The attack happened right before President Vladimir Putin’s annual address to Russia. Defying Putin on a national level certainly sends the message that the insurgency is still a force in the Caucasus. This line of thinking was even mentioned in one of the statements posted by Emirate propaganda site, Kavkaz Center. If that were truly the case, though, why didn’t they launch any attacks during the Sochi Olympics, when the whole world was watching? That would have been an opportunity to promote their cause of an independent Chechnya to a worldwide audience. But is that the message they are really trying to send? Instead of sending a message to the world they are likely sending a message to Russia that they are still a threat and will remain so regardless of any counter measures taken by Russia to put down the insurgency.

Another theory bandied about was the attack coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the First Chechen War, which began on 11 December 1994. The attack didn’t happen on the anniversary itself, but near enough to cause some to wonder. Beyond quiet local commemorations, there were no ceremonies marking the anniversary. There have also been no mentions of the anniversary in any messages sent out by the Emirate. The anniversary is was probably not a reason for the attack but taking advantage of Russia’s occupation with the war in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s economic woes, may have played a role. Russia is fighting a proxy war in east Ukraine, providing military support for the separatists there. At the same time, Russia is dealing with a rouble that is freefall.

It is also possible the Caucasus Emirate is also feeling encouraged and emboldened by the success of another: the Islamic State (ISIL). The Caucasus Emirate has seen hundreds of fighters from the region make their way to Syria and Iraq, finding success on the battlefield and gaining a sort of celebrity along the way. Caucasus fighters have gained a reputation of being fearless, strong, and devoted to the cause. From the Caucasus the Emirate has watched ISIL capture an incredible amount of territory and establish a (self-proclaimed) caliphate, both of which the Caucasus Emirate would like to see at home. In the aftermath of the attack, the Emirate released another statement on Kavkaz Center that varied slightly from the first, saying the attack was in retaliation for Russian oppression. Another post, addressed to the Mujahideen involved in the attack, commands them to “Bring back your land, bring back your religion, bring back your honor. Establish the Sharia of Allah on your land. Do not live under the law of infidels.”

It’s unlikely the Caucasus Emirate could do anything close to what IS has pulled off in Syria and Iraq. First, they lack the manpower. Of those who were not killed in the two Chechen Wars, many who would fight have either migrated out of the country or have traveled to fight with IS. This has weakened the Emirate. Second, despite the collapsing economy and proxy war in Ukraine, Russia will take steps to quash any uprising in the North Caucasus. Every time there’s been a major attack, Russia has retaliated, many times brutally. One cannot forget the actions at Nord-Ost or Beslan. There are less dramatic anti-terror operations almost daily in Chechnya and Dagestan. Sweeping raids of Salafist mosques, arrests, and even murders of anyone thought to be involved with the insurgency happen regularly by Russian FSB and Chechen police, under the command of Chechen leader (and Kremlin figurehead) Ramzan Kadyrov. in fact, in response to the 4 December attack in Grozny, Kadyrov vowed to destroy the homes of those involved – including their families – and drive them out of Chechnya.

Will there be more attacks in the Caucasus. Definitely. The Caucasus Emirate will continue their fight until they establish a Caucasian Caliphate or get neutralized completely. The most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle. There will be no end to the Russians trying to eliminate the insurgency altogether, but this is an ideology that has existed for centuries in various forms of sincerity. And given the ties to the fight in Syria and Iraq (the Caucasus Emirate supports al Nusra Front, which includes many Caucasian fighters), there is the potential for this conflict to grow in coming years as those fighters return home. In short, this is a conflict that is not going away any time soon, and its participants will take every opportunity to prove it.

Killing the Dissidents

Recently, Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov made the (erroneous) claim on his Instagram account* that prominent ISIL fighter Omar al Shishani had been killed. While Kadyrov didn’t credit who had supposedly killed al Shishani, he did take great pleasure in reporting it. Kadyrov sees al Shishani as somewhat a threat to his control of Chechnya, not only because of al Shishani’s repeated calls to bring jihad back to the Caucasus but also because of al Shishani’s popularity among Kadyrov’s opposition. Kadyrov may not be able to get to al Shishani in Syria, outside a war of words, but he can – and has – gotten to many other dissidents outside of Chechnya. And it’s not just Kadyrov. His handlers in the Kremlin are still making good on their promise to hunt down the terrorists.

Since the end of the Chechen Wars, there have been a number of Chechens who have been murdered or at least targeted. The one thing they had in common was their vocal opposition to the Kadyrov and Putin regimes. Many of these assassinations have been attributed to Kadyrov, but Russia has certainly played a hand in several.

One of the most brazen killings happened in Vienna in 2009. In January of that year, Chechen War veteran and former Kadyrov bodyguard Umar Israilov was gunned down in broad daylight in the Austrian capital. Prior to living in exile in Vienna, Israilov fought against Russian in the Second Chechen War. He was captured in 2003 and was eventually made to be Kadyrov’s bodyguard. It was from this vantage that Israilov could see much of the inner workings of the Kadyrov regime. There was a falling out, and Israilov fled to Poland then to Austria. It was then that he first filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights, alleging he had been tortured by the Kadyrov regime. It wasn’t the first time these allegations have been made regarding Kadyrov, but it was the first time they came from someone who had been so close. In the summer before Israilov was killed, a Chechen going by the name Artur Kurmakayev visited Israilov and allegedly showed him a list of several hundred Chechens targeted by Kadyrov. Israilov’s father, who passed on the story of the visiting Chechen, claimed the man told Israilov that he would be on the list if he continued speaking out against Kadyrov. Seven months later, Umar Israilov came home from shopping to find two men waiting at his flat. He ran, but was caught in an alley and shot twice in the head. One man was detained in connection to the shooting; a Chechen living under the name “Otto Kaltenbrunner” was held as the driver of the getaway car. The surveillance and clean kill had the hallmarks of a professional job. In a city filled with intrigue and nefarious characters, a city where the authorities don’t want to be bothered, this murder made them take notice.

Another Chechen who once had ties to Kadyrov met this fate in Dubai earlier in 2009. Sulim Yamadayev once commanded the Russian-backed Vostok Battalion during the Wars and even into South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia. His popularity as commander swelled so much during the conflict that Kadyrov began to see him as a rival. A run-in between Vostok Battalion and Kadyrov’s motorcade, involving the exchange of gunfire, proved to be the beginning of the end for Yamadayev. He was stripped of his command and even charged with crimes including kidnapping and murder. He reportedly left Russia in 2008. The following year he was shot three times in a car park in Dubai. Interpol issued a notice for three Russians in connection with the murder.

Sulim Yamadayev should have known the fate that awaited those who fall out of favor with Kadyrov. In September 2008 his brother Ruslan was killed on the streets in Moscow. Ruslan, a former State Duma member, was shot while stopped at a red light in Moscow. The Yamadayevs are from a powerful clan, and Ruslan was a major political rival of Kadyrov’s. Ruslan had fought against the Russians during the First Chechen War but switched sides in 1999. For his actions he was even given the title of Hero of the Russian Federation. When Dmitri Medvedev was elected President, there were rumors that he would replace Kadyrov, possibly with Ruslan Yamadayev. These rumors fueled Kadyrov’s animosity toward Ruslan.

The assassinations of Israilov and the Yamadayevs were but three in a string of Chechens who have been killed abroad following the Chechen Wars. As far back as at least 2004, Chechen dissidents have been meeting their deaths at the hands of killers tracing back to Kadyrov’s regime and even the FSB.

The onetime acting president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed in Qatar in 2004. Yandarbiyev was a proponent of an independent Islamic republic of Chechnya. President from 1996-1997, he was defeated in the 1997 election for president. Yandarbiyev was then sent to the Gulf as a representative for Chechnya. There he continued to lobby for support for an Islamic republic, pushing a radical interpretation, his relations with the Chechen government grew strained. Russia began warning Gulf States that dealing with Yandarbiyev would be considered an act of hostility, and that Yandarbiyav was backed by al Qaeda. They even submitted to have him extradited back to Russia, to no avail. Then, in February 2004, Yandarbiyev was killed by a car bomb. Two Russian agents were arrested in connection with the bombing. After the assassination, Russian-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov (Ramzan’s father) was quoted as saying Yandarbiyev wouldn’t be missed.

In November 2006, one-time commander of the Gorets unit and former FSB colonel Movladi Baisarov was gunned down on the streets of Moscow. The conflict between Kadyrov and Baisarov began when Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated. The Gorets was disbanded and reassigned to the Chechen Interior Ministry as a special policing group under the command of Ramzan Kadyrov. Baisarov, and much of the unit, refused to be subordinate to Kadyrov, after which Baisarov was charged with kidnapping and murder. Those crimes, along with a previously dropped 2004 charge of murder, were mostly fabricated. Once he resisted Kadyrov, Movladi Baisarov was considered a threat. The Russian government announced federal charges against him, and issued a nationwide search, though he never actually showed up in any database. He was held at least two times on unrelated charges prior to his assassination. On the night of his murder, Baisarov exited his vehicle and approached a group of Chechens on the street, who happened to be members of the Moscow Department to Combat Organized Crime (UBOP). They opened fire, claiming they saw Baisarov with a grenade and claimed he was resisting arrest.

The Chechen diaspora in Istanbul has suffered the most. As of this writing there have been at least six assassinations in the city. The first known happened in December 2008 when a former Chechen commander, Islam Dzhanibekov, was shot. At first it appeared to be just another murder until the murder weapon was revealed to be a 7.62 MSP Groza. This pistol is extremely rare, a highly specialized silenced pistol not available on the open market, and used almost exclusively by FSB for assassinations. That same weapon appeared again with the assassination in February 2009 of Musa Ataev, known as Ali Osaev. Osaev was a fundraiser for the rebels in Chechnya. In that killing, Turkish officials named Temur Makhauri as the suspect. Makhauri, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) alleged, was an FSB agent who went by the name “Zona.”
In September 2011, three Chechen exiles were killed by a single gunman. Berg-haj Musayev/Amir Khamzat was a known associate of, and fundraiser for, Caucasus Emirate Emir Doku Umarov. Rustam Altemirov was wanted for an alleged involvement in the January 2011 attack on Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. The third victim was an alleged fighter by the name of Zaurbek Amriyev. A Russian MIT named Alexander Kharkov was suspected of killing the three men. A Groza pistol and a counterfeit passport were found in his hotel room. A person by the same name was also in Istanbul when Ali Osaev was assassinated. “Zona” has also been mentioned as an alleged suspect in the murder.

There have even been near misses in the effort to silence the dissidents. Magomed Ocherhadji, the leader of the Chechen community in Norway, was allegedly targeted for assassination. His would-be killer, Ruslan Khalidov, announced in a video that he had been contracted by Ramzan Kadyrov to kill Ocherhadji. He also claimed that he had been blackmailed and tortured to force him to comply with the contract. Instead of killing Ocherhadji, he instead informed him of the plot. Ruslan Khalidov’s fate since then is not known. What is interesting about him is that he is the nephew of Shaa Turlaev, a former presidential advisor and an alleged leader of a Chechen assassination squad charged with targeting Chechen dissidents abroad. Turlaev was said to be in Vienna immediately prior to the killing of Umar Israilov. Despite several other assassination attempts, Turlaev is said to be living openly in Chechnya.

December 11 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the First Chechen-Russo War. Officially the wars are over, but for some the killing has never stopped. The Chechens in exile, the dissidents who dared speak out against Ramzan Kadyrov and his Kremlin handlers still have much to fear. Russian President Vladimir Putin once announced he would wipe out the terrorists “in the outhouse.” Colorful as that was, he means what he says. Russian agents alone and with Chechen government assistance are hunting down the dissidents where they live. Given what’s going on in Ukraine, as well as the continuing insurgency in the Caucasus, crossing Russia and her proxies are ill-advised. Nowhere is safe.

*Kadyrov’s Instagram post has since been deleted.