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.



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.


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.


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.

A Brief Look at Terrorism & the Pankisi Gorge

With the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the emergence of Abu Omar al-Shishani as a top commander has put a spotlight on a small area in the Georgian mountains called the Pankisi Gorge. The last time Pankisi Gorge made major news was in 2003 when the Georgian military launched a campaign to flush out Islamic extremists who had taken refuge there following the Chechen Wars. Russia has long accused Georgia of letting extremists make Pankisi Gorge a safe haven. Russia has even gone so far as to make military incursions there themselves. Fast-forward 11 years and Pankisi Gorge is once again in the news, this time as an alleged corridor through which Chechens and other Islamists from the Caucasus are using to get to Syria, and as a breeding ground for terrorists.

While it is true that some Chechens fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have ties to the Pankisi Gorge, it is disputed that the region breeds terrorists. The area is home to many Chechens who fled the Wars in the 1990s. It is also home to the Kists, an ethnic group which traces back to the Chechens. The Kists, along with many Chechens, practice the mystical Sufi form of Islam. Some of the newer, younger residents have embraced the stricter Wahhabi, or Salafi, form of Islam (a subject for a post in itself). Both groups live peacefully with each other, but this is one area that has spawned rumors that the Wahhabi are proselytizing and encouraging extremism. Residents vehemently deny the extremist accusations, saying it’s all Islam. They also claim that most of the Chechen fighters going to Syria are coming from the Chechen diasporas in Europe, not Pankisi.  There is no irrefutable proof that the Wahhabi mosques and imams in Pankisi are encouraging young Muslim men to join jihad, but there is a certain laissez faire among some. One imam recently said that it is the obligation of Muslims to “protect Muslim women and children wherever they are persecuted, whether it’s in Russia, Syria, Spain or Germany.” He also said his mosque receives donations from Saudi Arabia.

It is a poor area with high unemployment. Sometimes, the only place for young men to gather is at a local mosque. Others, in search of work, make the trip to Georgia’s neighbor, Turkey. Of course, Turkey is a major entry point for anyone wishing to join up with the fighting in Syria. Georgian officials claim that only 50-100 residents from Pankisi have gone to Syria. Of that relatively small number, several have made names for themselves in Syria besides Omar al-Shishani. Muslim Abu Walid Shishani has been called the most experienced fighter to come from Pankisi. Militant group Jaish Al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar is commanded by another former Pankisi resident, Salahuddin Shishani. To the others making the trip through Turkey to Syria, jihad is a way to fight for their faith and to make names for themselves. None of this proves that the Pankisi Gorge is breeding terrorists or not. The real concern should not be whether Pankisi Gorge is a hotbed of terrorism, but what will happen when the war is Syria ends. In a recent phone call to his father, Omar al-Shishani allegedly promised revenge against Russia, presumably referring to Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus under Russian control.

Unrelated to the current war in Syria but interesting to note, that both Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have spent time in the region, lending credit to the reports that the area had become a safe haven for al Qaeda terrorists. As Georgia largely leaves the area undisturbed, the reports of the Pankisi Gorge being home to terrorists will persist.

Women and the Islamic State

When the Syrian civil war started over three years ago, many terror groups aligned themselves with the Syrian rebels in the fight to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Since then, some of those terror groups have all but abandoned that cause in order to advance their own. None of these groups have ascended so rapidly as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL, once affiliated with Al Qaeda, has used horrific violence to gain followers and territory. They have even been so bold as to declare a caliphate and rename themselves the Islamic State (IS).The level of violence, tactical advances and media savvy of IS dominates the headlines. What is not as widely reported is the role women play in IS. There have been occasional blurbs about rapes or beatings, or even about Western women traveling to Syria. The real story is far more diverse and complicated. Horrific stories of the treatment of women and girls are not making the headlines like the stories of beheadings.

Throughout Syria, scores of women and girls have been captured only to have the women sold off at makeshift slave markets. The girls are mostly kept to be given to IS fighters as brides. In some cities and towns captured by IS, there have been “marriage bureaus” set up in Aleppo and Al Bab to recruit women and girls to offer themselves for marriage. Even widows are encouraged to remarry. There are, however, questions as to the consent of some of these marriages.

This is repeated throughout the captured territory of the Islamic State. In northern Iraq, dozens of Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped to become slaves. In a recent interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, a young Yazidi girl describes her time as an IS slave. “Mayat” (not her real name) tells of “rooms of horror,” basically rape rooms where many different men would come and have their way with her and the others who were kept there under guard. She goes on to say they are sometimes taken three times a day, and some of the girls she is held with are as young as 13. (Read an English version here.)

Even more horrifying are the reports that emerged after Iraqi Special Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga troops entered villages formerly held by IS. Some women were found naked and tied to trees, having been repeatedly raped. It seems as though some women are given to returning fighters as a reward. As terrible as the violent rapes are, what happens to the women after they have been discarded is heartbreaking. The women who have been raped (and their illegitimate children) are treated as outcasts by their families and villages. Some have even been the victims of honor killings. The extreme violence against women is being used as a form of terrorism by the Islamic State. It frightens those living in the areas captured by IS, but it hasn’t stopped others from wanting to join.

Not all stories of women in the Islamic State are those of victims of violence. On the other end of the spectrum, at least two all-female brigades have been formed in Syria to enforce IS-implemented sharia law. The Al-Khansaa and Umm Al-Rayan brigades are tasked with policing women. These brigades, based in Raqqa, were formed to enforce the Islamic State’s strict interpretation of sharia law, to make sure women are fully covered or are not out without a male chaperone. Another duty performed by these women are to help out at checkpoints, searching women and insuring there are not men dressed as women in order to evade. To quote one IS official, “We have established the brigade[s] to raise awareness of our religion among women, and to punish women who do not abide by the law.” They have the power to arrest and even take part in beating the offenders. The women are paid for their duties, although none are yet to be involved in any terror operations. In perhaps a strange twist, it is reported that over 50 British women have joined these brigades.

Young women, like the British girls, are connecting with one another through social media. Like many other young women around the world, they talk of men, they post photos of themselves and travel tips for one another. What makes these posts and Tweets different are the references to marrying these men they hope will someday become martyrs. Their photos are of themselves completely covered, save their eyes. Some even brandish weapons. Their travel tips include directions on the best routes to Syria and tips on how not to get caught. One popular how-to blogger is Umm Layth, who is thought to be the name taken on by Aqsa Mahmood, a young woman from Glasgow now in Syria. But it’s not just European women being drawn in. Recently, American girls from Minnesota and Colorado have been caught trying to make the trip to join up with IS. It is thought that these girls were recruited by people loosely affiliated with IS – sympathizers – rather than joining on their own. In addition to the young women from the UK and America, other countries such as Austria, Bosnia Hercegovina and Turkey have seen their young women drawn to the caliphate. Recently France arrested a group of people trying to recruit young women to join IS.

Why are so many women drawn to Syria and the Islamic State? The desire to live in the Caliphate is a strong draw. Women are promised a perfect Islamic life upon arrival. Hey are encouraged to contribute by marrying fighters and providing children, having the “honor” of raising new fighters (read: martyrs). One online post by Umm Anwar reiterated that position, saying “Women who give birth to the mujahideen and they are the ones who raise them and teach them.” In a recent appearance on Al Jazeera America Mia Bloom, Professor of Security Studies at UMass Lowell, put it this way: IS is “not providing the Utopian Islamic society that they pretend to, but there might also be a sense of adventure. They’re [the women] promised romance, also promised a lot of support, subsidies for every child that they have, no taxation as well as a wonderful husband.” The reality is often far from the promise, but women are still lining up to meet their martyrs in the Islamic State.

A View of Chechens in Syria

Since the bloody Syrian civil war began in 2011, foreign fighters have been streaming in to join the fight against the infidels, as Bashar al-Assad’s regime is known. What began as a revolution to overthrow the Assad regime has turned into a training ground for jihadis from all over the world, many from European nations. One group of foreign fighters is making their presence known, due to their experience and tenacity. While most of the world is focused on the battle between Assad and the Syrian rebels, Chechens are becoming known as some of the best fighters in Syria. Their prominence is growing, and it is alarming.

Initially, the Chechens joined established groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Al-Nusra Front (JAN). Mounting tension between the groups caused the Chechens to form a new group, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA). JMA was fronted by Omar al-Shishani. A recent, interesting explanation for the rift can be found here. Even like-minded terror groups fall victim to sectarianism.

Omar Shishani chose to pledge his allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many other Chechens in JMA had already sworn their allegiance to (late) Caucasian Emirate leader Doku Umarov, and ultimately split from Omar al-Shishani and ISIL.  Now there are at least four known Caucasian groups fighting in Syria. In the ISIL faction, they are led by Omar al-Shishani. Salahuddin Shishani fronts Caucasian Emirate-loyal JAM. In Abu Mohammed al Jolani-led JAN, Caucasians were originally under the leadership of Sayfullakh Shishani, until he was killed in an attack in February 2014. The last group is independent of the major factions in Syria. That group is Jundu Sham (sometimes called Jund al-Sham), led by Muslim Abu Walid Shishani. Unfortunately, there is little known about this group, as it shares its name with a Lebanese-dominated jihad faction.

Chechen fighters have been on the forefront of some major attacks inside Syria. The February 2014 attack on Aleppo Central Prison by JAN and Islamic Front involved many Chechens, and was the battle where Sayfullakh Shishani was mortally wounded. Chechen fighters have been major players in fighting in Latakia, as well. Perhaps the most well know operation involving the Chechen factions was the 2012/2013 attack and eventual siege of the Menegh Air Base in northern Syria. JAM was a leading force, along with JAN, ISIL and the Free Syrian Army, in taking the air base.

The takeover of the air base, and the subsequent treatment of captured Syrian military personnel, showed what many already knew, the brutality of Chechen jihadis. Those who were captured were summarily executed, their throats slit then beheaded. Others were merely lined up, placed on their knees, and shot in the back of the head. Some fighters even proudly recorded their feats. The Chechen fighters are earning a reputation as some of the most ruthless, but best fighters in Syria. Some of the atrocities are described here. Chechens also reportedly make up about a tenth of the ISIL forces fighting in both Syria and Iraq. Remember, this is a group so extreme in its actions that even one-time ally al Qaeda disavowed them.

The fear is that the Chechen fighters are using their time in Syria as combat training to bring back to the Caucasus. It is still the desire of many in the North Caucasus to create an Islamic Emirate. While the Chechen Wars may have ended, there are still occasional incidents between Islamic militants and Russians in the Caucasus, but there is no ongoing major conflict, such as that in Syria. Fighting in Syria against a major Russian ally could be the combat training the Chechens use to renew the insurgency in the Caucasus. Initially, now-deceased Islamic Caucasian Emirate leader Doku Umarov, tried to dissuade Chechens from traveling to Syria, stating it was more important to wage jihad at home against the Russians. One hope was that the fighters would come back and focus their efforts on the Sochi Olympics. Despite threats, the Games went off without incident. Umarov eventually relented; realizing fighting in Syria would give the Chechens more training in their own fight. Umarov’s successor, Ali Abu-Muhammed, also supports Caucasians fighting in Syria, specifically JAM, who has pledged their allegiance to the new Emir.

Another thing to consider is who or what is funding the Chechen fighters. As far back as 2000, there have been claims of Saudi Arabia financing fighters in Chechnya. In an article by the Jamestown Foundation, the FSB (Russian Security Services) makes the claim of Saudi financial support.  Many sites claim that Saudi Arabia, among several other countries, is helping fund the fighters now in Syria. As both the Saudis and the Chechen Islamist are Wahhabis Sunnis, it is not impossible to think the former would be helping the latter defeat the Syrian Alawites. Saudi Arabia has, financed or at the very least hosted terrorists in the past. We cannot forget that many of the September 11 hijackers were Saudis. Many of the claims I have found are from less than legitimate sites, but there are enough rumors to at least consider the possibility.

If and when the Chechen fighters ever return to the Caucasus, it could turn that region into the next battleground. They will not be satisfied with defeating the infidels of the Assad regime, and helping bolster the ISIL led caliphate. Whether any other jihadis travel to the Caucasus to defeat the Russian infidels remains to be seen. But the Chechens will not stay contained in the Caucasus.The current Syrian war will be felt long after it is over, and will reach far beyond its borders. The Chechens will continue to fight (as evident in Yemen, where a Chechen was killed earlier this year fighting with AQAP).  The Chechens will apply what they have learned on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, and very well may lead the way in the next global jihad movement.

Chechens: Jihadis for Hire?

Since major insurgencies have sprung up around the Arab world in recent years, stories have emerged of Chechens joining the fight. The first reports of Chechens fighting in Syria appeared in 2012. It has been implied that many of these fighters are veterans of the Russian-Chechen conflicts. The reason for Chechen involvement in Syria may be twofold: Wahhabists joining the fight against Alawite and Russian-backed Bashar al Assad.

Digging deeper, more reasonable explanations are uncovered, at least for the involvement in Syria. Ethnic Chechens are traditionally Sufis. In the later part of the 20th century, a more conservative form of Islam began to take hold. By the time of the Chechen-Russian wars, Salafi/Wahhabi Islam – an ultraconservative sect of Sunni Islam – had permeated much of Chechnya. Many of the rebels fighting the Russians were these Salafists, who wanted to establish a Caucasus Emirate.  Once the wars ended, Russia installed a pro-Russian government, led by Ramzan Kadyrov. Fleeing the pro-Russian regime, many hardened Chechen rebels found their way into the mountains bordering Georgia. This is the area rebel leader Doku Umarov made his base of operations. Crossing into the North Caucasus from their mountain base had become increasingly difficult for Chechen rebels.

Enter 2011. Syrian rebels rise up against dictator Bashar al Assad. Chechen rebels found a new cause, helping the oppressed Sunni rebels fighting Assad. And they found it much easier to travel south than to go north. The Chechens found the funding and the training in Syria that they had not seen in the Caucasus. Fighting against Putin’s friend Assad must be a bonus. It is estimated that hundreds Chechen fighters have made the trek south to Syria to fight along side the rebels. There is even a website devoted to the phenomenon.

What about the recent reports of Chechens found fighting in Yemen? Last week, at least one Chechen militant was among those killed in a Yemeni military operation targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It’s possible that Chechens are growing weary of the chaos and brutal reality of fighting in Syria’s civil war. The once united struggle against Assad has turned into infighting among the rebels and terror groups. Chechen Islamists appear to be regrouping, and moving the fight to Yemen. At this time, there are no estimates on the number of Chechens in Yemen. But like Syria, the number of foreign fighters in Yemen is growing, making AQAP’s fight truly a global one.

Even more disturbing is a recent (unconfirmed) report of Chechen fighters seen in Ukraine this week. How do Chechens go from two wars and an ongoing insurgency against Russia, to backing pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine? The most likely explanation is that those showing up in eastern Ukraine are encouraged (read: paid) by Russia to cause unrest in the pro-Russian areas. Ukrainian officials have claimed to have encountered several Chechens fighting in the eastern regions, and that several were killed in operations around Donetsk and Slovyansk. Several months ago, it was reported that Chechnya’s “Vostok” 1st motorized infantry battalion helped in the operation to annex Crimea. This, of course, is vehemently denied by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. It’s worth noting that Kadyrov is fully backed by Russia, who also denied military involvement in the annexation of Crimea despite evidence to the contrary.

Looking at all the reports of Chechens fighting in the Middle East and in Ukraine, it’s becoming clear that not all Chechens are created equal. Those found in the Middle East tend to be Chechen Islamists, helping out their brothers in the Struggle. Yet, those fighting in Ukraine are under the Kremlin thumb. Finding both sides outside of Chechnya’s borders is interesting. Given the economic conditions in Chechnya, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that Chechens are becoming Jihadis for Hire.