Moscow, Russia – With plunging oil prices, economic sanctions, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and a weakening ruble, the Russian government already had a lot to worry about.
Now ISIL has joined this list of concerns. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has released videos with threats to liberate Chechnya and the broader North Caucasus region, and Russia is waging an online war against the group.
“We will … liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus, Allah willing. The Islamic State is here to stay,” said an ISIL fighter in the first such video, released on August 31.
Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch’s Russia programme director, said there is “definitely [ISIL] recruitment happening” in Russia.
“And [ISIL] is becoming, I would say, increasingly popular in the northern Caucasus, in a situation where people are disillusioned with the secular government,” she told Al Jazeera.
|Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is one of Moscow’s strongmen in the northern Caucasus [AFP]|
After two wars between the Russian government and Chechen rebels – 1994-96 and 1999-2009 – the insurgency in the northern Caucasus continues but at a much lower level because of the federal government’s large financial investment in the region, and its efforts to secure loyal people in positions of power, such as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Lokshina estimated about 700 people from the northern Caucasus are currently fighting with ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Other estimates are higher.
According to a report by the Soufan Group, a think-tank focusing on security issues, there are up to 2,500 Chechens and other north Caucasians fighting with ISIL and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Joining the ‘caliphate’
On December 1, Roskomnadzor – the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media – blocked access to video hosting site Vimeo.com because it hosted several clips from the ISIL-produced film Flames of War. It restored access after Vimeo removed the clips.
But some of ISIL’s promotional and recruiting campaigns can still be easily found on Russia’s most popular social network, VK.com. Because anyone can upload videos or other content directly to the website, it can be accessed and shared even after they’ve been blocked by YouTube and other outside sources.
A page on VK.com called “Jihad Poetry” that features Russian-language poems glorifying jihad and Islamist fighters, for example, has more than 1,000 followers.
“One brother tried to move to the caliphate [ISIL-controlled territory], but was stopped on the way and brought to the police where he was beaten,” reads one post on the Jihad Poetry page from November 29. “And he needs money for treatment.”
In fact, it might make it better because it might make violent extremists go over to Syria and Iraq rather than stay in the North Caucasus.
The phone number listed in the post had a Chechen area code, but it is hard to say whether it was a scam – the number was “temporarily unavailable” when dialled on December 3.
Some Chechens are already well-known as senior ISIL commanders.
The most prominent by far is Abu Omar al-Shishani, who has reportedly led the group’s fight in Kobane, the predominantly Kurdish town on the Syria-Turkey border that has for weeks been at the centre of media attention and US-led coalition air strikes against the group.
“Al-Shishani’s ‘Chechen roots’ [his mother is ethnic Chechen] and senior position in the group make it more prestigious for recruits from the North Caucasus to join the ranks of the caliphate,” the Soufan Group report said.
“With these recruits now coming mostly from Russian territory, the Islamic State represents a potential direct threat to Russia.”
Earlier in November, Kadyrov posted a photo to Instagram of a dead man resembling al-Shishani.
The Chechen president, an avid user of the picture-sharing application, added in the caption the same would happen to anyone who dared to threaten Russia and the Chechen people. However, the photo turned out to be at least a year old, and the post was soon deleted.
Russia, like Western countries, considers the radicalisation of its citizens in the Middle East to be a potential threat to the homeland, especially if or when they return. But some play down the seriousness of that threat.
“They joined [ISIL] and there is no way they can actually go back,” said Lokshina. “It’s not feasible at all. Russian Special Services specifically watch these people from the northern Caucasus who travel to Egypt and Turkey close to the Syrian border.”
|Omar al-Shishani, the most notorious Chechen fighting with ISIL, played a key role in the Kobane attacks [AP]|
Similar scepticism was voiced by Richard Barrett, senior vice president of the Soufan Group, who said many Chechens consider their future to be with ISIL and not in their own homeland.
Barrett argued that, ironically, the mere presence of ISIL could shift the threat of Islamist radicalism away from the North Caucasus.
“In fact, it might make it better” for Russia, he said, “because it might make violent extremists go over to Syria and Iraq rather than stay in the North Caucasus”.
“They are still concerned about the Caucasus, they still would like to see [ISIL] in the Caucasus,” said Barrett, who also worked at the United Nations on counter-terrorism.
“Realistically, it’s not going to happen. And I think therefore it’s more likely that the threats to President [Vladimir] Putin and the others are more for show than reality.”
Statistics seem to support Barrett’s point. According to Lokshina, the number of casualties from clashes between Chechen fighters and Russian security services has declined this year. Twelve people were killed and 30 injured in spring 2014, according to a report published by Russian human rights group Memorial, compared to 27 killed and 87 injured in spring 2013.
That said, the situation in Chechnya remains tense. Last week, at least three police officers were killed by fighters in Grozny, the Chechen capital, and several more wounded.
Although the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have escalated tensions between Russia and the West, they still share a common enemy in ISIL. According to recent US intelligence estimates, there are at least 16,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, including 2,700 Westerners.
But Russia and the West differ on how to tackle groups such as ISIL.
Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says the Syrian government should be included in the coalition against ISIL. But the West continues to see Assad’s regime as illegitimate, and refuses to cooperate with it.
“Russia thinks the US is making a mistake by not willing to cooperate with the Syrian government,” said Elena Suponina of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.
“If there was coordination of efforts with the Syrian government, which also means establishing dialogue between the opposition and the government, such cooperation would make it easier to fight the extremists.”
For his part, Barrett said a more effective strategy would be to turn Sunni Arab communities against ISIL. In Iraq, many Sunnis have chafed under the Shia-led government that has ruled Iraq since the 2003 US invasion of the country, and some have welcomed ISIL as a result.
“The problem might not be solved until the problems of governance are solved,” said Barrett. “And that means … fighting in Iraq and Syria is not the answer. The answer is to provide more, in particular, for the Sunni tribes [who are now] supporting [ISIL].”