Russia's 'outsourced' jihadis come home
By Dmitry Shlapentokh
The Kremlin has a new problem on its hands: battle-hardened jihadists who have acquired experience in Syria and elsewhere bringing their militant fervor back home to the Northern Caucasus.
Recognition that hundreds of jihadists are ready to return will certainly influence Moscow's policies. Kremlin folk might have to reconsider their tactics; not only their tactics - but their tacit "outsourcing" of jihadists to other parts of the world.
Dokku Umarov, jihadi leader in the North Caucasus of the southern Russian provinces of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, has reportedly agreed to a deal with Emir Salautdin, who controls North Caucasus fighters in Syria, for
those militants to return to Russia to fight under his command. Umarov has proclaimed the North Caucasus an Islamist state, calling it Imarat Kavkaz, which means "Caucasus Emirates".
Encouragement for jihadis to take up arms elsewhere was hardly Moscow's invention. Variants on that policy have been well practiced by the United States and its allies in the Middle East. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Saudis, - following the US's bidding - implied that it was honorable to fight infidels in Afghanistan, provided they were not American.
After the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Saudis changed direction again, signaling that while the mujahadeen should not fight in Afghanistan and Iraq (and God forbid, should do no harm to the Saudi regime) they should help Muslims fight the infidels in the Northern Caucasus.
The late emir Seifullakh noted that Muslim clergy, or at least those who followed Moscow's bidding, did not discard the idea of jihad outright. They understood well the outrage of locals on hearing about Muslims suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hands of the infidel Americans, reckoning that joining up was fully justifiable and that the Russian authorities would not stop them from leaving to fight the oppressors in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While jihadi leader Umarov is asking fighters in Syria to return, jihadists in Syria are asking North Caucasus militants who might be considering heading south to stay and fight on home turf instead. In a July 30 video address in Russian, the leader of a group called az Zubair in Syria, who identified himself as Salakhuddin and wore a t-shirt emblazoned with "Imarat Kavkaz", referred to the "huge inflow of volunteers" coming from Russia to Syria to join Islamists fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
He said that "it is not quite right" to leave one jihad zone - such as "our Caucasus" - for another. Jihad in Russia should be taken to Russian cities outside the North Caucasus, including Moscow, Salakhuddin said, according to a report in The Moscow Times.
Never coming back
Russian authorities used to have many reasons for not standing in the way of those who left. The main motivation was the mistaken belief that the jihadists would never come back. This notion was related to the Kremlin's view of the US, its institutions and abilities.
During the George W Bush presidency and the beginning of the Obama administration, Kremlin pundits saw the US and its foreign policy in the broad context of two paradigms.
One implied that "neo-con" statements regarding the spreading of democracy and calling on fighting terrorism were nothing but a smokescreen, and the actual reason for Washington to engage in a war of conquest and domination started with attacks on Serbia in 1999. It goal was to ensure the US's control over the strategically important Middle East. The wars also were an attempt to demonstrate to the global community its clout as the global master.
Another theory implied that the Washington elite was indeed obsessed with ideological delusions. From this perspective there is not much difference between them and a Soviet elite also ready, in this interpretation, to engage in a drive for global ideological predominance.
Both those who regarded the US as ideologically obsessed and cynically pragmatic believed that Americans would never leave Afghanistan and Iraq after having invested so much blood and treasure in both. A contributor to the conservative nationalistic newspaper Zavtra, who visited Afghanistan several years ago, said there was little credibility in hints from Washington that American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan. He noted that the "Americans did not blow up themselves" to later abandon the Middle East, in a clear echo of claims that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were organized by Washington to justify the war.
Both of these images imply that the US is immensely powerful. As proponents of geopolitics in Russia, such as Alexandr Dugin, have noted, Russia/Eurasia should be ready for an endless struggle with the Atlantic Leviathan. While the US might be a danger in a case of direct confrontation with Russia, in this interpretation it has quite a positive aspect: the beast could easily devour those in its way - including all jihadists of North Caucasian origin who ventured to fight the US and having been killed by US arms would never return. At the same time, the American beast would be weakened by the fighting, or at least be forced to divert its attention from Russia. Seen from Moscow's perspective, that was a win-win situation.
What are the factors behind the Russian observers' assessments of American power? There are in fact many; and US mass media propaganda should not be disregarded. Some contributors' views were especially persuasive.
There is, for example, the case of George Friedman, the chief of the Stratfor think tank. He has enjoyed special popularity among conservative Russian nationalists since he prophesized Russia's rise as a dangerous empire, China's decline, if not collapse, and viewed US military and economic might as unshakable. US military budget cuts caused by increasing financial and economic woes did not impress Moscow much. Quite possibly, some Russian experts, especially those on the conservative, nationalistic side of the political spectrum regarded the cuts as a sort of ploy by Washington.
Those Russian experts behave in a way similar to the Western observers who watched the beginning of Gorbachev's reform. They believe that the beginning of the collapse of the system was just a ploy of the conniving Kremlin, which tried to seduce the gullible West to disarm only to attack it in the future.
Still, the Kremlin's analysts became increasingly convinced that the US economic and power rot was real. They came to the conclusion that the American dragon no longer had the strength to consume the North Caucasian or Volga region jihadists, as well as jihadists from Central Asia. It became increasingly apparent that they could receive training and experience, survive the battle and return to Russia or Central Asia and/or alternatively move from Afghanistan to fight the Russian-backed Assad regime using weapons supplied by the US.
A Kremlin reversal
The prospect of fighters returning from Syria comes amid a deterioration in security. Gunmen in late August assassinated the top regional security official in Ingushetia as he was being driven to work, AFP reported. Pro-Kremlin authorities in Ingushetia have been fighting an extremist-tinged insurgency that claims dozens of lives every year. Doku Umarov in July called for militants to stage attacks against a range of targets that include the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. Sochi is in the immediate proximity to the Caucasus which also includes the regions of Dagestan and Chechnya where the Kremlin fought two separatist wars over the past 20 years.
A European-based spokesman for a Chechen rebel group, in an interview with Kommersant daily last month, put the number of North Caucasus fighters in Syria at "above 100". Syrian rebel group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers), which is estimated to have about 1,000 troops, is led by an ethnic Chechen and runs a Russian-language YouTube channel, according to The Moscow Times.
Taking all of these into consideration, Moscow has reversed its position and taken action. To start with, the Russian authorities seem to have ended the practice of encouraging potential jihadists to go abroad, not even to Afghanistan. Secondly, they started to apprehend those who tried to do so. Russian authorities arrested groups of Muslims engaged in recruiting fighters for jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Moscow has also increased cooperation even with those Central Asian countries with which it doesn't enjoy good relationships. Uzbekistan is a case in point. When Uzbekistan dropped from Moscow-sponsored security arrangements, the Kremlin suspected Tashkent of letting the Americans build a military base in the region. After Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin met a few months back, some observers proclaimed that Moscow and Tashkent had established a strategic relationship. This is hardly the case; but it is quite likely that their security agencies started to cooperate more closely so as to prevent potential jihadists from moving all over post-Soviet space, going abroad and then returning for terrorist activities.
Finally, Russian authorities now pay much more attention to those Russian citizens, especially from the historically Muslim North Caucasus, who return home, especially if coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan or the broad Middle East.
This phenomenon might also have implications for Moscow's relationship with Washington. On one hand, Moscow hopes that Washington can understand that it cannot "outsource" jihadists in "a safe" direction and therefore the Barack Obama administration will end its implicit support for jihadists in Syria. The view from Moscow is that Washington is not fully committed to cooperation to fight jihadists.
Room for doubt is supplied by the Kavkaz Center, the website of the North Caucasian resistance. As might be expected, it has showed praise for the role of the Caucasian resistance in the Syrian conflict, and claims that the insurgents wanted to strike an alliance with Washington because they share an enemy in the Syrian regime. When Washington decided to send weapons to the resistance, the Kavkaz Center provided a new signal that hundreds of North Caucasian jihadists are fighting Assad's forces.
With Russia contemplating new engagement with Washington over disbanding Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, Moscow has hopes of limited cooperation in preventing an "outsourcing" of terrorists. The Kremlin is convinced they are difficult to track and could strike in the North Caucausus any time it suits their interests.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles (2005).
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