Russia | Who is Russia’s real bete noire, ISIS, al-Qaeda or the West?

Who is Russia’s real bete noire, ISIS, al-Qaeda or the West?

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What transpired on April 3 in St Petersburg might have turned the worst of fears into reality. A bombing at the metro station left 14 dead and more than 50 injured. Meanwhile, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers in the Islamic State (ISIS) group have recently been pulverized in the Levant. So, just like al-Qaeda’s rebranding, Islamic State is in the process of contemplating relocation.

Initially, its threat to wage war in China might have been shrugged off by many as nothing but hogwash, but a  video message released just over a month ago was damning enough.

When authorities named Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a 22-year-old Russian, as the perpetrator of the St Petersburg attack, it didn’t come as much of a surprise, for some obvious reasons. First, he was a Russian national but born in Kyrgyzstan. Second, as per the Federal Security Services’s (FSB’s) own admission, around 2,400 Russian nationals and 4,000 Central Asians have reportedly joined the ranks of ISIS. Third, Russia has the third-largest number of citizens fighting the “holy war” along with Islamic State. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia top the charts. Fourth, Russian, after Arabic, is the most widely understood language by the jihadists.

Fifth, ISIS’ video message aimed at China was significant for Russia in many ways. Uyghurs live in Central Asia in large numbers, and if you connect the above dots, then one thing is for sure: Russia has to watch out for Islamic State. The threat is real, and the time bomb is ticking. There is an upsurge in radicalism, and President Vladimir Putin and his comrades just can’t afford to slacken up even a bit.

The initial assessment by the law-enforcement agencies seems to have been spot on. The official statement reads, “The terrorist suspect had close ties with radical Islamist groups operating in Russia. These groups have already been under investigation by Russian security bodies.”

Among the jihadist outfits, Katibat al-Muhajireen, led by the rather charismatic Abu Omar al-Shishani, is one of the most notable Caucasian groups that have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.

Al-shishani reportedly died in 2016, but the group did not lose any of its relevance, prominence and attractiveness in the region. The problem with countering these jihadis lies in the very fact that not all of them join ISIS. Something to cheer for? Absolutely not. Many of the “holy fighters” from the region have instead opted for al-Qaeda, which in the recent past has been busy with a rather clumsy rebranding.

So here’s the catch: Russia has to watch out for both Islamic State and al-Qaeda. And don’t get this one wrong: They aren’t one and the same thing. Their ideologies differ, they have contrasting styles of operation, and their target audiences are particularly different.

When terrorists stormed Istanbul Airport on June 28, 2016, the Central Asian connection was rather obvious. The attackers, who hailed from Central Asia, carried out the atrocity to please their ISIS commanders. Since then, intriguingly enough, the number of ISIS and al-Qaeda sympathizers in Russia seems to have increased. This is one area where the FSB needs to up the ante, as time is slowly but surely running out.

The latest figures suggest that there are currently 20 million Muslims residing in Russia, 16 million of whom are Russian nationals, while the rest are migrants. In Moscow alone, there are 4 million Muslims, and around 700,000 reside in St Petersburg.

This isn’t about pitching one religion against the other – and for that matter, it should never be the case. But radicalization has become a grave threat that needs serious reckoning. Even if only a few Russian nationals have been radicalized, they can still wreak havoc. Terrorist attacks such as the one at a hospital in Budyonnovsk in 1995, Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002, a school in Beslan in 2004, and on the Moscow Metro in 2004 and 2010 are glaring examples of why the extremist threat has become much more relevant. A total of more than 600 people died in those incidents.

Jihadist ideology is penetrating deep within, and rest assured, it knows no boundaries. Andrei Karlov, the late Russian ambassador to Turkey, was one of the unfortunate people to have become victim to such an ideology. What is beyond comprehension is the fact that many far-right activists across the Muslim world cheered for the murderer and celebrated the assassination of the diplomat. Pity. Doesn’t bode well.

Here’s the takeaway note: Instead of engaging with the West all the time over seemingly rather petty issues, it is time for Russia to account for more serious threats. The St Petersburg attack, unfortunately, is not likely to be the last of its kind.

If the threat that lies within, not without, isn’t dealt with, then extremists might end up sneaking in with more ferocity than ever.

Shazar Shafqat
Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst. His research focuses on Pakistan-Afghanistan security environment, Middle East politics and security issues, counter-terrorism strategies and military-related affairs. In addition to being a contributor at Asia Times, his commentary on the Af-Pak and Middle East security issues features regularly across various media outlets including Middle East Eye, The Diplomat, World Policy Journal, Asia Times, Dawn, The News International, The Nation, Daily Times, and others.
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