Ever More Ethnic Russians are Becoming Islamist Militants

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 20

The October 21 suicide bombing of a Volgograd passenger bus was carried out, apparently, by a woman originally from the North Caucasian republic of Dagestan (see EDM, October 25). Nevertheless, a Russian website has recently asserted that the country’s Islamist groups would like to recruit ethnic Russians, and especially ethnic Russian women, to carry out suicide bombings. The argument does, however, appear to reflect both the explicit statements of Islamist groups that claim to seek ethnic Russian recruits, as well as the conclusions of Russian security agencies that Islamist groups are now expanding their recruiting efforts from Muslim-majority areas in the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga to major Russian cities like Moscow (3rm.info/40259-vse-bolshe-russkih-verbuetsya-v-boeviki.html).

According to the Russian news portal 3rm.info, “the technology of recruitment” that Islamist groups are following—one that the site says is directed at educated young ethnic Russian men and women—is clearly in evidence in “the Volgograd example.” Naida Asiyalova, who carried out the attack, came from the Dagestani village of Gunib where she was a normal girl and not especially religious. But then she married and moved to Moscow, and after that “something happened.” She devoted herself entirely to a militant trend in Islam. That led to her end in Volgograd, but she may have inflicted even more damage before carrying out her attack by serving as a recruiter for the ranks of one of Russia’s militant organizations.

One of her recruits, the authorities say, was Dmitry Sokolov, an ethnic Russian she met in Moscow who became her second husband (see EDM, October 25) and who, apparently under her influence, became interested in Islam, studied Arabic, and became a frequent visitor to the Otradnoye district mosque. Subsequently, as Russian investigators have established, he moved to Dagestan, adopted the name Abdul Dzhabar, and went into the forests with a militant group.

Recruiters like Asiyalova play on the anger of young people regardless of nationality, who have turned to Islam often as a way of expressing their opposition to the existing regime (see EDM, October 18, 2012) or because of personal problems. Those interested in recruiting them into militant bands draw them into illegal activities gradually, first asking them to deliver packages, then to carry arms for others, and finally—“when there is already no way back”—to join militant organizations themselves and carry out terrorist attacks. As a result, ethnic Russians now outnumber “Tatars, Ingush, and Chechens taken together” at the middle and upper ranks of Islamist militant organizations in the Russian Federation (3rm.info/40259-vse-bolshe-russkih-verbuetsya-v-boeviki.html).

That almost certainly is an exaggeration. Most Russian experts say that fewer than 100,000 ethnic Russians have converted to Islam in recent years, most because of marriage—almost always ethnic Russian women with Muslim men, rather than the reverse like in the above example—or for political reasons. Indeed, a growing number a particular group of extreme Russian nationalists believe that they can use the “passionate” energy of Islam to promote their own agenda. Yet, most Russian nationalists, not surprisingly, view such conversions as the first “step toward the precipice of national betrayal” (apn.ru/publications/article29920.htm).

Because such converts cause problems for both the Russian state and Islam’s relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, most Muslim leaders in the country oppose such conversions. According to Ruslan Gereyev, the director of the Center for the Study of Islam in the North Caucasus, “the Islamization of [ethnic] Russians to a large extent is the result of poor work by the Russian Orthodox Church and by officials who do not devote to ethnic Russian youth the necessary attention.” But it is an increasingly serious problem: “The spiritual defense of the ethnic Russian population in Russia does not exist,” he says. “As a result of this, Russians are the first to fall victim to alcoholism, drug abuse, and totalitarian sects and are subject to infection by the virus of radical Islamism.” Many Russians, especially young women, thus convert and become potential suicide bombers (sp-analytic.ru/popularity/2044-ekspert-vryad-li-mozhno-nazvat-russkih-musulman-russkimi-lyudmi.html).

Gereyev, perhaps the Russian Federation’s leading expert on this trend, says that recruiters for radical Islamist groups are successful not only because of shortcomings in the work of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian society more generally. Their success also originates from the fact that, unlike mainstream religious leaders, the radical groups’ recruiters provide simple and clear answers to all questions that such troubled young people have and treat them with solicitude rather than dismissiveness.
Even if Islamist recruiters are initially successful at converting ethnic Russians, such new Russian Muslims frequently leave the movement relatively quickly because they seldom learn the languages spoken by traditionally Muslim nationalities. Moreover, many members of those communities do not accept them. On the one hand, that means that the recruits often try to prove their commitment by taking radical actions, but on the other, it means that they are regularly driven out as potential spies or provocateurs by the very people they say they want to ally with.

Yet, because ethnic Russian Muslims can come and go in Russian areas without attracting the attention that “persons from the Caucasus” increasingly attract, because their existence is so disturbing to non-Muslim Russians, and because even a few of them can inflict enormous harm, ethnic Russian Muslims will continue to be much sought after by Islamist radicals.