As elements of the Islamic State (IS) infiltrate the territory of the North Caucasus, the looming question is whether the caliphate will have an actual impact on the situation in the region. As of now, it can be said with certainty that little has changed in the region since multiple rebel commanders of the Dagestani and the Chechen jamaats switched sides from the Caucasus Emirate to the IS in December 2014. However, this does not mean that there will be no impact in the near future.
In a recent video, Yakub (Makhram Saidov), a well-known amir who pledged allegiance to the IS, addresses someone named Aslanbek and says that the insurgency is faring well in the cold winter. Saidov’s career as a militant dates back to the beginning of the second Russian-Chechen war and he is one of the few surviving militants on the territory of Chechnya today. In the video, Saidov is probably addressing Aslanbek Vadalov, and from his words it can be understood that Vadalov had not been in the North Caucasus for a long time (YouTube, February 21).
It is also clear from the video that the insurgents are experiencing difficulties in food supplies as a result of their supplier’s fears and subsequent escape to the West. Amir Yakub does not discuss the insurgents’ plans or the nature of his relations with the leader of the Chechen velayat of the Caucasus Emirate, Amir Hamzat (Aslan Byutukaev). He only discusses practical information about the daily lives of members of his group: indeed, the newly converted follower of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not say anything about what he plans to do or not to do. Presumably, having pledged allegiance to the IS, the militants now expect some response or directions from Umar Shishani, the ethnic Chechen from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge who is an Islamic State senior commander.
Meanwhile, Chechen authorities are concerned about a possible increase in activities of militants with ties to the IS. On February 19, a meeting of the Youth Council of the North Caucasian Federal District in Grozny took place under the chairmanship of Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov (Chechnyatoday.com, February 19). Speaking of the young people’s inclination to join radical movements, the head of the administration of Chechnya’s governor and government, Magomed Daudov, said “over 3,000 of our young guys” are fighting in Syria on the side of the radicals (YouTube, February 20, at 9 minutes, 52 seconds).
This was the first time a Russian official put forward such a large figure for the number of militants in Russia. It is unclear, however, if the official meant militants from all over Russia or only Chechens, given that he started speaking of the issue as a Russian issue, but then referred to “our young guys.” According to Daudov, a round table that included around 10 young persons who had returned from Syria took place in Grozny. Thus it appears there are people returning to the region from the Syrian war, and the official expressed concern that others will follow. The figure was echoed by the envoy, Sergei Melikov, who said that those 3,000 young men were lost for society and expressed the wish that they never return home.
In any case, whether the 3,000 figure included only Chechens or all citizens of Russia who are fighting in Syria, the figure is double the figure cited by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov during his appearance at a recent summit in Washington, DC, at almost the same time Daudov was speaking in Grozny. Bortnikov told journalists at the end of the summit that the number of Russian citizens fighting with the IS has almost doubled to 1,700 from a year ago (Echo.msk.ru, February 20). It is unclear why the officials in Grozny spoke of 3,000 militants. One possibility is that the officials in Chechnya meant all Chechens, not only from Chechnya proper, but also from Europe, Turkey and the Middle East—in other words, Chechens who went abroad to study or left Chechnya during the war there. In any case, this figure is quite large and testifies to the rise of Islamic radicalism in Chechen society.
It should be noted that if the 3,000 militants fighting in Syria include only Chechens, hundreds of people from Dagestan, the Volga region and Moscow should be added to it. A group called “Nogai Steppe” even exists (Kavkazcenter.com, February 19). Thus, it is now possible to discern a trend of every ethnic group in Russia attempting to establish its own national unit in Syria. These estimates are consistent with the estimates of a Canadian expert, Rafal Rogozinsky, who says that about 4,000 militants in the IS come from Central Asia alone (Novostimira.com, October 20, 2014). It appears that the countries of the former Soviet Union are supplying a significant portion of the IS’s manpower for waging jihad in the Middle East.
Against the backdrop of these pieces of information, it is likely that FSB Director Bortnikov deliberately provided a low figure, in an attempt to downplay the level of danger Russia faces after its citizens return home from fighting in the Middle East.
Moscow will urgently have to seek closer relations with Turkey, which has become the key transit country for those traveling to and from Syria. For Russia, Turkey is the only channel to obtain at least some level of on-the-ground intelligence about the jihadists fighting in Syria. If the number of Muslim volunteers from Russia continues to increase, Russia could become the main supplier of manpower for the jihadists in Syria and Iraq by the end of 2015.