As the militants of the armed Islamic resistance in the North Caucasus began taking oaths of allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (see EDM, January 30), the Russian authorities began looking for ways to confront them. On March 11, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev presided over a meeting of the governors of the North Caucasian Federal District in Pyatigorsk, the federal district’s de facto capital (Grozny-inform.ru, March 12). The participants discussed how to thwart ethnic and religious conflict, terrorism, and extremism in the region. In reality, the primary theme of the meeting was, of course, preventing terrorism, as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov emphasized in an interview (RT, March 11).
The Security Council secretary spoke about the possible impact that the North Caucasians who are fighting in the Middle East might have on the situation in the North Caucasus. “We should take extra care about the threat posed by militants involved in the conflict on the side of the terrorist groups and returning from those hot spots,” Patrushev said. “It is no secret that a large number of mercenaries from Russia are fighting overseas today in the ranks of those bandit groups” (Tvc.ru, March 11). He added that “as they return home, they might bring the skills of sophisticated terrorism to our land, including those characteristic of the group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant [sic].”
Earlier, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov spoke about the threats presented by the Islamic State. The Islamic State, he said, “does not respect state boundaries,” adding: “It is like a cancer, a metastasis, growing in different directions. This is all very worrying and concerns us too, concerns the interests of our national security and that of our friends in the region” (Tvc.ru, February 16). Thus, it is clear that officials at the highest levels in Russia fully appreciate the danger posed by those returning to Russia from the Middle East.
According to Ramzan Kadyrov, the participants in the government meeting in Pyatigorsk especially praised the experience of the Chechen Republic in combatting terrorism (RIA Novosti, March 11). It is unclear, however, what was meant by the progressive “experience” of Chechnya. Indeed, having dozens of special services units and tens of thousands troops on its territory and persecuting all relatives of the suspected members of the armed Islamic movement in Chechnya and abroad hardly qualify as “progressive experience.”
Patrushev also pointed out that the sources of terrorism lie in the clan politics of the region. “We have repeatedly noted the corruption of mid-level officials, the presence of ‘ethnic groups of influence,’ nepotism and cronyism,”—the Security Council secretary said (Rg.ru, March 11). Thus, Patrushev admitted that Russia has failed to change the system it created back in the middle of the 19th century, and still relies on the support of the few numbers of its representatives in the region who are permitted to use any methods to protect Russian interests. No signs are in sight, however, that this system will change in the 21st century, as Moscow itself still relies on the clans of local politicians for the mobilization of resources or public support, rather than on parties or other broad social movements.
Participants in the meeting also raised the issue of the financing of the insurgency. This question has been quite topical since 2000. The officials made yet another statement about the government’s inability to intercept foreign channels of support for the rebels. When Moscow starts looking abroad for the causes of its failures in the North Caucasus, the local clans feel more incentivized to excuse their own failures and further indulge in corrupt practices. Regional authorities are not responsible for intercepting foreign financial support for the insurgents: it is the federal government’s responsibility. Moscow’s appointees claim that the West finances the rebels to weaken Russia, while even ordinary citizens know that 90 percent of the militants’ resources are of local origin, such as racketeering, sharia taxes (zakat), voluntary contributions by sympathizers, payoffs from officials, etc.
In a situation in which the Russian security services’ ties to their foreign colleagues are minimal, the security services are left on their own to deal with militants who want to return to Russia and wage war under the flag of the Islamic State. It is easier for Islamic State fighters to infiltrate the region now since some of the Caucasus Emirate’s fighters have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and become, in a way, part of this organization (see EDM, January 30). Even worse for Russia is the fact that Chechens hold important positions in the Islamic State, which lures other Chechens to the organization, including Chechens living in the West.
Against the backdrop of the economic issues related to Western sanctions, the Kremlin is still concerned about the possible emergence in Russia of rebels fighting under the Islamic State’s flag. Even the Caucasus Emirate now appears to be of less interest to the Russian authorities than the threat posed by the Islamic State. Therefore, with this increased threat it is possible that Moscow could end up reducing its support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and direct its resources toward neutralizing the Islamic State by all available means.