The story of Moscow State University (MGU) student Varvara Karaulova has caused an outcry in Russia. Earlier this month, to the surprise of her parents and friends, the student unexpectedly disappeared and was later found by Turkish border guards at the Syrian border (RIA Novosti, June 5). Along with Karaulova, the Turkish authorities detained 13 other Russian citizens and four citizens of Azerbaijan. The group included six females, four males and eight children. This shows the extent to which activists of the so-called Islamic State (IS) have infiltrated societies. Unlike the Russian student Karaulova, nobody was looking for the other 17 people in the group. For example, 24-year-old Aisha M. from Dagestan was among the detained individuals, and she had traveled to Turkey with her three young children—one-year-old Khatidzha, four-year-old Zeinab and seven-year-old Murad. According to the Russian security services, the father of the family was already abroad in the ranks of IS (Lifenews.ru, June 5).
Nineteen-year-old Varvara Karaulova comes from a family of non-believers: Her father considers himself an atheist. Karaulova’s inclination to study Arabic culture eventually turned her into a supporter of IS, and she was recruited through social networks on the Internet. The story of Karaulova acquired notoriety in Russia not only because she is an ethnic Russian. Another important factor is that she is a student of a prestigious Russian university, MGU. The mass conversion of young girls to Islam through Internet preachers is not new in Russia. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev confirmed this, stating that it was not a unique case. “Radical Islamists actively recruit young people not only in Russia and CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries, but in many other countries of the world,” he said (Mk.ru, June 6).
Young girls convert to Islam out of love for a Muslim, and do not realize that their conversion involves issues related to their family and adjusting to new customs and codes of behavior. Having fallen in love with a young man she has seen only on the Internet, a girl quickly spirals deep into the process of mastering narrowly jihadist Islam. Young converts tend to associate Islam with a continuous struggle with the infidels and the incredibly fabulous gifts of the other world. The instances of ethnic Russians converting to Islam are becoming increasingly widespread (see EDM, October 18, 2012). In most cases, young people convert to Islam under the influence of their friends, neighbors and preachers of Islam on the Internet.
The Russian authorities have created a special unit to fight recruiters for terrorist organizations. The new unit targets individuals who try to make conversations with people on Internet-based social networks. According to some sources, in Moscow alone, there are more than 300 people employed specifically to fight the Islamic State (Lifenews.ru, June 5).
Large forces have also been deployed by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the North Caucasus republics—Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Chechnya. The Ministry of Interior’s department for combating extremism was established by Russian presidential decree number 1316 in September 2008, and the ensuing order number 940 of the Russian interior ministry from October 2008 (Agentura.ru, accessed June 12). However, the new unit has been set up specifically to target the terrorist organization Islamic State (Searchnews.info, June 5). The new counterintelligence unit is responsible for three broad areas: information, monitoring of social networks, and analysis. A powerful group of fake bloggers was also created to look for people on the Internet who pose a threat to Russia. The fake bloggers are supposed to establish a trusted relationships online with militants in Syria, extract information from them, and carry out provocative information leaks (Justmedia.ru, June 5).
However, the interior ministry’s department for combatting extremism has also sought to prove it is too early to discount it. The department announced the arrests of members of the banned organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in downtown Moscow. All the arrested individuals were suspected of recruiting Russian citizens into Islamic State. The arrests took place in a Muslim restaurant called Halal (Og.ru, June 6). It subsequently turned out that not all the arrested individuals had even remote ties to IS. The security services likely targeted the restaurant for its specifically Muslim name, assuming that recruiters would be gathering there. In reality, recruiters for Islamic State are unlikely to gather in restaurants with explicitly Muslim names, since they realize that such places are under the close scrutiny of the Russian security services.
Recruitment for IS is also a major issue in the North Caucasus. Attempts by young people to travel to Syria and Iraq pose a real danger to the region. People in Chechnya, for examples, who are under 30 and apply for foreign travel documents often undergo an additional set of checks. According to sources in the republic, the police are obliged to inform the parents about their son or daughter when they apply for a foreign travel document. The police warn the parents about their responsibility should their child turn up in the ranks of the Islamic State. An increase in government controls when issuing foreign passports is connected to preventing young people from visiting Syria, a police officer in Chechnya said (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 8).
However, this is not a problem that will be solved by the police, the FSB or any other such Russian governmental agencies. If the authorities do not find a counter-propaganda tool against Islamic State, then the number of volunteers willing to join the militants in the Middle East will not diminish. Today, there is no organized, effective counter-propaganda effort in Russia, especially among Muslim activists. This means that more people will likely replenish IS’s ranks.