With more and more former members of the Caucasus Emirate pledging allegiance to the “caliphate” of the Islamic State, the situation in the North Caucasus may destabilize further. What is happening is not the disbanding of one rebel organization and its replacement with a more radical one. Indeed, both rebel organizations have declared the establishment of an Islamic state as their objective (Onkavkaz.com, June 16). The most important change is that the Islamic State has no place for a distinct North Caucasian Muslim identity. Since 2007, when the armed underground movement rejected the idea of establishing an independent Chechen state of Ichkeria in favor of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus, the Islamic resistance forces have drifted increasingly toward a weakening of their identity. In this sense, the North Caucasian militants’ switch to the project of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” is a logical stage in their evolution, especially given that they are not currently in the best shape.
Why did the “caliphate” project become so popular among the North Caucasians only now, and not two or three years ago? The most likely answer is that people who were involved with the “caliphate” in the Middle East began to return to the North Caucasus. Such militants frequently fought under North Caucasian commanders in Iraq and in Syria, such as Umar Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili). Shishani’s people may have devised a plan for incorporating the North Caucasian militants into the Islamic State. Those few people who returned from the Middle East to the North Caucasus did not run away from war, but rather joined the region’s militarized underground resistance movement. The returnees could very well be the driving force pushing militant commanders to leave the Caucasus Emirate and join the Islamic State at the end of 2014.
The “caliphate” virus is quite widespread among young people. If the information provided by the Russian police is correct, over 400 people have left Chechnya for Syria since the start of the conflict to take part in it. Of those, 104 people have been killed, while 44 have returned. The whereabouts of the remaining 250 people are supposedly unknown to the Ministry of Interior and the Federal Security Service (FSB). According to Deputy Chechen Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov, the ministry has launched 88 criminal cases against participants in the Syrian war (RIA Novosti, June 15).
These figures raise concerns about the potential impact that North Caucasians currently fighting in the Middle East are having on the situation in the North Caucasus. It is unclear how radical their views on the Russian state will be when they return to the North Caucasus. In reality, thousands of Chechens have been fighting in Syria and Iraq for some time. If hundreds of Dagestanis and Tatars and dozens of Ingush, Kabardins and Russian converts are added to this, the overall picture becomes even bleaker for Russia (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 15).
For example, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov believes that over 200 residents from the Volga region are taking part in the conflict in the Middle East on the side of the Islamists. Bortnikov provided these figures at a joint meeting of the National Antiterrorist Committee (NAK) and the Federal Emergency Headquarters in the Volga region on June 16 (Interfax, June 16).
Given the fact that the interior ministry and the FSB branches in Chechnya give figures that are six to seven times smaller than the real ones, it is plausible that the official figures for the Tatar and Bashkir participation in the Middle Eastern conflict are also significantly smaller than the actual ones. It is not surprising that even Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently spoke in favor of a joint international effort to fight terrorism that would involve cooperation between Russian and Western intelligence services. Lavrov thinks the intelligences services of all European countries and the United States should share information concerning the threat from the “caliphate” (Interfax, June 11).
The trend of young people flocking to the ranks of the Islamic State is not limited to the Russian regions populated by Muslims. The notorious attempt by Moscow State University (MGU) student Varvara Karaulova to travel to Syria and her subsequent arrest (see EDM, June 12) was just one such case. Mariam Israilova, a student at the prestigious, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), is suspected of having joined the Middle Eastern militants. The authorities have been searching for her since June 12, when she left her home for the university and did not return home in the evening. The student’s parents suspect she may have run away to Syria (Meduza.io, June 16). According to the FSB, the Islamic State has recruited 1,400 people in Russia over the last year (Nsn.fm, June 17).
This trend is evident in all of the post-Soviet countries: According to one estimate, more than 3,000 nationals from Uzbekistan alone may have gone to Syria (Ozodi.org, November 4, 2014). Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan also have the same problem. Thus, one may observe an acute reaction by societies that for a long time were under the powerful pressure of militant atheism and government-controlled Muslim clerics. If Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union do not adjust their policies toward religion, they will likely experience strong shocks from supporters of the “caliphate.” By itself there is no way that Russia can cope with this growing problem.