Russian observers reacted quite strongly to an Internet video released by the Islamic State, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that is operating in Iraq and Syria as well as Lebanese border areas, in which militants are threatening to launch a war in the Caucasus. The video was first reported by the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Al-Arabia TV channel (alarabiya.net, September 2).
The video, which lasts only 1 minute and 42 seconds, displays a group of militants inside an airplane hangar at the Tabaka military airport in Syria’s Raqqa province, which was captured by insurgents, with several of them climbing on an old, long-ago decommissioned Soviet MiG-21 jet. The video starts with threats against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with a militant promising to fly to him in his own jets. At one minute, three seconds into the video, a militant sitting in a car next to the jet, apparently responding to the North Caucasian cameraman’s request, starts addressing Vladimir Putin personally, in Arabic, threatening that the jets the Russian leader sent to help President al-Assad will fly back to Russia to liberate Chechnya and the entire Caucasus. Another militant, sitting in the cockpit of the MiG, declares that the insurgents plan to liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus “by the grace of Allah.” The video is accompanied by a Russian translation (YouTube, September 2; unian.net, September 3).
One would think that a statement by a random Arab militant would not concern Russian analysts, especially given that such statements have been made previously (fondsk.ru, March 23, 2013). However, people in Russia took the statement much more seriously than it deserved at first sight. The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, reacted first. Drawing the attention of others to the video, the Chechen leader stated on his personal Instagram webpage: “Terrorists from Syria who call themselves ‘the Islamic State’ have made a childish threat to start a war in Chechnya and the Caucasus.” Kadyrov, of course, felt obliged to show that an ordinary militant could not have made a statement like that on his own, but only on the orders of the United States. “The militants in Syria and Iraq by themselves are nothing to be worried about,” he wrote. “They are bandits who are trained and armed by the U.S.A. and by the West to destroy strong and resource-rich Islamic countries.” Kadyrov also felt it necessary to mention Putin’s name in one way or another. “I declare with all responsibility that whoever had the idea of threatening Russia and uttering the name of the president of our country, Vladimir Putin, will be eliminated right where he made that statement” (instagram.com, September 3).
Kadyrov achieved several goals with this posting. First, he dismissed the idea that the Syrian militants are capable of carrying out attacks. Second, he demonstrated his patriotism against the backdrop of Western and American sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, by accusing the US of supporting the Islamists. Third, he emphasized once again his personal allegiance to the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
Apparently not sharing Kadyrov’s optimism, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office demanded that the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media restrict public access to the Islamist terrorist group’s video threatening to launch a war in the North Caucasus (newsru.com, September 4). YouTube blocked the video from users inside Russia (Interfax, September 4). However, the video has been republished on multiple private channels, under different names, circumventing YouTube’s regulations and Russia’s wishes.
Meanwhile, the Investigative Department of the Federal Security Service (FSB) began preparing a criminal investigation into “threats to carry out a terrorist attack and public calls for actions that are aimed at violating the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” (newsru.com, September 4). It is unlikely that Russian investigators will be able to determine the actual identity of the person who shot the video. It could have been any of the thousands of people from the North Caucasus diaspora who traveled to Syria to help establish the Islamic State under the command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An ethnic Chechen, Umar Shishani, is one of al-Baghdadi’s closest associates (ng.ru, July 7). The North Caucasians appear to be al-Baghdadi’s primary force, since they can afford to carry out attacks that local Arabs cannot. Umar Shishani’s rapidly growing group is likely to become the largest in the Islamic State before the end of the year.
Why has Russia been so sensitive about an ordinary statement by ordinary militants from ISIS? The rebels who are shooting videos and talking about plans to help Russian Muslims and to organize a caliphate on Russian territory hardly threaten Russian interests. Moscow should rather be concerned about the ideologues that are behind them and actually threaten Russia. Instead of MiG-21s, they come via powerful propaganda that spreads over the Internet into the brains of young people on a daily basis. Russia remains on the edge of an Islamic time bomb; it is only a question of time before it explodes.