Russian media coverage of the Islamic State (IS) continues to expand. Earlier, the Russian press primarily covered the Caucasus Emirate, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other Islamic movements. Now, all Islam-related themes are marked with the label “Islamic State.”
No reliable data is available on how many Chechens have emigrated from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Immigration services in Europe, the United States and Canada usually registered Chechens as refugees from the Russian Federation, without paying much attention to their ethnic identity. In any case, estimates suggest that more than 100,000 Chechens have left the country. Moscow is concerned about that and, from time to time, launches informational campaigns that portray the Chechen emigrants as troublemakers and terrorists, although that cannot be true by definition (Vesti.ru, April 28, 2013).
Russian media extensively and gloatingly wrote about an alleged Chechen terrorist cell that operated in France at the start of the 2000s. Investigators nicknamed the Islamist group the “Chechen” group because one of its 25 members attempted to find contacts among Chechens in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, in 2000. Russian media outlets chose to ignore the absence of any actual ties between the Islamist group in France and Chechens, but continued to fuel discussion of a “Chechen network of terrorists.” Moreover, the Russian press explicitly characterized the single suspect who attempted to find contacts among the Chechens in Pankisi into “a group of Islamists, who fought in Chechnya and Pankisi” (Lenta.ru, February 16, 2015).
Thus, the vast majority of Russian readers presumably did not know that there was not a single ethnic Chechen among the two dozen suspects arrested in France, or that the title assigned to the group was speculative and misleading. News reports about arrests of Chechens who supposedly financed terrorists by sending money via Western Union are also mostly propaganda rather than based in fact (Rbc.ru, January 20, 2015). The Chechens who sent money to Syria said that they were trying to help Syrian refugees, not the insurgents. However, in its coverage of the Chechens in France, the Russian media, as usual, left out such details.
In search of sensationalist stories, the Russian website Rukavkaz.ru, which specializes in news from the Russian North Caucasus, claimed that the French authorities had sentenced four Chechens for helping jihadists in Syria. Citing reputable foreign news agencies, the website reported that a French court had sentenced 20-year-old Khamzat Ilyasov to five years in prison for traveling to Syria, and 46-year-old Bai-Ali Makhauri to four years in prison for providing logistical, financial and other types of support to the militants. Also, two cousins who were involved in the group, both of them 27 years old, were each sentenced to two years in prison (Rukavkaz.ru, April 28).
The original news report on the sentencing of these four Chechens, however, dates back to April 2015, which could not have escaped the attention of the website that reported it again one year later. At the time, TASS and RIA Novosti extensively covered the incident in France (RIA Novosti, April 17, 2015). Thus, Russian media appear to be engaged in a sustained campaign to discredit Chechens who reside in Europe.
The Russian propaganda campaign claiming that European Chechens are flocking to the Islamic State had some factual basis until 2013, but that was no longer the case in 2015 and 2016. European Chechens’ interest in the Islamic State disappeared as quickly as it appeared during the war in Syria in 2012–2013. The tough response of European authorities to people who traveled to the Middle East and returned with military experience and hatred for the rest of the society helped stem the process.
For example, in February, a Paris court heard the case of a Chechen who is living in France as a political refugee. Investigators said that the suspect spent several weeks in Turkey during the summer of 2015 and “may have visited” Syria. However, they did not have any actual proof and only suggested that the suspect may have gone to Syria while he was in Turkey. The court naturally did not accept such arguments and released the young man, who asserted that he had visited Istanbul with the intention of marrying an ethnic-Chechen woman he had met online.
Despite the seemingly unjustified actions of the police, there is also a positive side to its vigilance. Young people now realize they will not be able to go to the Middle East to fight and return to France without consequences. Out of the estimated 40,000 Chechens living in France, only seven have been imprisoned for supporting the Islamic State, and none of the latter visited Syria. According to the Chechen diaspora, two to four Chechens living in France may have gone to Syria, at least one of whom was killed back in 2013. Against the backdrop of the thousands of French citizens who have taken part in the Syrian conflict (RIA Novosti, December 23, 2015), the Chechen participation is quite insignificant.
Russian media sometimes spread reports about the arrest of Chechens in France, but they do not mention the cases when the French authorities release suspects or refuse to initiate criminal proceedings for lack of corpus delicti. Thus, the Russian audience receives the impression that France has no problems other than fighting Chechens. The Chechen diaspora quickly integrated into French society and has not been a problem, either for the authorities or society at large. The Russian propaganda machine should stop looking for enemies in places they do not exist.