For the past month, several events happened in Moscow related to the problem of radicalization of North Caucasian youth and the replenishment of the Islamic State’s ranks by residents of the Russian Federation. While Russian analysts recycle theories that were relevant a year or two ago, the situation in the North Caucasus and Syria has changed during that time and requires new analytical approaches.
On June 15, a seminar titled “Youth in the Worldwide Islamist Movement” was held at the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 28). Participants focused on social problems and the lack of personal goals among young people as the main culprits for youth radicalization. However, quite a few militants actually come from well-integrated and socially successful families that have access to power and money. Some militants were university students in the past. This and other such details raise doubts about the validity of the Russian scholars’ conclusions.
One of Russia’s most influential civil organizations, the Memorial human rights center, also held a round table on the issue. It was the organization’s second such event about the North Caucasus in less than a month: back on June 7, Memorial unveiled its report, “Counterterror in the North Caucasus: Human Rights’ Perspective. 2014–first half of 2016.” That report highlighted several important aspects of the current situation in the region, asserting, in particular, that the Russian government had rejected nearly all elements of the “new course” that was implemented in some republics from 2009 through 2012 and instead reverted to state terror. The terrorist underground movement reduced its activities, partly because its members went to Syria and partly because the Salafist community in Dagestan was destroyed, along with various other factors (Memohrc.org, June 7).
The main conclusion of the Memorial report is that the government’s use of crude force in the North Caucasus further destabilizes the situation there. It is hard not to agree with such a conclusion. This, however, is not the main cause of radicalization. The primary cause is the widespread distrust of the government among the people of the region, which prompts them to join the armed opposition groups. People opposed to the government start to look to Islam for a model of an “ideal” society. These disgruntled people see the ideal Islamic society as avoiding all the negative aspects they see in their every day lives. This view pushes some of the Islam-based opposition into the arms of the radicals.
On June 27–28, Memorial and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta jointly held another conference on the North Caucasus, titled “The Causes of Radicalization of Some Young People and Confronting the Ideology of ISIL in the North Caucasus.” ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—is another commonly used name for the Islamic State (IS). Russian officials estimate that there are between 3,000 to 5,000 Russian citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, a majority of the members of the North Caucasian armed underground movement have pledged allegiance to the leader of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Under their new “brand” name, the North Caucasus insurgents have launched several attacks on the police in southern Dagestan (Rufront.ru, June 27).
Most of those who participated in the Memorial/Novaya Gazeta conference are human rights activists, including many from the North Caucasus. As practitioners on the ground, the North Caucasus rights activists largely agreed with the speakers and contributed to their theoretical conclusions with concrete information from the region. One of the presenters, Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milishina, said that while Chechnya was previously the primary source of recruits for the militants in the Middle East, this process has practically stalled. Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov introduced strict controls on the issuing of foreign travel passports, collective punishment, and early detection of potential recruits, all of which have sharply curtailed the outflow of Chechens to the Middle East (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 29).
However, the general decline in the number of North Caucasian recruits for the Islamic State cannot be attributed only to the actions of the authorities in Chechnya. The IS has been losing control over its territory in Syria and Iraq in recent months, and young people do not wish to fight under the flag of a force that keeps losing. Young people are motivated not only by ideology but also by romantic notions of involvement in what they see as a heroic cause. The IS has been suffering one defeat after another, which has dampened the romantic sentiment that many young Muslims harbored. Now they have decided to wait and see what happens next rather than rush off to Syria to fight. Thus, there is a direct connection between the Islamic State’s victories and defeats and the number of willing recruits who fill their ranks from the North Caucasus and the regions of the post-Soviet space.
Human rights activists from Ingushetia believe that injustices and the lack of employment prospects push young people toward radicalization. Experts from Dagestan say unlawful actions of the police toward Salafists in the republic are radicalizing them. Rights activists from Kabardino-Balkaria say that they disagree with the authorities in their republic, who regard all those who remain in Turkey for whatever reason as militants.
Pinning the problem of youth radicalization on social problems is not always justified. Many recruits are motivated by their deep conviction in the rightness and the necessity of building an Islamic state. It would be quite productive to invite Salafists and listen to what they think about the problem. Unfortunately, this does not happen in Russia. Hence, the issue of the radicalization of young people is likely to remain a painful one for the country that will continue until there are changes in Russian society and how the Kremlin deals with the problem.