By Marta Ter and Ryskeldi Satke
The rise of the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq, and its impact on the surrounding region of Eurasia have raised concerns in Russia and in the republics of Central Asia over extent of the possible IS influence. Out of estimated 20,000 foreign recruits fighting in Iraq and Syria in the ranks of IS and other extremist groups, it is believed that close to 2000 are fighters from Russia and approximately 1500 from the Central Asian republics. For decades, Russia’s North Caucasus has been a region prone to political instability and violence. After collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin had waged two wars in Chechnya against the rebellious nation of over a million which sought independence from Russia for nearly two centuries. After Russia’s last military campaign in 2000s, Chechnya’s instability spread to the rest of the mountainous region.
The domestic conflict that has began as a secular national movement in the 1990s which initially was focused on Chechnya itself, had transformed into an insurgency that is currently influenced by Islamic fundamentalism and extremist ideology. Nowadays, the Islamic militants from the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate are operating in the North Caucasus with a goal to establish pan-Caucasus state governed under Sharia law. However, it has been reported in the past that the Central Asian natives have been communicating with the North Caucasus based insurgents and in some cases took part in the guerrilla warfare against the Russian military. In the 1990s, the infamous Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev had maintained close ties with the United Tajik Opposition. Between 1995 and 1999, hundreds of Central Asian and North Caucasus fighters had trained together in the militant camps in Chechnya which have been managed by Shamil Basayev and his colleague, the Saudi jihadist Ibn al-Khattab.
In 2000s, the influential Russian extremist Said Buryatsky had frequently traveled from North Caucasus to Kazakhstan. His propagandist papers were distributed among Buryatsky’s Kazakh followers and onward from 2008, dozens of young Kazakh citizens headed to North Caucasus to join the Caucasus Emirate. At the moment, it appears that the regional insurgency dynamic in Russia has shifted to its lowest levels with the escalation of the conflict in Syria as hundreds of fighters from North Caucasus traveled to Syria to join IS and Al-Qaeda offshoot Al-Nusrah Front.
Reportedly, the first North Caucasian volunteers arrived in Syria three years ago. Similar trend has also been observed with the Central Asian fighters who began flocking to Syria in 2012. From the outset, the North Caucasian and Central Asian combatants were active in autonomous units scattered in northern Syria along the Turkish border. Soon most of these groups were incorporated into the so-called Muhajireen Brigade, using Russian language as lingua franca and working closely with Al-Nusra Front. However, as fighting has escalated in war torn Syria and Iraq, Russian speaking fighters from the North Caucasus and Central Asia have fought together both in IS and in other groups mainly linked to Al-Nusra Front.
It is believed that recruits travel to Syria via Turkey which has been seen as an easy gateway to the conflict zone over its favorable visa regime with Russia and Central Asian republics. It remains a debated topic on whether natives of Central Asia get recruited by the jihadist networks in their hometowns or abroad but one argues that millions of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik laborers seek seasonal work in Russia. Majority of the Central Asian migrants more often find themselves in the stressful environment full of harsh conditions which are associated with discrimination, abuse and extortion by the Russian police. Moreover, racial intolerance in Russia pushes these migrants toward seeking closer ties with non-Russian communities which have similar cultural background and do share the same religion.
Essentially, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz migrants are often exposed to fundamentalist doctrine teachings after introduction to the communities and jihadist oriented groups (including Salafist groups), preaching radical version of Islam in the Russian cities. In some instances, attending mosques in Russia by the native of Central Asia, may create suspicions of the security agencies in the homeland upon returning. Evidently, the Russian authorities themselves believe that Moscow has become a recruiting ground for banned extremist groups outside the North Caucasus. And in recent months, Central Asian officials have also confirmed the fact that their citizens wind up in Syria after being recruited in Russia’s biggest cities. A recent video of a top Tajik police special force commander, Gulmurod Khalimov, claiming that he has joined IS, has raised concern in Tajikistan. In the footage Khalimov has propagated that the Caliphate must be extended to his homeland. But former Tajik serviceman also stressed the plight of the migrant workers in Russia and called for Central Asian laborers to join IS:”Do jihad, come to the Islamic State. It’s easier to get here (Syria) from there (Russia).”
Indeed, internet and social media, where IS propaganda is often easily accessible, have been useful tools for recruitment in the highlighted regions of the former Soviet Union. Migrants from Central Asia are the most susceptible category for recruitment activities online due to multiple factors including separation from their families, discrimination and marginalization in the Russian cities. This in turn gives more opportunities for recruiters affiliated with IS. Point in case, popular Russian social networking websites such as Odnoklassniki or vkontakte have become a fertile ground for radical groups.
IS propaganda wing al-Hayat produces appealing content to spread recruitment material which is effecting potential radicals who are following IS via social networks. IS internet sources give outsiders a look into organization, and praises young foreigners who join the organization and live in the «caliphate». And the effect of the IS outreach campaign is creating a misconception among the younger generations and potential recruits who tend to believe that they can also be part of a global jihad. In their efforts to recruit even more combatants from Russia and former USSR, IS has recently launched a Russian-language propaganda channel, Furat Media.
Ultimately, it is unclear whether the flow of the new recruits from Russia and Central Asia will decline any time soon. Inside Russia, the Caucasus Emirate in the troubled North Caucasus region has lost much support among its domestic force due to defections to IS. Increasingly, more senior militants in North Caucasus are defecting Caucasus Emirate and joining IS. Moreover, popular Islamic preachers in the North Caucasus have arrived to Syria, influencing his followers to join extremist groups in the Middle East. As a result IS has announced its plans of creating a new governorate in the North Caucasus in June. Despite the Kremlin’s efforts to recognize the matter of growing extremism in the region, it remains a matter of concern over state of domestic affairs in Russia and whether the Kremlin is capable of dealing with the terrorism threat at home given Vladimir Putin’s grand confrontation with the West and an ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Marta Ter is a coordinator of an awareness-raising campaign on Human Rights violations in the North Caucasus, in the NGO Lliga dels Drets dels Pobles. MS in International Relations and Security, she has been a freelance contributor with several Spanish media outlets and academic projects devoted to Russia.
Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer with research institutions and news organisations in Central Asia, Turkey and the US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at gmail.com