ISIS and the Caucasus

| Michael Sulick
Michael Sulick
Former Director, CIA National Clandestine Service

Russia‘s military engagement in Syria reflects Vladimir Putin’s obsession with reasserting his nation’s influence in the Middle East and establishing superpower parity with the U.S. This policy, however, also has important domestic implications for dealing with instability in the nation’s most troublesome region, the North Caucasus.

Russia’s history in the Caucasus has been marked by two centuries of violent conflict, an endless cycle of rebellion by the fiercely independent and predominantly Muslim inhabitants, followed by brutal subjugation and oppression by Russian regimes, which in turn rekindled new revolts and then more crackdowns. Most recently, the cycle involved two wars in which the Russians crushed Chechnya’s demand for independence.

Over the course of the wars and their aftermath, Russian oppression and the abject poverty of the region enhanced the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism, which eventually spread beyond Chechnya’s borders throughout the region, especially Dagestan. A conflict originally sparked by ethnic separatism was gradually transformed into a radicalized religious insurgency battling for an Islamic republic inside Russia itself.

The Caucasus’ attraction to Islamic fundamentalism has now reached a new and more dangerous phase. Last year, an increasing number of militant Islamic commanders and religious leaders swore allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A regional conflict has now evolved into a key battleground in the war against global terrorism.  As a result, Russia now faces the same threat as Western countries, its own citizens fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq and possibly returning to commit terrorist acts at home. Russian authorities estimate that 2000- 3000 of its citizens have joined ISIS in the Middle East; as of now, more ISIS members speak Russian than any other language, except Arabic and English.

At home, Putin responded to the threat by intensifying the regime’s oppression in the Caucasus. Abroad, while Putin’s military engagement in Syria prevents the demise of Bashar al-Assad, his main Middle Eastern ally, it also provides an opportunity to kill his homegrown terrorists there rather than risk their return to wage jihad inside Russia. The policy seems to work: with jihadists now gone, violence actually decreased. The exodus of fighters means a few thousand less militants plotting terror inside Russia.

Some observers claim that the Putin regime isn’t just turning a blind eye to this exodus. According to an investigative report by an independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, Russian security services actively encourage and even orchestrate their travel to the Middle East.

Considering Russia’s ability to control and monitor the movement of its citizens, along with its strict border controls, it does strain credulity that its security services cannot prevent a large exodus of Caucasus radicals to the Middle East. The Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, has been operating against terrorism in the Caucasus now for more than two decades. Based on this long experience in the region, FSB officers have undoubtedly planted legions of informants among the population, including among radicals who travel to Syria and Iraq. According to one report, the FSB has discovered the identities of half the region’s citizens fighting for ISIS in the Middle East. Russia will undoubtedly acquire more information on its militants from intelligence sharing arrangements with Iraq and Syria.

If the Putin regime is indeed encouraging the exodus of militants to the war zones, the strategy has yielded positive results. By the end of last year, there was little evidence of a large number of militants returning to continue jihad inside Russia. Still, the strategy could backfire. Harsher oppression in the Caucasus, continued airstrikes in Syria, and the potential return of thousands of battle-hardened fighters are all ingredients of a volatile brew that could radizalize the Caucasus eve more and spark ISIS to direct or inspire its jihadist efforts inside Russia.

Just weeks after Putin launched the bombing campaign, ISIS declared a “holy war“ against Russia and has since exploited social media to call for retribution by encouraging lone wolf attacks inside the country like those in U.S. and Europe. Last spring, ISIS published its first Russian online propaganda magazine, and since the summer, a pro-ISIS website, Furat media, has been translating the terrorists‘ messages from Arabic to Russian.

The ISIS message may well have inspired a dramatic attack against a historic citadel in Dagestan at the end of 2015, which resulted in casualties to tourists as well as security service officers. The local governor dismissed the attack as an isolated incident by thugs, even though the main perpretrator was a known ISIS sympathizer. The governor’s dismissal was in line with Putin’s message to Russia –- his policy is preventing terrorism, and any ISIS-inspired attack would belie that claim.

That policy will be severely challenged in the future as the Caucasus becomes more radicalized and his homegrown militants start returning to Russia. Airstrikes won’t destroy them all. And, despite Russia’s strict border controls, returning fighters will be sufficiently funded by their ISIS masters to bribe poorly paid border guards and slip into the country. The FSB, even with increased intelligence on its fighters abroad, won’t be able to monitor all of them, and it will only take a handful to wreak havoc on Russian soil.

Besides that, ISIS’ touting on social media the activities of Russia’s militants in the war zone will serve to muster even more support in the Caucasus. The image of “Jihadi Tolik,” Russia’s version of “Jihadi John,” slicing the throat of a fellow citizen horrifies most Russians, but the grisly act might also inspire Russian-hating militants in the Caucasus to wage jihad either in the Middle East or at home.

Continued airstrikes and harsh local oppression are not the only factors that will radicalize the region further. Russia’s continuing economic crisis especially affects impoverished areas of the country like the Caucasus and will exacerbate tension even more. If that tension leads to increased terrorism in the region, the Putin regime will counter with further restriction of civil liberties, harassment of the citizenry, and brutal oppression.  The endless cycle in the Caucasus will continue as in the past, but this time it will have implications for the fight against global terrorism.   

The Author is Michael Sulick

Michael Sulick was the director of CIA's National Clandestine Service and is currently a consultant on counterintelligence and global risk assessment.  While at the CIA, he was also Chief of Counterintelligence and Chief of the Central Eurasia Division where he was responsible for intelligence collection operations and foreign liaison relationships in Russia, Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union. Read More

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