How Russia Became the Jihadists' No. 1 Target


Apr 3, 2017

Emergency services attend the scene outside Sennaya Ploshchad metro station in St. Petersburg, Russia

Emergency services attend the scene outside Sennaya Ploshchad metro station in St. Petersburg

Photo by Anton Vaganov/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on Politico on April 3, 2017.

It's still too soon to say who is responsible for the bombing of the subway in St. Petersburg, Russia—but it wouldn't be surprising if international terrorists were responsible. Russia is fast replacing the United States as the No. 1 enemy of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups motivated by violent and puritanical Salafist ideology.

This shift is rooted in recent Russian actions in the Middle East—including its escalating intervention in Syria and its moves toward intervention in Libya with the recent deployment of special forces to an air base in Egypt—that have drawn the ire of militant Sunnis worldwide and elevated Russia as the jihadists' top target. And if the Islamic State's “caliphate” in Syria collapses and foreign fighters, an estimated 2,400 of whom are from Russia, attempt to return home and fix their sights on the Kremlin, the situation could dramatically worsen for Moscow.

Terrorist groups have made their changing priorities clear. In an ISIS video titled “Soon Very Soon Blood Will Spill Like an Ocean,” an ISIS fighter threatens Russian leader Vladimir Putin directly, citing the country's intervention in Syria and its growing alliance with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah as proof that Moscow is the chief proponent of a growing Shiite axis throughout the Middle East. Forty other Syrian rebel groups have concurred, pointedly saying that “any occupation force to our beloved country is a legitimate target.”

Russia has been the primary force propping up the Assad regime, which has waged a bloody six-year war against anti-government insurgents, most of whom are Sunnis. The political and military alliance between Russia and Iran is also deepening as the countries work together to help Assad reclaim pockets of territory from rebels. Russian Special Forces and warplanes have served as a force multiplier for Hezbollah fighters who have bloodied Sunni militants in battle, most recently in Palmyra.

The cooperation between Russia and Shiite powers in the region has come with a price.

But the cooperation between Russia and Shiite powers in the region has come with a price. ISIS has already expressed a desire and ability to strike Russian targets, with its affiliate in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula claiming responsibility for the downing of Metrojet flight 9268 after it departed Sharm El-Sheikh for St. Petersburg in October 2015.

Russian actions in the Middle East have antagonized militant jihadists, but its actions closer to home are even more provocative. In addition to Russia's newfound penchant for adventurism in Muslim countries, its military has waged a draconian on-again, off-again counterinsurgency campaign against a patchwork of Sunni militants from Ingushetia to Ossetia in the Caucasus.

Russia has been battling various militant groups there for years, but the state of political violence in the Caucasus has changed in important ways over the past two decades. The primary ideology guiding the militants has morphed from secular-nationalist to Islamist in nature. This transformation means that the militants are even less willing to consider a negotiated political settlement than at any point in the history of the conflict. At the same time, the center of gravity of the insurgency has shifted from Chechnya to Dagestan, with the Islamic State's Caucasus Governorate holding sway in those two territories as well as others nearby—Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay—while the Al Qaeda-affiliated Caucasus Emirate clings to its turf in Cherkessia and Nogay Steppe.

The Russian intervention in Syria has only accelerated these changes in the Caucasus region. A competition for recruits and resources is intensifying between the two dominant jihadist entities, fostering decentralization of the insurgency. As Caucasian jihadists have departed for the battlefield in Syria, violence has decreased throughout Chechnya—at least for the time being—while it has increased dramatically throughout Dagestan.

Russia is no stranger to terrorist violence. Jihadists have been responsible for major attacks against the Russian state, including the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002, the Beslan school siege in 2004, the Moscow Metro bombings in 2010 and the Domodedovo Airport suicide attack in 2011, to name a few.

And to be sure, there are several other important factors responsible for the attenuation of the insurgency in parts of Russia's periphery, including the selective targeting of insurgents and their supporters, and the infiltration and the elimination of insurgent groups. Through a campaign of targeted assassinations, Russian counterinsurgents have killed successive high-ranking insurgent military commanders, including Dzokhar Dudaev in 1996, Zelimkhan Yaderbiyev in 1997, Aslan Maskhadov in 2005, Abdul-Halim Sadulayev in 2006 and Doku Umarov in 2013.

During the First Chechen War, from 1994 to 1996, the Russian military largely pursued a scorched-earth policy (PDF) of destroying everything in sight. Since then, typical Russian counterinsurgency strategy in the Caucasus has been characterized by “zachistkas,” or mop-up operations. Other tactics have included forced disappearances and the employment of collective punishment, such as targeting the friends and relatives of suspected insurgents.

Russia's authoritarian approach to counterinsurgency has been considered effective, but it is myopic, trading away enduring stability for security in the short term.

Russia's authoritarian approach to counterinsurgency has been considered effective, if not brutal. But the heavy-handed approach is myopic, trading away enduring stability for security in the short term. In line with Russia's seeming refusal to even attempt to “win hearts and minds,” the insurgents' social, political and economic grievances have gone largely unaddressed, practically ensuring that future generations of militants will pick up the mantle of jihad.

Despite the fallout and subsequent competition for recruits and resources between the Caucasus Emirate and the Islamic State's Caucasus Governorate, one issue that might unite these feuding Sunni factions is a shared hatred of Shiites—and their main patron, Putin's Russia.

In the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian authorities actually encouraged Sunni militants on its soil to depart for Syria to wage jihad. The thinking behind that move: The militants would leave for Syria and stout Russian border controls—or the Russian Air Force—would prevent them from returning.

But that strategy is hardly foolproof, as it takes only a few militants to slip through the system and wreak havoc. For this reason, some scholars are comparing the threat posed by the current crop of foreign fighters in Syria to an earlier group of mujahideen that came together to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Russia is a nation of master chess players, and its foreign policy typically looks two or three “moves ahead.” But its deepening involvement in the Middle East morass means that Moscow has now chosen sides in a sectarian conflict abroad—a strategy that could lead to tragedy at home.

Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Center for Counter Terrorism. He is the author of “Terrorism, Inc.: The Financing of Terrorism, Insurgency, and Irregular Warfare.”

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