Russia’s aggressive counter-terrorism strategy may be backfiring in the northern Caucasus. Russia has long had an issue with Islamic Extremists in the Caucasus, and its aggressive suppression tactics may be making the situation worse. The Islamic State declared an affiliate in Russia’s North Caucasus June 23, 2015. Throughout the Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechneya, ISIS is aggressively recruiting from what has become one of its most fertile recruiting grounds.
This trend is most evident in Dagestan, a federal republic of Russia in the Northern Caucuses that recently overtook Chechyna as Russia’s deadliest region. Despite being a federal republic of Russia, more people speak Arabic and English than Russian.
Russia’s counter-terrorism strategy is “a one size fits all” policy that “has often times been counter-productive,” Boris Zilberman, a Russia and Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The Russian government has created a high risk police registry that requires men whom the police deem at-risk terrorists to surrender blood, saliva, and voice samples. Once on the registry, these men can expect authorities to contact their employers, expect to have travel limited to local only, and even arrest under dubious circumstances. Zilberman said Russia’s internal counter-terrorism policies are more focused on “removing individuals rather than changing the fundamental situation that has for years created an opportunity for terrorist groups.”
The Soufan Group, a security advisory firm that tracks foreign fighters, estimates 2500 Russians traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS in 2015. Dagestani authorities admit between 900-3000 fighters from Dagestan alone have traveled to Syria to fight ISIS, comprising a significant percentage of Russia’s total ISIS fighters.
The rest of the foreign fighters largely come from Russia’s other Islamic State breeding ground, Chechnya. Under the leadership of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya has become strikingly more Islamic.
“Chechnya’s society, no thanks to Putin’s own alley Ramzan Kadyrov, continues to undergo Islamization”. In one instance a Chechen district police chief reportedly said Kadyrov had ordered the police to shoot “anyone who goes to Syria and comes back,” Zilberman told The DCNF.
Unveiled women are banned from government offices and the deputy Islamic scholar of Chechnya told The Wall Street Journal that levels of Islamic observance are much higher than the 1990’s. ISIS propaganda increasingly enthralls Chechnya’s youth. Chechnya’s own law enforcement agencies estimate there are between 3-4000 Chechens fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Many of these Chechens fled years ago during the first and second Chechen wars, but approximately 500 have traveled directly from Chechnya to ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Ironically, the jihad has caused violence to fall domestically, as those who traveled to Iraq and Syria were the most hardened and extreme members of Chechen society.
Russia treats the families of those who have traveled to the Islamic State harshly, often times these family members can expect to lose their jobs or be subject of police surveillance. The intense crackdown at the slightest hints of islamization may be backfiring, Zilberman noted to The DCNF many of these fighters who have traveled to Syria may “eventually make their way back to the Caucasus battle hardened and vengeful.”
Meanwhile there is little chance of a Russian course correction. Kadyrov in a September national television address said of Chechens who would join ISIS, “The prophet calls on us to destroy them all—we have done so and will continue to do so.”
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