Russia’s stationary jihad

Siloviks & Scoundrels
by Mark Galeotti at 27/08/2012 20:30
The Moscow News

It’s been a hot August in the North Caucasus. There has been an upsurge in terrorist violence, with a spate of attacks, including suicide bombings, in Grozny and Ingushetia. Chechnya’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his Ingushetian counterpart, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, have locked horns over reports that Chechen police have been operating across the border.

As if all this were not enough, Islamist violence seems to be spreading out beyond the region. Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, may be some 1,400 kilometers from Grozny, but in July two moderate Muslim leaders there were attacked. Tatarstan’s deputy mufti, Valiulla Yakupov was shot dead, while the senior mufti, Ildus Faizov, was wounded by a bomb in his car.

The previously unknown “Mujahedeen of Tatarstan” claimed responsibility and allegiance to the Chechen rebels’ “Caucasus Emirate.” Then, on August 20, a car exploded on the Kazan-Zelenodolsk highway in an apparently accidental detonation of a bomb. Inside the wreckage were the bodies of three men, guns and radical Islamic literature.

Without downplaying the individual horrors and tragedies of these attacks, though, it is vital to keep them in context.

The insurgencies in the North Caucasus are not (whatever selfproclaimed “Emir of the Caucasus” Doku Umarov may say) coordinated and united. They are made up of a constellation of largely autonomous local, republic-based groups and most of their attacks are opportunistic and small-scale.

As a result, there are ebbs and flows in the conflict and times when attacks happen to coincide. They do not represent a trend – any more than the months when attacks are fewer can be taken to mean that peace is around the corner.

As for Tatarstan, while it may no longer be the poster child for loyal Russian Islam, it is not entering an era of jihadism. There are alternative potential explanations for the attacks, not least business conflicts relating to the activities of the Spiritual Board of Muslims. It also took a surprisingly long time for the “Mujahedeen” to claim credit.

Even if this was jihadism, there are no more than perhaps 3,000 Tatars following the extreme Salafist form of Islam. Only a small minority endorse terrorism, largely in the south, but only a few – and quite possibly three fewer now.

In many ways a great risk is that the very perception that jihadism is on the rise triggers a disproportionate and counterproductive backlash. Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachyov has already floated an inflammatory plan to hire Cossacks to maintain order and control migration from the south.

After all, this seems to be a time when vigilantism in various forms seems to be growing, including the Holy Rus movement’s plan to organize volunteer patrols in Moscow to stamp out “blasphemous, offensive actions and statements against the Orthodox religion.” This could reflect a growing sense of empowerment within society, which may be good. Or, it may suggest that the state is looking weak, unable to defend citizens’ rights but also prevent groups from forcing their own agendas on others – not so good.

Either way, the Kremlin has in the past shown a tendency to overreact when it feels its authority and power are questioned. Already, over 100 people have been detained in Tatarstan and the local interior minister, Artyom Khokhorov, has claimed they have been fighting “an undeclared war” for 13 years. In the North Caucasus and the other majority Islamic regions of Russia, the conflict will be won only by balancing precise and restrained coercion with efforts to win over those who feel no place in modern Russia. Those who advocate harsh measures are just the recruiting sergeants for the jihad.

Mark Galeotti (Twitter: @markgaleotti) is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read at The views expressed here are the author’s own.


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