The problem of foreign terrorist fighters (or FTFs), although not a new phenomenon, has received global recognition with the beginning of war in Syria and the emergence of the Sunni extremist group known as the “Islamic State” (often also referred to as IS, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh). ISIS has developed an unprecedented media apparatus aimed at promoting its violent agenda and galvanizing foreign fighters to travel to the territory that it controls. The use of social network allows ISIS to attract volunteers from various countries, both democratic and authoritarian, Muslim and non-Muslim. As an International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) study shows, the number of foreign fighters is greater than 20,000 and nearly every fifth individual is a resident or citizen of a European country. For Muslim majority states, this conflict has become the biggest cause for volunteers to mobilize since 1945, exceeding even the Afghanistan war of the 1980s. Home to more than twenty million Sunni Muslims, Russia has not avoided this problem. Russian authorities identify returned militants and prevent attempts to join ISIS almost every week. However, the outflow of ISIS fighters and the challenges of statistical inaccuracies and their demographics present a challenging in combatting the FTF problem.
Russian citizens had joined al-Qaeda long before the emergence of ISIS and other independent groups. Currently, many people from the North Caucasus fight for al-Nusra. However, the current inflow to ISIS is not comparable to the number of Russian citizens who have fought for al-Qaeda. During Vladimir Putin’s annual call-in in April 2015, the President reassured the Russians that ISIS was not a threat to Russia, admitting that many citizens of the Russian Federation became ISIS militants and moved to ISIS held territories. Putin underlined that the national intelligence service was efficient in tracking almost every recruiter. However, in summer, the political elite changed its message in response to ISIS’s unprecedented military success in Iraq and Syria. In light of this, Russian political figures tried to estimate the real number of ISIS recruiters among Russian citizens and predicted developments in case of a mass return of these militants to Russia. On June 25, 2015, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev, recognized this radical organization as the biggest modern threat to international stability and peace. According to Patrushev and Russian Deputy Security Council Secretary Evgeny Lukyanov, there were around two thousand Russian citizens fighting for ISIS. Weeks later, Minister of International Affairs Sergey Lavrov, agreed with this overall estimation of Russian-born ISIS militants, stressing that this number included several hundreds of Russian immigrants who have European citizenship and resided in Europe. This means that the actual number of militants from the Russian Federation is much less. The same estimation was presented by Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev in September 2015. He underlined that 1,800 out of approximately 2,000 of ISIS fighters are known by name to the government, and the authorities pressed charges against 477 of them. One month later, Putin declared that between 5,000 to 7,500 ISIS members from Russia, as well as their states from the former-Soviet bloc, had joined this organization.
As statistical data shows, the authorities have no exact number of individuals trying to return from the ISIS caliphate. Russian officials provide different and approximate numbers, which vary from several hundred in 2013 to several thousand in 2015. Nonetheless, even according to these statistics, there is a significant and alarming upsurge of ISIS fighters from 200 fighters in June 2013 to 1,800 – 2,000 by the end of summer 2015. That means there has been at least an 800 per cent increase in the influx of ISIS recruiters from Russia. Therefore, the number of Russian ISIS fighters not only constantly grows, but in comparison to European statistics for the same period of time, is much higher.
This statistical proximity and inaccuracy leads to the conclusion that the Russian government does not have exact statistics on Russian ISIS members and that this process is inadequate. This indicates that the authorities cannot effectively control and prevent the militants’ outflow, not only within the North Caucasus, but in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. There are a number of reasons for inaccurate statistics, ranging from the clandestine nature of this Sunni extremist organization to the ineffectiveness of the Russian intelligence service. Cultural traditions play a significant role too. In the North Caucasus, Muslim families prefer to hide the escape of single unmarried women to Syria, trying to avoid public negative reaction and persecution from the local authorities. Only one case received wide public attention. In 2013, the daughter of the Chief of Chechen Migration Service Asu Dudarkaeva, Seda, traveled to Syria and got married to an ISIS fighter. When her first husband was killed, Seda Dudarkaeva became the wife of the infamous commander Abu Omar al-Shishani. Seda’s remarriage cost her father Asu Dudarkaev his career. Asu lost the position in Kadurov’s administration,which he occupied in good standing since 2002.
Russian citizens in the Islamic State: Who and Why.
The North Caucasus has become a breeding ground for foreign fighters. There are two striking cases of mass escape of locals to Syria. In 2015, forty local residents left Berikey, a village in Dagestan, for an Islamic caliphate. In October 2015, twenty Chechens were arrested by the Russian authorities, as they tried to flee to Syria. According to the report of Kizilyurtovsky district Chief of the Dagestani Police S. Sheyhmagomedov, 10-15 people undertake a trip to Syria daily from Dagestan. However, all over the country, Muslims and their families are a target for the ISIS recruiters. In 2015, 53 residents of the village Belozerye, Mordovia, where the majority of residents were Muslims, including six families, joined this organization.
As several cases have indicated, ISIS has become a magnet not only for Russian Muslims, but for individuals from Christian families. In the summer of 2015, Russian society was petrified by the attempt of Varvara Karaulova to join ISIS’s ranks. When she, along with several Chechens who were trying to reach the Syrian border, the Turkish patrol detained them and notified the Russian government. Later, news about the death of the famous actor, Dorofeev, who became an ISIS recruiter, reverberated in Russian society again. Media revealed many details about his personal life and conversion to radical Islam, underlining the ease in which one can become a target for ISIS propagandists and recruiters.
ISIS provides a niche for potential volunteers, regardless of gender, professional affiliation, education, social status, and other limitations. As a result, al-Qaeda has far less popularity in comparison to this organization. For example, the ISIS online accounts have a larger number of members, or followers, than al-Qaeda accounts on Telegramm.org. On average, ISIS online membership exceeds the membership of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated groups by 83 per cent.
The last best chance to engage in terrorist activity was when individuals participated in the Chechen wars against the Russian forces in the 1990s. Nonetheless, many people who never were a part of any militant group previously still undertake a trip to the ISIS held area and some of them even take their families. There are various reasons behind their decision to move there. Some militants feel an obligation to defend Islam and the suffered Muslim community. For converts, this reason was highly important. For others, it was an opportunity to escape persecution and imprisonment. According to the Russian opposition leader, Ilya Yashin, some of Kadyrov’s political opponents joined ISIS in hopes of igniting rebellion against his regime in Chechnya.
The hard-line counter-terrorism approach that was traditionally oriented toward coercive, short-term campaigns and the preservation of state’s rule rather than on positive results, merely leads to the radicalization of society and the further alienation of young generations in particular. Starting from the second part of 2014, government actions have become more assertive and punishing. Basic human rights have been violated on a regular basis. The counter-terrorist forces widely use the following illegal practices such as disappearance, torture, voluntary arrest, and detention among others. Also, during the last decade, the Russian security agency has built a central terror database. However, in 2014, many innocent people were put on the Russian terrorism watch-list, including Kadyrov’s political opponents, a former member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, and a member of the political party “Yabloko.” For example, in Dagestan, the number of people registered in this system jumped up to fifteen thousand only in 2014. The authorities include visitors to the “wrong” mosques, militants’ widows, children, and parents. Being placed on the watchlist, people undergo serious consequences. They can be stopped at every checkpoint, fingerprinted, or called for an interrogation to a local police department for no reason. All these procedures last hours and are coupled with physical torture.
Moreover, this massive watchlisting system is bloated and refers to vague and secret criteria, stigmatizing people as known and potential terrorists. This unfair measure exacerbates public grievance and lowers loyalty to Putin’s regime within the North Caucasus. Recently, the Russian counter-terrorist forces have begun to rely more and more on raids on a number of Salafist mosques. In the summer of 2015, the whole of Dagestan was hit by systematic raids. Usually, raids result in massive arrests of those praying and the shutting down of some mosques. Several imams were detained and recorded for the illegal possession of a weapon. However, according to civil rights activists, in some cases, the accusation against imams was fabricated. During one of these raids, on November 20, 2015, the authorities detained approximately fifty visitors in the Makhachkala mosques. In addition to this, there is an unwritten ban on the wearing of hijab for women and a full beard without a moustache for men, the neglecting of which can lead to detrimental consequences and the close attention of police. Recently, President Kadyrov proposed to revoke Russian citizenship for citizens who participate in the Syrian conflict, with a permanent ban on an entrance into Russia.
According to the Federal Security Service, by December 2015, 900 former ISIS recruiters returned home and the authorities pressed charges against 899 of them. However, the Russian Secret Forces are not able to track all returning militants and there are a number of returners who were not ever detected by authorities. For instance, in April 2016, police captured a local resident of the Leningrad region who had long lived in the country after receiving terrorist training in an ISIS field camp. Unfortunately, this cannot be considered an isolated example, rather, it is a common reality. The Islamic State fighters take advantage of porous Russian borders and high corruption, minimizing the effectiveness of counter-terrorist measures. These types of returning foreign fighters can be divided into the following categories: disappointed militants, failed recruiters, and current operatives.
The first category embraces disappointed volunteers, who were misguided by the Islamic State propagandist message, but found the distinct reality. Some escaped from ISIS on their own. Others asked relatives or local smugglers to help them move out of Syria or Iraq. Usually, they return in order to get back their lost lives rather than continue to fight for the caliphate. Russian media actively uses them as a propaganda tool, incorporating personal stories into news or TV shows on a regular basis. The Chechen authorities widely advertised the personal story of a returner, said Majaev, who was recruited via the Internet and moved secretly to ISIS held territories in July, 2013. Majaev was a participant on various TV shows, news, and discussions, and for his cooperation, the authorities minimized his punishment. Trying to help other volunteers, another former fighter from Chechnya, who got back to Russia in 2015, published a guiding video titled “How to escape from the Islamic State” on YouTube.
The second category consists of individuals who were not able to join the Islamic State due to government measures or relatives’ or friends’ vigilance. These volunteers continue to demonstrate devotion and admiration to the Islamic State ideology. Some ISIS volunteers are imprisoned, such as Moscow resident Alan Khadartzev, who was injured during battles in Syria and received treatment in a Turkish hospital. Others, like Varvara Karaulova, successfully avoided legal charges due to the enormous efforts of her powerful father. After her arrest and arrival to Russia, Karaulova had tried to reestablish communication with her recruiter, Airat Samatov. The majority of these volunteers are detained in airports, sea ports, or on the Russian or Syrian-Turkish borders. On March 27th 2015, two residents of Kabardino-Balkaria, who tried to fly to Turkey, were arrested at the Stavropol Airport on suspension for an attempt to join the Islamic State. Other Russian ISIS recruits failed to penetrate illegally on a passenger or cargo ship to Turkey in April 2015 in Krasnodar. According to the FSB report, during the period between January 1st 2016 to May 27th, 2016, Russian border control of the Sochi region prevented ten attempts of ISIS militants from leaving the Russian Federation.
The next category refers to ISIS operatives, who are the most dangerous returners. Their return is dictated by ISIS military needs and goals such as a search for financial resources, new recruiters, or launching domestic attacks. In September 2015, a former ISIS volunteer, Hasan Mamedyarov, along with other militants from a local clandestine group, killed three hunters in Dagestan. In October 2015, a Makhachkala resident who participated in the Syrian conflict between June and December 2014, was arrested for making a bomb at his own house. Between September 2015 and March 2016, the Islamic State already stated its responsibility for four terrorist attacks in Dagestan.
For too long, the Russian government did not observe the outflow of Russian recruiters to the Islamic State as a serious issue. Only in 2015 did this tendency change due to the remarkable military success of ISIS. Later, government officials tried to estimate the number of ISIS volunteers, revealing government political miscalculation as well as statistical inaccuracy. In addition, the Russian Secret Forces have demonstrated their inability to track returning militants. Many have successfully got back home by taking advantage of porous Russian borders, a high level of corruption, etc. The mass mobilization to the Syrian conflict has an unprecedented size, which includes Muslims and Slavic converts, people from diverse backgrounds, and local militants. Despite the fact that ISIS recruiters have targeted Muslims all over the country, the North Caucasus has remained a breeding ground for foreign militants.