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The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad?
The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad?
Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge
Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge
A house destroyed by security services in Dagestan. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko
Report 238 / Europe & Central Asia

The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad?

Russia’s North Caucasus insurgency has gone relatively quiet, as Moscow crushed militants and many left to fight in Syria and Iraq. But longstanding grievances remain and the war may only have widened, as evidenced by the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt and the emergence of new groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State in Russia itself.

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Executive Summary

Violence in Russia’s North Caucasus, which has experienced deadly conflict for two decades, is down substantially the last two years – partly because most of its radicals have joined the foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. By June 2015, most North Caucasus insurgent groups had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), later to be designated its new “province”, Vilayat Kavkaz. Some small groups in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria remain loyal to the Caucasus Emirate (CE), the regional violent jihadist organisation, but its support and capacity are now minimal. Russia and IS are in direct conflict: security officials announced they prevented a number of IS-inspired terrorist acts in 2015; IS pledged to harm Russia and claimed destruction of the October flight over the Sinai Desert in which 224 Russians returning from Egypt died and two attacks in Dagestan. In parallel to protecting its national security, Russia should invest in effective de-radicalisation, while urgently addressing legitimate grievances in the North Caucasus better and systematically coping with the root causes of its violence.

The conditions for those pursuing militant jihad in the North Caucasus qualitatively changed in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Russian security agencies defeated and paralysed the CE, whose operations and communication became largely impossible at the same time as what IS calls its “five-star jihad” became increasingly popular. A few thousand North Caucasians joined that fight from their homeland and their diasporas in Europe and the Middle East. The export of the North Caucasus jihad to the Middle East has made Russia new enemies and transformed the problem from national to global.

Since the pre-Olympic clampdown on Salafism in Russia, Turkey has become a popular destination for both Russian jihadists transiting to Syria and peaceful conservative Muslims with families who made it their new home. The “newmuhajirun” (immigrants) from Russia have formed tight, rather self-sustainable communities mostly in and around Istanbul. Until IS-inspired terrorist acts hit Turkey in 2015, the authorities had not shown much concern with either group. Russian-speaking IS liaisons who helped new arrivals cross the Syrian border operated effectively. Several high-profile CE operatives and ideologues have reportedly also worked from Turkey, facilitating transit to groups other than IS. In addition, eight figures linked to the Chechen insurgency have been assassinated in Turkey since 2003, the most recent in 2015, allegedly by Russian federal security service (FSB) proxies. Turkish authorities say they often lack sufficient evidence on which to act more resolutely but legally against such activities. They have, however, considerably tightened security recently.

North Caucasians fight in Iraq and Syria not only for IS, but also for Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as in rebel groups not affiliated with either and mostly under Chechen commanders. Due to their reputation as fearless fighters, Chechens are often promoted quickly to command of small groups, or to second- and third-rank positions in IS. Abu Omar (Umar) Shishani, the most senior-positioned North Caucasian in IS, was reportedly wounded or killed in a recent U.S. strike. His military achievements, particularly leading operations to capture Iraq’s Anbar province and parts of eastern Syria, reportedly helped Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to declare his caliphate and put Russia high on the agenda of IS. In an effort to strengthen their power in IS, Shishani and his ambitious confidante and propagandist from Karachay-Cherkessia, Abu Jihad, set out in 2014 to co-opt the North Caucasus insurgency. This eventually resulted in the almost overwhelming defection of North Caucasus fighters to IS.

Russian security services allegedly opened borders for local radicals to leave the North Caucasus before the Olympics, even though Russia has criminalised participation in armed groups abroad which contradict the “interests of the Russian Federation”. Since the second half of 2014, however, the authorities have reduced the outflow and systematically hunted down recruiters and fundraisers, as well as potential fighters, while also intensifying pressure on non-violent Salafis, especially in Dagestan. In Chechnya, policies toward Salafis have traditionally been even harsher. The Chechen interior ministry routinely carries out campaigns against them; reportedly, many were detained in 2015 and some disappeared late in the year. The Ingush leader, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, pursues a non-confrontational policy; he prevented official clergy from seizing the most important Salafi mosque in Nasyr-Kort and tries to consolidate believers in the republic. Similarly, Kabardino-Balkaria fundamentalists do not complain of systematic security-service harassment.

The region’s Salafis emphasise that religion is a key motivation for North Caucasians to join violent jihad in Syria. The immediate religious context is influenced by deeper underlying grievances that drive radicalisation, including unresolved conflict, often unaccountable and non-transparent governance, poor socio-economic conditions and a deep sense of injustice and disenfranchisement. The opportunity presented by IS gives violent Caucasus jihadists an alternative to a suicidal enterprise at home, making departure to pursue religious commitments even more compelling.

Radicals convince youth that hijjra (emigration) to IS or fighting for it is the individual obligation (fardh ‘ajn) of each Muslim, and those who abstain fail in duty to Allah. IS in turn portrays itself as a feasible political project with an efficient Islamic government. Claiming to be an egalitarian welfare project, it provides flats and subsidies for fighters’ families. It likewise offers opportunity for merit-based promotion and publicised revenge for perceived global humiliation of Muslims.

If powerful reinforcements for IS from the North Caucasus are to be staunched, Russia needs to develop a de-radicalisation strategy that pools intellectual resources from various fields and across disciplines, including experts on the region, open-minded security officials, educators and moderate religious leaders. Law-abiding fundamentalist leaders can play a significant role in influencing young people. Creation of controlled but safe channels for return and programs to prevent radicalisation in prisons are also important. Accounts of those who have returned disillusioned from Syria and Iraq are perhaps the most powerful weapon against recruitment.


To address the root causes of radicalisation

To the government of the Russian Federation:

  1. Recognise that unresolved grievances and conflicts, as well as limited development opportunities are strongly conducive to radicalism, and address them vigorously by establishing more democratic procedures and rule of law; ensuring reasonable decentralisation, socio-economic development and youth jobs; and improving social services, especially education.
  2. Encourage genuine transformation of sectarian conflict between traditional and fundamentalist Muslims by facilitating Sufi-Salafi dialogue in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, and increasing efforts to integrate non-violent Salafi communities into the social mainstream across the North Caucasus.
  3. Improve law-enforcement agency investigations and support efforts to pursue and prosecute corruption and economic crimes; and end at the same time law-enforcement impunity and investigate systematically and effectively allegations of serious human rights violations.
  4. Strengthen the focus of youth policies in the North Caucasus on preventing idleness and encouraging other ways of self-realisation; and devise more sophisticated ways to combat radical influences from abroad. 

To prevent further radicalisation

To the government of the Russian Federation:

  1. Strengthen investigators’ capacity to prosecute jihadists returning from the Middle East fairly; and reward voluntary contributions to anti-extremism propaganda by softening sentences.
  2. Distinguish between violent and law-abiding fundamentalists, focusing law-enforcement efforts on the former; cease repression of non-violent Salafis, especially in Chechnya, unless they violate the law; and oppose any discriminatory rhetoric and practices targeting individuals for religious beliefs.

To the interior ministry of the Republic of Dagestan:

  1. Halt discriminatory practices against non-violent fundamentalist believers, including registering them as extremists, and – other than within the framework of a criminal case – detaining them, restricting their movements and submitting them to unsanctioned searches and blood and saliva tests.
  2. Cease pressuring and closing Salafi mosques other than after a credible investigation and pursuant to a judicial decision.

To facilitate de-radicalisation

To the National Anti-Terrorism Committee:

  1. Strengthen soft-power counter-insurgency, including creation of exit programs for radicals who have not committed grave crimes and wish to return from Syria and Iraq.
  2. Revive and strengthen the mandates of the republican commissions for the rehabilitation of fighters to deal with returning jihadists; and engage more constructively with families of jihadists and law-abiding fundamentalist leaders in joint efforts to combat violent jihadism ideologically.

To the government of the Russian Federation:

  1. Create a de-radicalisation research group of independent experts, law-enforce­ment and security service professionals, educators and media and religious leaders, including law-abiding Salafis, and task it to develop a feasible de-radicalisation methodology and government program.
  2. Consider setting up a federal program aimed at de-radicalisation of Islamist extremists, rehabilitation of ex-jihadists and prevention of radicalisation in prisons and enhance cooperation and information exchange with European countries, including Turkey.

Brussels, 16 March 2016 

Nigeria’s newly elected President Muhammed Buhari gives a speech during a press conference, in Lagos, Nigeria, on 1 April 2015. Anadolu Agency
Commentary / Africa

Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge

The peaceful election in March 2015 of President Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general, raised hopes that some of Nigeria’s most pressing security problems could soon be tamed. One year later, the new government has struck at the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency. But Nigeria is sliding deeper into other difficulties.

At his inauguration on 29 May 2015, Buhari pledged he would defeat Boko Haram and deliver greater security. He attacked the insurgents and – with help from Nigeria’s neighbours – has forced them onto the back foot, though the group remains resilient and the fighting has caused a major humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin areas. Meanwhile, other security challenges are surging, particularly in the south east, Middle Belt and Niger Delta.

The government’s hard-fisted reaction has alienated more youth and boosted the agitators’ ranks.

In the south east, Igbo secessionist groups are more stridently demanding restoration of the short-lived Republic of Biafra (1967-1970). Decades-long Igbo grievances have been aggravated by popular misgivings about Buhari’s intentions for the region. Demonstrators have been driven off the streets by the government’s arrest and continued detention of some leading agitators, notably Nnamdi Kanu who heads the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and the security forces’ killing of unarmed protesters. But Buhari has not addressed the roots of the unrest. Instead, the government’s hard-fisted reaction has alienated more youth and boosted the agitators’ ranks, threatening more troubles ahead.

Nigeria’s Middle Belt is suffering increasing violence, involving pastoralists, cattle rustlers, agrarian communities, rural bandits and community vigilantes. Recent pastoralist-farmer clashes over land and water resources have produced more casualties: hundreds were killed in Benue state in late February, with about 100,000 displaced across seventeen of the state’s 23 local government areas. These clashes have also spread south, including a 24 April attack by herdsmen in Nimbo, Enugu state, which left over 40 ethnic Igbo residents dead. This is unprecedented in the south east, further stoking Biafran secessionist sentiment. The conflict has also prompted the resuscitation of long-dormant Igbo ethnic vigilantes, notably the armed Bakassi Boys, threatening further violence.

The Niger Delta’s fragile peace is unravelling.

The Niger Delta’s fragile peace is unravelling, too. An earlier insurgency died down in 2009 thanks to a presidential amnesty offered to militants. As the government sought to arrest and prosecute ex-militant leader Government Ekpemupolo (better known as Tompolo) on corruption charges, armed groups notably the little-known Niger Delta Avengers, and the even more obscure Egbesu Mightier Fraternity, have resumed attacks on oil industry assets, cutting the country’s output to its lowest in two decades. Both groups have sent the government their lists of demands, mostly for local control of oil revenues, threatening even more crippling attacks if they are ignored. The government’s response – deploying more military assets and threatening an unmitigated crackdown – portend an escalation of the violence.

Insecurity has been aggravated by a wrenching economic situation. The National Bureau of Statistics reports that the economy contracted by 0.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year, the first time since 2004, and analysts do not expect the second quarter to be any better.

Faced with the precipitous decline in the price of oil, Nigeria’s most significant export, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) has not delivered on its many pre-election promises of early economic relief. As of 30 April, 26 of the country’s 36 states owed some or all of their workers monthly salaries, some for up to eight months. In March and April, Nigerians suffered some of their worst automobile fuel shortages in recent memory and the government’s decision this month to address scarcity by ending price controls led to a jolting 67 per cent price hike. Furthermore, the electricity sector is still hampered by poorly utilised generation capacity, high transmission losses and frequent outages, intermittently plunging the entire country into darkness. Recent pipeline sabotage by Niger Delta armed groups has further depressed the electricity situation.

Unemployment is rising: a federal police advertisement of 10,000 vacancies has drawn over one million applicants.

Nigeria’s national currency, the naira, has depreciated by over 70 per cent since this time last year, leading inflation to soar to a near six-year high of 13.7 per cent in April 2016. With workers’ purchasing power diminished and many businesses unable to access foreign exchange for their operations, companies are shedding staff. Unemployment is rising: a federal police advertisement of 10,000 vacancies has drawn over one million applicants. Economic desperation could heighten social tension and insecurity.

Some of these challenges are the results of years of misgovernance and corruption; others, such as the oil price plunge, are beyond Buhari’s control. But as the administration enters its second year, it needs to embark on several short- and longer-term measures to reverse the country’s dangerous slide.

President Buhari should particularly show greater empathy with aggrieved groups.

In the short term, government needs to consolidate the gains of its counter-insurgency campaign in the north east, while firmly advancing humanitarian and rehabilitation efforts for many affected communities. It must also address the deadly pastoralist-farmer clashes through a combination of security measures and promoting dialogue between these communities. Such measures may not address the fundamental drivers of the conflicts, but they could calm the country while lasting solutions are explored.

Furthermore, the government needs to de-emphasise forceful responses and explore existing political mechanisms to respond to discontent in the south east, Niger Delta and elsewhere. President Buhari should particularly show greater empathy with aggrieved groups.

The federal government needs to urgently deliver sustainable improvement in electricity supply and create the millions of quick impact jobs it promised before the 2015 elections. State governments must also channel their governors’ so-called security votes (funds worth millions of dollars appropriated ostensibly to pay for discrete responses to security challenges but often pocketed by state governors) into constructive use. They must slash extravagant privileges senior state officials undeservedly enjoy, cut wasteful spending, eliminate payroll fraud and pay workers when due.

Unless the government pursues comprehensive reforms, its gains in subduing Boko Haram will be short-lived.

For the longer term, the government needs to recognise that much of the current violence and insecurity stem partly from the highly dysfunctional police, judicial and penal systems; and partly from fundamental flaws in the country’s federal system. It needs to formulate and implement comprehensive security sector reform. President Buhari also needs to pursue constitutional and administrative reforms that will guarantee citizens’ rights, curb corruption, improve transparency and accountability, and enhance service delivery. He can readily find elaborate guides in the submissions of various high-level national reform conferences held over the years.

Unless the government pursues comprehensive reforms, its gains in subduing Boko Haram will be short-lived and Nigeria could encounter even more deadly violence ahead.