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The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad?
The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad?
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid
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 

Workers repair the damaged parts of the terminal building at Turkey's Istanbul Ataturk airport on 29 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

The Struggle with Islamic State that Turkey Hoped to Avoid

In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

Turkey has blamed the so-called Islamic State (IS) for the triple suicide gun and bomb assault on Istanbul airport on 28 June that killed 45 people. Some of the gunmen had family links to Russia’s troubled North Caucasus, from where many people have moved to and through Turkey. More broadly, the assault brings into the open a struggle with IS that Turkey had hoped it could avoid. In this Q&A, Crisis Group tapped the views of its Project Director and Analyst in Turkey, Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandıracı, as well as its Russia and the North Caucasus Project Director, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia.

How much do we know about the North Caucasus jihadists who carried out the Istanbul attacks and their links to Turkey?

Turkish police declared that two of the bombers are Russian citizens, at least one of them with links to the North Caucasus. According to the Turkish media, one or more had travelled to Turkey from Raqqa, one of the main strongholds of IS in northern Syria. It is not yet clear if they previously resided in Turkey.

The raid’s organiser is thought to be Akhmed Chataev (also known as Akhmad Shishani), a highly positioned Chechen in IS. Chataev had previously fought against Russia in Chechnya, where he was injured and lost one arm (for which he is better known as “One-handed Akhmed”), and subsequently fled the country in 2002. A year later he was granted asylum in Austria.

In 2007, he became a “representative”, recruiter and fundraiser in Europe for the newly founded Caucasus Emirate, a group loosely associated with al-Qaeda which used terrorist methods during operations in the Russian North Caucasus. In 2013, Chatayev swore allegiance to IS and reportedly played an important role in the incorporation of the North Caucasus jihadist groups into IS.

Since the nineteenth century, Muslims from the North Caucasus and other areas under Russian rule have moved or were forcefully resettled to Turkey in significant numbers. In the last decade, thousands more moved to Turkey to escape pressure from the Russian government. Most are North Caucasus Salafis, believers in a purist Sunni orthodoxy. The overwhelming majority of them are non-violent.

Why would persons from the North Caucasus take part in a terrorist attack against a mainly Turkish target like Istanbul airport?

There are many signs of rising Muslim radicalisation in the former Soviet space, not just in the North Caucasus but also in Russian cities and in Central Asia. This has resulted in young people travelling to IS, prompted by a wide array of grievances and motivations. These are not just fighters, but individuals and families seeking a different way of life.

For North Caucasians, ultra-radical ideology feeds on memories of brutal wars in Chechnya over the past two decades, heavy subsequent counter-insurgency operations across the region, unresolved intra-confessional and ethnic conflicts, social inequality, corruption, failing social services and lack of democratic procedures.

Istanbul became the main transit hub for jihadists who wanted to go to Syria. A first sign that this posed dangers to Turkey came when a female Dagestani suicide bomber staged an attack in Istanbul in January 2015, killing one police officer. After the attack on Istanbul airport, neighbourhood searches and arrests are now under way targeting North Caucasus and Central Asian communities all over the country.

Do you think the IS choice of attackers with links to the North Caucasus was deliberate?

The attackers’ identity could be coincidental, that is, the Russian-speakers could be just implementing the plan of IS commanders, without additional calculations. But in many places IS appears to be deliberately aggravating and exploiting divisions between communities. In Turkey, it has been working hard to radicalise the Russian-speaking communities, and has won over some, including several leaders. North Caucasus fighters are also highly valued in IS ranks.

The tactic of staging attacks with the aim of provoking state repression, which will then be a push-factor for new recruits – a common purpose of terrorist attacks in many places – has been used by jihadist groups in the North Caucasus for years. After the wave of arrests that followed the 2015 suicide bomb attack by a Dagestani woman, there was a new wave of recruitment to jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria.

In recent months, Russia has reportedly given Turkey the names of those whom they suspect of fighting in or links with jihadist groups in Syria. Human rights organisations have received numerous complaints from the Russian Muslims in Turkey that Russia puts them on wanted lists on suspicion of involvement in the Middle East conflicts, but that they have never crossed the Syrian border. Turkish authorities have arrested a number of people from these lists, for instance when they came to extend their residence permits in Turkey. As a result many in North Caucasian communities in Turkey are afraid to extend their permits, which means they will become illegal and hence more vulnerable to recruiters. If Turkey starts to deport suspects to Russia, there could be a significant outflow from these communities to Syria.

How open is the conflict between Turkey and IS?

This is a conflict that Turkey did not want, but is becoming steadily more violent. Since July 2015, Turkey has also suffered six major bombings blamed on IS that have killed around 200 people. According to official figures, in the first five months of 2016, 989 individuals in Turkey were detained on suspicion of having links to IS, of whom 228 were arrested. The numbers were not broken down by national origin.

Also since January, apparent IS rocket attacks on Turkey’s border province of Kilis have killed more than twenty people. In response, the Turkish military has in recent months also engaged in heavily shelling of IS positions across the Syria border.

Since Turkey officially joined the coalition against IS in August 2015, it has become an explicit target of domestic IS mobilisation, IS leaders’ rhetoric and IS publications. In January, IS hardened its position toward Turkey, branding it as an “infidel” Muslim nation because of its secular democracy, calling its ruling pro-Islamic party a “hostile regime”, and using the word tağut to demonise a state that had supposedly “transgressed” the path of true faith. IS social media campaigns #tağutnedir (“what is tağut?”) and #tağut are in circulation since last September, and have recently focused on top officials like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Even so, Turkey remains a critical, informal logistical base for IS. One reason IS has not made claims of responsibility for its apparent attacks in Turkey may be that the group hopes to dodge or mitigate Turkish reactions, and to give more space to a small minority of Turkish Sunni Muslims who may support or sympathise with it. It needs to protect its access to the outside world as it faces mounting challenges on its southern fronts. According to Turkish intelligence reports, sermons delivered in IS controlled mosques in Syria reveal that the Turkish towns and provinces of Gaziantep, Nizip, Karkamış and Kilis are among IS’s primary targets.

IS’s official propaganda magazine in Turkish, Konstantiniyye (“Constantinople”, an Ottoman-era name for Istanbul), has targeted the Turkish security forces. January’s edition opened with a section called “The Pharaoh’s Soldiers” that called members of the security forces “blasphemous”. Posts on the Konstantiniyye Twitter account have emphasised that IS will take action against soldiers or employees at any level of the Turkish military apparatus.

In Konstantiniyye’s April edition, IS adroitly tried to find favour in Turkish public opinion, which is traumatised by the past year’s upsurge in the three-decade-old conflict with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It highlighted what it said was a Turkish policy that “sacrifices soldiers to support the PKK in Syria” in the name of its Western allies while waging war against the PKK within its own borders. “There will be no rest for Turkey until the establishment of the Islamic State [in the country]”, the magazine said.

Turkey has seemed reluctant in the past to put all its resources in the fight against IS. Its main effort has been to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a principal domestic threat. Do you think this will change?

During the early years of the Syria war, Turkey tolerated many kinds of people transiting its territory to Syria, partly because it believed volunteer fighters would speed the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. Even if there was no active assistance from Ankara, this situation made life easier for IS.

Another reason for Ankara’s lack of overt hostility was that IS was locked in combat with Syrian Kurdish groups loyal to the PKK. Ankara perceives the PKK as its main enemy, especially since a ceasefire and peace talks broke down a year ago. Since then, fighting related to the PKK insurgency has killed at least 1,600 people, according to Crisis Group’s open source casualty tally.

For sure, the Istanbul airport attack is notable for being the IS action most directly aimed at Turks or a Turkish institution so far. But if Turkey is going to turn toward an all-out focus on IS, it has not happened yet. In the days after the attack, there was still as much focus on PKK as on the IS in Turkey’s official statements. Ankara’s discourse about the two terrorist organisations being the same is unchanged, with consistent criticism of its Western allies for applying double standards in urging a negotiated resolution to the PKK conflict. Turkey has even tried to use the international sympathy generated by the IS attack as a platform to draw attention to PKK-related attacks.

Given that some of the attackers may have links to Russia, what impact will the Istanbul airport attack have on the apparent warming of relations between Ankara and Moscow?

Since 2012, Moscow and Ankara have had deep differences over Syria. Russia firmly supports President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey resolutely opposes him. The relationship soured further in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border, and Russia reacted by imposing bans on trade and once-popular visits to Turkey by Russian tourists.

The two sides had already begun a rapprochement before the Istanbul airport attack, and the trend is likely to improve strongly. This is evidenced by a condolence call after the outrage from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Erdoğan and an end to Moscow’s Russian tourism ban. Russia is Turkey’s principal supplier of natural gas and a major trading partner, so this is a gain for Ankara, but wariness toward its historic regional rival will not disappear anytime soon.

It may be that IS chose suicide bombers from these nationalities to send a message to Ankara not to join Russia’s alliance with the regime in Damascus against them. But given Turkey’s feud with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that would be a long shot. Privately, officials are signalling that Ankara’s hard line against Assad may be changing, but this will be limited and not go so far as allying itself with Russia.

Where does the Istanbul airport attack leave Turkey?

The speed that Istanbul airport got back up and running symbolises the resilience of a country accustomed to crisis and conflict. But this comes after several years in which several pillars of Turkish prosperity have been badly damaged.

Political differences within Europe, democratic regression in Turkey and other factors have gravely undermined faith in Turkey’s European Union accession process, once a major locomotive of reform. The Syria war has tested both its longstanding alliance with the U.S. and also its formerly strong commercial partnership with Russia. Foreign investment and tourism have plummeted as turmoil has spilled over its borders with the Middle East. At the same time, Turkey has had to deploy massive resources to offer refuge and support to several million of people fleeing the conflict in Syria and beyond.

In short, Turkey will need all the hardiness it can muster to withstand the new front IS has opened against it.


Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus
Project Director, Turkey
Analyst, Turkey