Dagestan’s Abandoned Counter-insurgency Experiment
Dagestan’s Abandoned Counter-insurgency Experiment
ISIS Returnees Bring Both Hope and Fear to Chechnya
ISIS Returnees Bring Both Hope and Fear to Chechnya
Magomed Aligadjiev, the father of Islamist militant Akhmed Aligadjiev, who is believed to be in Syria, points at a mosque near the village of Gimry in Dagestan, Russia, 27 January, 2016. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 16 minutes

Dagestan’s Abandoned Counter-insurgency Experiment

In 2010, the Russian republic of Dagestan pioneered alternatives to force in dealing with its jihadist insurgency, though it reverted to repression ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Faced with possible returns of fighters from Syria and Iraq, the authorities should revisit their nuanced policies.

In February 2016, 5,000 Salafi Muslims marched into the centre of Khasavyurt, the second-largest city of the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, to protest the forced closure of their mosque. Dagestan’s Salafi community, orthodox Muslims who practice a revivalist Islam that originated in the Gulf, is one of Russia’s largest. It has long faced discrimination from the Dagestani authorities.

In this instance, few expected those authorities to bend to the marchers’ demands. But, in a rare gesture of compromise, the mosque was reopened the next day.

The apparent victory, however, did not come cheap. One protest leader, a popular and charismatic Salafi imam, was subsequently arrested by security forces, reportedly tortured and sentenced to serve five years in a penal colony, accused of justifying jihadist (what the authorities deride as “Wahhabi”) violence. In reality, the imam was a moderate: his condemnation of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) had earned him threats from Dagestani militants. Many in Khasavyurt worried that his departure would open space for harder-line preachers.

Six months later, in August 2016, police and federal security forces killed two young shepherds near the mountain village of Goor-Khindakh, in Dagestan’s south-western Shamil region. The boys’ relatives and neighbours accuse the police of mistaking the boys for insurgents, killing them and then dressing up the bodies in militant garb. Local authorities insisted for over a year that the boys had opened fire first, before finally opening an investigation into their deaths in November 2017 (the investigation continues today). The father of the boys told Crisis Group: “They chose my children because I am a poor man and I don’t have a strong clan. My younger son was seventeen and the older was not yet nineteen. On his nineteenth birthday, I was already going to his grave”.

Casting the net too wide can make things worse, either turning more young people against the state or undermining moderate Salafi voices that could serve as a counterweight to jihadists.

According to one student in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, such cases generate considerable anger, particularly among Dagestani youth. “Young people can’t endure this”, a student told Crisis Group in March 2017. “How can your blood not boil when you see this poor father who lost two sons, two simple innocent shepherds? These days, when [the authorities] announce that ‘Wahhabis’ have killed someone, I don’t believe them anymore”.

Both incidents reflect the direction that the Dagestani authorities have taken since about 2014 in their efforts to counter jihadist violence in the republic. Both show that casting the net too wide can make things worse, either turning more young people against the state or undermining moderate Salafi voices that could serve as a counterweight to jihadists. In the context of rising violence in Dagestan over the past few years and the potential return of North Caucasus militants from Syria and Iraq, authorities ought to consider a more nuanced approach. In doing so, they could draw on policies adopted in Dagestan itself some years ago.

Insurgent Violence in Dagestan

For the past decade, Dagestan, a mountainous territory along the western shore of the Caspian Sea, has been the epicentre of jihadist violence in the North Caucasus. At its peak in 2011, the conflict between insurgents and Dagestani security forces claimed over 400 lives in the republic alone – well over the number of those killed in all the other North Caucasus republics combined, according to figures from Kavkazsky Uzel, a news site founded by the Memorial human rights society.

Facing a mounting insurgency, then Dagestani leader Magomedsalam Magomedov tested a response moving away from reliance on brute force alone. Notably, these initiatives included commissions that offered militants who wished to abandon the insurgency a way out and efforts to reach out to Salafis in hopes of fostering intra-religious reconciliation (surveys cite between 80 and 90 per cent of Dagestanis identifying as Muslim; according to local official sources and the Russian media, Salafis number between 40,000 and 50,000 people, about 1 per cent of the total Dagestani population of nearly three million).

These efforts appear to have paid dividends. The commission demobilised a number of insurgents, while according to one expert, “non-violent Salafis acquired a legal and even a somewhat respectable status”. The vast majority of Salafis opposed the insurgency, but young Salafis had appeared particularly vulnerable to recruitment. According to an activist in Makhachkala, through Magomedov’s policies, “the support base of the insurgents collapsed”.

Notwithstanding these initial signs of success, Magomedov’s successor Ramazan Abdulatipov, who was appointed by the Kremlin in 2013, rolled back the measures as part of a heavy-handed crackdown before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Violence subsided considerably in Dagestan ahead of the games, falling to just 126 deaths by 2015, but the decline appears due less to those tactics than to the departure of many North Caucasus fighters to join jihadist groups – especially ISIS – in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as Crisis Group detailed in a 2016 report, some officials appear to have relaxed border restrictions to facilitate the exit of militants. According to estimates from Dagestan’s interior ministry, some 1,200 Dagestanis had left to fight for ISIS as of January 2017. Along with militants, many non-violent Salafis fled persecution by the authorities.   

The past few years have seen violence increase again, however, as the insurgency in Dagestan has evolved – although levels of bloodshed remain considerably lower than during the peak years (47 people were killed in armed conflict in 2017, compared to 413 in 2011). In June 2015, leaders of remnant insurgent cells in the region swore allegiance to global ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS announced the creation of its “province” Vilayat Kavkaz – or the Caucasus province – with Rustam Asildarov, a Dagestani, as “emir”. Security forces killed Asildarov in 2016, but his death appears to have had little impact on the frequency of the group’s attacks. Law enforcement officials have suffered significant losses, purportedly at the hands of jihadists.

Some 1,200 Dagestanis had left to fight for ISIS as of January 2017.

The nature of the insurgency also appears to have changed. The network of often sizeable and seasoned insurgent groups of several years ago has been replaced by small, diffuse and concealed bands or “sleeper cells”, often comprising only a handful of recruits. According to one defence lawyer: “Full-scale recruitment is going on [in detention centres]. Some of my clients, who didn’t even pray, have visibly radicalised. They told me about the peer pressure there, how they were brainwashed”.

Dagestan’s government has responded with increasing ruthlessness under Abdulatipov’s administration. In 2016, for example, there were more alleged abductions and summary executions of suspected jihadists than in the previous several years combined. Credible reports suggest the fabrication of criminal cases and even the use of torture to extract false confessions. With heavier-handed tactics come greater risks of mistakes, such as that allegedly made with the two shepherd boys.

As ISIS loses territory in its Middle Eastern heartlands, Dagestani officials fear that North Caucasus fighters will return and reinforce the insurgency’s ranks. In reality, it is unclear how many militants from the region survived in Syria and Iraq and, of those who did survive, how many will return home rather than remain in the desert there or move on to other war zones. But some reports suggest that at least some jihadists are seeking to come back. Indeed, Dagestani authorities report around 110 returns so far.

Abdulatipov resigned in September 2017, citing his age (he was 71) – though speculation is rife that the real reason was his administration’s failure to counter corruption. In the face of growing violence and the potential return of foreign fighters, the administration of his successor, Vladimir Vasilyev, should reassess policies aimed at containing the threat. In that light, it is worth reviewing some of the republic’s counter-insurgency tactics over the past few years.

Demobilising Fighters

Dagestan’s commission for the rehabilitation of fighters, created by Magomedov in 2010, was the North Caucasus’s first. It was chaired by Magomedov’s deputy and included among its members the nationalities and religions ministers, police and justice officials, the bar association chairman and the imam of Makhachkala’s central mosque.

Though the commission served in an advisory capacity and had no judicial authority, it sought to provide legal and medical counselling to repentant militants; solve their housing and employment problems; and, if necessary, relocate ex-insurgents and their family members. Together with local disengagement panels at the municipal level, the commission thus provided insurgents a legal and transparent process through which they could surrender. In return, fighters were required to publicly repent, condemn the insurgency and pledge to cooperate with authorities at televised meetings.

The degree of publicity given the commission’s work generated some controversy. But overall, it appears to have performed a valuable service. From 2010 to 2013, it reviewed 44 applications and concluded that 35 applicants were eligible for such demobilisation. The numbers might have seemed small compared to the overall number of insurgents, at the time estimated to be in the hundreds or low thousands (estimates varied depending on whether sources were official or not). But according to one official, none of those who participated in the program resumed violence. “There were no cases of rebels rehabilitated by the Dagestani commission rejoining their former comrades in arms”, he told Crisis Group.

Despite these successes, Abdulatipov closed the main commission after assuming the leadership of Dagestan in 2013. Some demobilisation of insurgents continued, but only informally, through agreements with local authorities and state security officers, according to close relatives of some of those demobilised. In 2016, Dagestani authorities created a new commission, the Commission on Reconciliation, which in principle might help facilitate the return of Dagestanis from Syria who do not wish to rejoin the insurgency. Thus far, however, its work is opaque and most of its deliberations take place behind closed doors. Many municipalities also continue to operate their own working commissions that aim to assist former insurgents with demobilising and reintegrating into civilian life. Their success is similarly impossible to evaluate: they neither produce reports on their activities nor collect data on the number of persons assisted.

One notable exception is the Centre for Countering Extremism, in Dagestan’s third-largest city, Derbent, run by a local woman, Sevil Navruzova, in cooperation with city authorities. Opened in October 2014, the centre works both with people hoping to locate family members in Syria and Iraq, and persuade them to return home, and with fighters themselves who regret joining militant groups abroad and wish to return to Dagestan, acting as a bridge to security forces. Navruzova struggled to save her own brother, who joined the insurgency and was killed in 2008. She has not only relevant experience but a strong personal connection to the issue.

More than 100 people have sought the centre’s help since its creation, she told Crisis Group in March 2017. She said it has helped more than 80 of them facilitate the return of relatives from Syria and Iraq or, in some cases, even prevent them from departing – offering potential militants an off-ramp, in other words. Navruzova treats every case individually, chats online with potential returnees when they are in Syria or Iraq, and advises them on the procedures they would need to follow, sometimes asking them to send an audio recording stating their intention to return (similar efforts are underway in neighbouring Chechnya).

“Many want to come back to Russia”, she said. “When they are here they say that it is terrible to live in Russia due to the injustice, but everything is relative, once they find themselves there [with ISIS] all they want to do is return home”.

Her efforts show that even in tough conditions, the right leadership can make such local initiatives work. They also suggest that, among the Dagestanis in the Middle East and Turkey, there are some who wish to return and who would not pose a danger to the republic or at least would require policies beyond incarceration.

Persecuting Salafis

As the demobilisation commission established by Magomedov was closed, the outreach to Salafis that had started under his authority also petered out. Magomedov himself had been committed in principle to the idea of reconciling with Salafis, though he was cautious to play down expectations as his opponents questioned whether his measures in reality would lead to diminished violence.

“Yes, the republic is taking steps to reconcile … the positions between representatives of different branches of Islam”, he said in a 2012 interview. “And we hope that young people oriented toward Salafism will not succumb to the propaganda of extremists”. As he put it, not everyone favoured reconciliation and hardened ideologues still recruited people into the insurgency’s ranks. Still, subsequent years saw a significant drop in violence, suggesting that his measures were effective, even if the impact was slightly delayed.

Since 2014, however, as authorities have reverted to repression, Salafis have largely been targeted for harassment. The main punitive instrument is the interior ministry’s profuchet, or register of suspected extremists (profuchet is short for “prophylactic register”). As of March 2016, it listed more than 15,000 people, including details of their personal lives and family nicknames. The criteria for listing are classified and regulated by interior ministry orders.

“They put you on the register for 50 years”, said one Salafi whose name was listed. Getting listed is easy; someone might add a neighbour they dislike. But “getting off is hard, almost impossible”, a municipal security official told Crisis Group. Those on the list are detained at checkpoints and borders, sent to police stations and subjected to humiliating procedures. The police photograph and fingerprint those registered, for example, or take saliva samples and voice recordings, and force them to supply written explanations of where and why they are travelling. In some cases, family members of insurgents also have reportedly been listed.

The interior ministry announced in the spring of 2017 that it would discontinue the register after several courts found it illegal. But it reportedly is still in use. A defence lawyer told Crisis Group that profuchet files continue to be cited as evidence in court. Local experts suspect that Dagestani officials have changed the name of the register to comply with court decisions, while reports suggest officials still list citizens but on a covert register.

Beyond the profuchet, Salafis also now suffer the closure of their mosques, often reportedly accompanied by unlawful detention, interrogation and torture of imams. While the marchers in Khasavyurt managed to prevent their mosque from being shut down, many others across the republic have been closed. Indeed, in Makhachkala, only one large Salafi house of worship remains – the Tangim Mosque on Vengersikh Boytsov street. In 2015, its leaders set up a council, chaired by well-regarded newspaper editor Ahmed Chililov, to communicate with officials. “This was intended to protect the imam of the mosque, to avoid assailing him with too many issues [from electricity bills to visits from police], which would make him vulnerable”, a council member said.

Crackdowns on Salafis are particularly dangerous: they not only violate Salafis’ basic rights but also hinder efforts to counter jihadist recruitment and violence.

In reality, though, Tangim’s imam was squeezed from two sides. From militants he received death threats. Meanwhile, the authorities put his press secretary under house arrest on a charge that the imam’s supporters claim is fabricated. Through 2016, security services raided the mosque every Friday, detaining from 50 to 200 people each time and putting them on the profuchet. Plainclothes agents “would enter the mosque, pray together with the believers and then detain them”, said Chililov. “We have sent official inquiries to all of the prosecutors’ offices to check the legality of the prevention registers”.

The raids stopped for a while after the council negotiated with authorities but appear to have resumed in the summer of 2017. Congregants complained in an open letter that November to Dagestan’s acting head Vladimir Vasilyev that, although officials denied the existence of a profuchet, detentions and raids continued, albeit under different pretexts, as did the use of a covert register.

“The new trend is that anyone could be locked up these days on suspicion of belonging to a sleeper cell”, a Salafi leader said. “But how can you prove that they are in a sleeper cell?”

These crackdowns on Salafis are particularly dangerous: they not only violate Salafis’ basic rights but also hinder efforts to counter jihadist recruitment and violence. The link between Salafism and jihadism is complex in the North Caucasus – as it is elsewhere. A tiny number of Salafi imams have expressed support for ISIS or joined the insurgency, sometimes after torture or mistreatment at the hands of the security forces. As described, in some places, Salafi youth appear to have been especially susceptible to being drawn to jihadism. Many within insurgent ranks and who joined ISIS abroad have Salafi backgrounds.

That said, many do not. Insurgents recruit within other demographics, too. Moreover, recruitment now appears to happen more often through social networks or online than through mosques or imams, which makes the closure of mosques particularly senseless. The overwhelming majority of Salafis in the North Caucasus are law-abiding. Few challenge the state’s authority, let alone want to overthrow it as part of a global jihad. Many Salafi leaders could help obstruct jihadists’ recruitment or otherwise play a moderating role, but they are squeezed between the state’s repression and militants’ threats.

The discrimination Salafis have suffered at the hands of authorities undercuts Salafi leaders’ ability to dissuade the minority of young people who are susceptible to ISIS’s message. Given the size of the Salafi population in Dagestan, where entire villages are Salafi and religious leaders often provide basic services, including dispute resolution, tarnishing the whole community as potential terrorists is particularly fraught with risk.

Way Forward

Faced with gradually increasing levels of violence in the republic and the risk of returns from the Middle East, Dagestani authorities should revisit the more nuanced policies pioneered some years ago under Magomedov.

They should start by ending the discriminatory profuchet listings, in accordance with the various courts’ decisions and the interior ministry statement. This also means prohibiting the use of both old lists in current court cases and of the covert list allegedly still in use. Mosques should be closed only after a credible investigation and pursuant to a judicial decision. Overall, the engagement and integration of Salafi communities are vital to both counter-insurgency efforts and social cohesion across the North Caucasus.

Second, Dagestani authorities should clarify the broad and blurry mandate of the Commission for Reintegration as well as regional commissions aimed at rehabilitating insurgent fighters. The former could play a much more central role than it currently does. While Magomedov’s commission perhaps overstepped the mark with insurgents’ publicised appearances on television, the opacity of today’s commission goes too far in the other direction.

The authorities need to increase the transparency of the process so as to better ensure potential applicants are aware of its services. A better publicised commission could help signal to young, vulnerable people that the state can support those seeking a way out, particularly when faced with a large number of potential returnees from abroad. The work of the centre in Derbent, run in cooperation with the city’s authorities, has demonstrated such local measures can be effective.

Dagestani authorities should support or create space for efforts to identify and provide “off-ramps” for young people drawn into jihadist groups’ orbit.

For its part, Moscow could consider giving more authority to the Dagestani and other similar demobilisation commissions in the North Caucasus, whose mandates for now are only advisory. This step would provide them greater scope for leniency, where appropriate, and greater autonomy from security agencies. Ideally, too, it should give commissions the authority to review cases of those suspected of insurgent or ISIS-related activity, but who claim innocence. For now, such cases lie outside their mandates, which represents a gap, particularly for Salafis who fled to Turkey with no intention of joining ISIS, many of whom express a desire to return. Indeed, cases were rejected in 2015 on these grounds. Overall, commissions should focus more on disengagement from militancy than on ideological transformation, at least initially – changes in behaviour before beliefs. The commissions’ work, particularly positive stories, should be publicised to encourage further demobilisation, without compromising applicants’ rights to privacy.

Last, Dagestani authorities should support or create space for efforts to identify and provide “off-ramps” for young people drawn into jihadist groups’ orbit. Social workers, community leaders and religious leaders can all be effective mentors in Dagestan. Families can help identify early-warning signs of behavioural change. Yet, the wives or children of insurgents are sometimes listed as extremists and often suffer social stigma and harassment. Dozens of families in the North Caucasus have expressed to Crisis Group that they saw hints of danger in members of kin, but feared seeking help from authorities due to the prospect of retribution.

The relative lull in insurgent activity in Dagestan and other North Caucasus republics since the Sochi Olympics should not induce complacency. Violent incidents are on the rise again and militants could return from the Levant. Moreover, the problems that led many to take up arms in the first place remain, and indeed in some cases are worsening.

Hard security measures only go so far: the less repressive policies pioneered by Magomedov’s administration some years ago deserve greater prominence. Moscow should back such efforts and rein in agencies that obstruct them, in particular curbing abuses by security forces, including the arbitrary arrests, false testimonies and torture still too common across the republics. Overall, more nuanced approaches merit a more central role in North Caucasian counter-insurgency policy. The dividends from these measures may take longer to materialise but will be more durable than those achieved through force alone.

This commentary is based on research conducted by Ekaterina Sokirianskaia when she was a Crisis Group staff member, and then edited and updated by Crisis Group. We intended to publish without names, but through editorial error Magdalena Grono's and Anna Arutunyan's names were added. The error was corrected as soon as it was brought to our attention.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.