[Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]
A recent article in Foreign Affairs listed the use of the French language as the best predictor of a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence, and particularly of the percentage of a country’s Muslim population that joins in the international Jihad. According to ICSR estimate, of all Western European countries France has supplied the largest number of foreign fighters to ISIS in absolute terms, whereas Belgium leads in per capita terms (40 per million population). The authors of the Foreign Affairs article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, claim that Francophone status is a better predictor of foreign fighter radicalization than wealth, education or health levels, or even Internet access. The French language itself, the authors state, is obviously not to blame, but is rather a mere proxy for the “French political culture”. Policies such as the French ban on face covering (adopted in September 2010), which prohibits wearing niqābs, burqas, and other veils covering the face in public places, are said to create a fertile ground for drafting recruits into the militant Islamist movement.
But France and Belgium may not be the only countries where the assimilatory or discriminatory policies adopted by the state encourage the radicalization of the Muslim population. In fact, Russia has been experiencing the same phenomena: a growth of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists at home and an increasing recruitment for Jihad outside Russia. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post by Evan Lewis, Russia has been one of the top recruiting grounds for ISIS. According to ICSR estimate, some 800-1,500 foreign ISIS fighters came from Russia. In absolute numbers, this estimate surpasses the corresponding numbers for United Kingdom (500-600), Germany (500-600), Belgium (440), and possibly even France (1,200). Another recent source cites Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs official Vladimir Makarov as saying that 3,417 Russians have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a major increase from the 1,800 Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in September 2015. According to Makarov, some 200 of these Russian ISIS fighters are new converts to Islam who “do not come from the regions where this religion is traditional”. Cases such as that of Varvara Kraulova, a student who attempted to cross into Syria to join ISIS in the summer of 2015, are widely publicized in the media (see, for example, here and here), but they constitute a minor fraction of Russian citizen who have pledged themselves to the so-called Islamic State. As noted in the report on foreign fighters compiled by the New York-based Soufan Group in December 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Russian ISIS fighters come from traditionally Muslim areas of Russia, especially from the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). Other areas with large and historically rooted Muslim populations, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga region, have also provided substantial contingents of ISIS fighters, as did the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to Voice of America, Russian-speaking jihadists from the former Soviet republics have formed their own community within ISIS, located in Al-Raqqah (the de facto capital of ISIS), with schools and even prayers in Russian.
Russian authorities primarily adopt a punitive approach to the problem, conducting criminal prosecution of ISIS fighters upon their return to Russia. According to Russia’s Chief Prosecutor Yury Chayka, 650 criminal cases were open against Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in November 2015; by March 2016, this number was up to over 1,000. Attempts are also made to drive recruitment down by publicly humiliating those who join in the form of “shame boards” that feature “photos of those traitors [who] dishonor” their names, their families, and their clans by joining ISIS. The anti-terrorism forces also work with the religious authorities in the North Caucasus to certify imams based on their attitudes towards terrorism, reports the Kavkaz-uzel.ru (“Caucasian knot”) website. Yet such anti-terrorism measures seem to be less than consistent, according to the September 2015 Roundtable Summary by Chatham House, as “the Russian security services mostly appear to be looking the other way when North Caucasian fighters travel to Syria, possibly because these potential troublemakers are at much greater risk in the Middle East than at home”.
Moreover, wittingly or unwittingly, Russian state policies also exacerbate the problem by creating a fertile ground for radicalization and jihad recruitment, especially among the youth, as reported by Kavkaz-uzel.ru. The Soufa Group report cited above also points out,
“the North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative”.
Russia has had a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies towards—and even wholesale deportations of—its Muslim populations. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Islam in Russia,
“the period from the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 to the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762 featured systematic Russian repression of Muslims [in the Middle Volga region] through policies of exclusion and discrimination – as well as the destruction of Muslim culture by the elimination of outward manifestations of Islam such as mosques.”
With the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762, the focus of these policies shifted to the North Caucasus. Here war was waged by the Russian state against the indigenous Muslim groups for a hundred years, until Chechnya was finally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1859, and most of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus were exiled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. During the Soviet period, Islam, like other religions, was suppressed. During World War II, several Muslim ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars were deported by Stalin’s security forces from their homelands to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark, up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process; comparable numbers in other deported ethnic groups died as well. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, members of the deported ethnic groups who had not perished during their harsh exile were “rehabilitated” and some of the groups (for example, Chechens but not Crimean Tatars) were permitted to return to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights, and continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial.
At the time of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, several Muslim-majority republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, asked for independence, yet the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared such attempts to gain sovereignty to be illegal. (Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Union Republic within USSR, remained part of newly independent Ukraine.) In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan and Chechnya, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. Tatarstan accepted the agreement but Chechnya did not, and the paths of their subsequent histories took different directions, as discussed in detail in my earlier posts on Tatarstan and Chechnya.
As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,
“the end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”
Over the course of the First (1994-1996) and Second (1999-2000) Chechen Wars, Chechnya was increasingly driven in the radical separatist direction. But the wars also resulted in the installation of a new puppet Chechen administration under the cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took over after his father’s assassination in February 2007, continued the policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow, which pleased neither the Chechen separatists nor the Russian loyalists. But he has never been a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. Some observers, such as Viktor Shenderovich, even suggest that the younger Kadyrov may be to some extent the puppet-master, pulling the strings in Kremlin. His recent speech on February 23, 2016 (the 72nd anniversary of the Chechen deportation), in which Kadyrov laid a curse on Joseph Stalin and the chief of the Soviet security apparatus Lavrentiy Berya, certainly indicates that Kadyrov has his own agenda and does not always dance to Putin’s tune. Some pundits claim that the speech aimed to further fuel the popular campaign for Kadyrov to remain in power after his term ends later this year.
Still, Kadyrov has largely remained, in the words of journalist Yulia Latynina, “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”, and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership has emerged in the wake of the two Chechen wars. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use Chechen insurgents as the much-needed enemy figure. Since this situation does not please Chechen separatists, they continue their struggle by resorting to violence, both at home and in other Russian regions, even in Moscow itself. Chechen terrorists perpetrated several horrific terrorist attacks, most notably the October 2002 seizure of the Nord-Ost musical theater in Moscow, where over 800 spectators—many of them children—were taken hostage, and the seizure of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. These terrorist attacks—and the botched rescue attempts by the Russian security forces—claimed the lives of some 130 hostages in the Nord-Ost theater, and 385 children and teachers in Beslan. These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence.
The death of the old-style Chechen nationalism during the rule of the Kadyrovs, father and son, the economic devastation of the republic that forced many residents to flee into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and the rise of criminal gangs engaging in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs have all helped push Chechnya in a more radical direction. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war resulted in a surge of fundamentalism, as noted in a recent report on the North Caucasus by Konstantin Kazenin and Irina Starodubrovskaya, who claim that the Chechen wars not only gave some younger people in the region military training and battlefield experience, but also contributed to the inclusion of the North Caucasus in the global jihadist networks. Moreover, David R. Stone points out that “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were turned to radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of an Islamist militant leader Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buryat and an ex-Buddhist convert to Islam,
“gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”
Framed now mostly as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia, perpetrating attacks such as the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people, and supplying numerous foreign fighters for ISIS.
Tatarstan, which accepted the autonomy agreement with Russia in 1994, has been given many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and a citizenship system. At least in theory, it can conduct its own relations with foreign states and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But when push came to shove in the wake of Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, which began in November 2015, central Russian government began to dictate to Tatarstan what it can do in relation to Turkey. For example, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY). It remains to be seen how long Tatarstan can manage to maintain its current “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position in relation to Russia and Turkey. Because of its ambivalent situation, Tatarstan has also experienced some radicalization of its Muslim population, similar to what has been happening in Chechnya, albeit in a milder form. According to various sources, including the FSB, a substantial number of ISIS recruits—perhaps as many as 200 or more—came from Tatarstan and the other Middle Volga republics. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria resulted in a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan since the early 2014.
Also as in Chechnya, the focus of the militant movement shifted from ethnic to religious identity. Historically, Volga Tatars have been fairly moderate Muslims, yet they have succeeded in retaining their ethno-linguistic identity despite almost half a millennium of Russian rule: according to the 2002 population census, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen. But in recent decades this situation has been changing, as more extreme forms of Islam have been gradually gaining ground in Tatarstan. The internationalization of Tatarstan’s Muslim culture has been studied in detail by Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region; his multi-part article on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” can be read here and a shorter version of it is found here. According to Suleimanov, religious ties between Tatarstan and Turkey, which began on the basis of the ethno-linguistic and cultural connections between the two peoples, have allowed a more internationalist form of Islamist ideology to penetrate Tatarstan.
Several factors, however, mitigate Islamist radicalization in Tatarstan. Compared to Chechnya, Tatarstan has both more de jure and de facto rights (for instance, only Tatarstan retained the right to call its head a President; Kadyrov is known simply as “the head of Chechnya”, not its president). Also, in sharp contrast to the war-torn Chechnya, whose economic and social development has been stunted by the armed conflict, Tatarstan ranks relatively high in terms of economic and social development indicators. For example, Tatarstan’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times higher than that of Chechnya. According to Rosstat data, average per capita income in Tatarstan in 2013 was 26,161 rubles per month, whereas in Chechnya it was only 17,188 rubles per month; moreover, nearly half of Tatarstan’s residents’ personal income comes from salary and business profits, whereas in Chechnya only about a third of personal income comes from those sources, with a bigger chunk (38.1%) deriving from “other sources of income”, including currency operations and “hidden” money streams. In Tatarstan more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities, whereas in Chechnya only about a third do. Unemployment is nearly 7 times lower in Tatarstan than in Chechnya (4% vs. 26.9%). An average Tatarstan resident enjoys 6 extra square feet of living space compared to Chechnya. The availability of physicians and nurses per capita is 1.5 times greater in Tatarstan than in Chechnya, and the percentage of students in higher education institutions in Tatarstan is twice that in Chechnya. It may be for those reasons that Tatarstan has supplied 5 times less foreign fighters for ISIS in absolute terms, and 15 times less in per capita terms than Chechnya.
(To be continued…)