Monday, December 3, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Islamists Increasingly Active in Russia’s Far North, Anti-Sectarian Official in Yamalo-Nenets Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 3 – Islamist radicals from the Imamate of the Caucasus and Hizb-ut-Tahrir have stepped up their activities in Russia’s Far North, recruiting local residents and training them in the North Caucasus to engage in terrorist acts, according to the head of the anti-extremist office of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District Interior Ministry.

                The official, Sergey Savin, recently reported his conclusions to the district’s consultative council on issues of ethno-confessional relations thereby triggering fears in that Far North territory and also setting off alarm bells in Moscow because of concerns that such people might target key economic infrastructure there (

            The anti-extremism official told the council that “this summer a group of ‘new recruits’ from the Gubkin district of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District were identified in Daghestan.” These young people had “joined forces” with the militants there; two were killed, but two others have disappeared and their whereabouts are unknown.

            “One of the residents of Noyabrsk,” Savin said, “was a student of the Tyumen Medical Academy” before he “adopted Islam” and “secretly” travelled to the North Caucasus. Savin said   his officers had found his cell number, arranged for his mother to talk to him, and were thus able to dissuade him from continuing to work with the Islamist underground.

The anti-extremism official said that despite this success, officials still face serious problems because “propaganda of radical Islam is especially actively being conducted in the higher educational institutions and mosques of Yamal and neighboring regions” and because “members of ethnic organizations “are taking part” in criminal activities.

According to the report, “Savin in fact did not say anything new,” but despite the growth of Islamist activity there, “the authorities have preferred to keep their heads in the sand” and ignore it.

The news agency said that there are three groups of “adepts of radical Islam” east of the Urals. First, there are “migrants from the North Caucasus and Central Asia;” second, “Tatars and Bashkirs who have fallen under the influence of radical preachers;” and third, “representatives of peoples who historically have not confessed Islam but have accepted its ‘modernized’ form” as  “one of the forms of social protest.”

There are “relatively few” ethnic Russian Muslims, but according to writers like Rais Suleymanov, they play a disproportionate role in “the terrorist underground” and provide “more recruits” to such bands “than do the Tatars of the Russian Federation.”

Both ethnic Russians and non-Russian indigenous Siberian peoples, continues, were subjected to intense atheistic propaganda under the Soviets, but with the collapse of the communist system, religion became fashionable, all the more so because preachers “promised the resolution of earthly and spiritual problems to those who turned to the ‘true’ faith.”

Among the most prominent members of Russia’s northern and Siberian peoples who turned to radical Islam were Said the Buryat (Aleksandr Tikhomirov), Dmitry Danilov (Denisov), an Islamist radical “who was killed in Daghestan in the summer of 2010,” anda third who was known in the North Caucasus simply as “the Yakut.”

“The dissemination of radical religiosity in Siberia would have been impossible,” suggests, “if the preachers did not have a well arranged organizational structure and thus were not always forced to act in the underground” and if it were always clear where “traditional Islam ends and radical Islam begins.”

            Savin told Yamalo-Nenets council that he sees the solution in educating more leaders of “traditional Islam who would then be able to oppose the ideological advance of the extremist religious trends” and that there should be an effort to “attract to work in the mosuqes young, educated and spiritually strong religious leaders.”

            Other students of this subject are less sure that Savin’s recommended course will work. Speaking at a Salekhard conference last month, Aleksey Grishin, a sociologist, said that the real threat of Islamism had arisen because of “the uncontrolled growth in the number of muftiates” – there are now “more than 80” in the Russian Federation.

            In Sibria itself, there are a variety of Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs), among them the MSD of Siberia and the MSD of Asiatic Russia, whose leader Nagifulla Ashirov often expressed his sympathies for the Taliban and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. One of his colleagues, Damir Ishmukhamedov, is the author of three books that Moscow has identified as “extremist.”
            “The establishment of new spiritual directorates,” he said, “which are not subordinate to the largest Muslim organizations allow the extremists to come out officially and prevent traditional Muslims from effectively cooperating with the state.” Moreover, he said, these muftiates are used to “legalize” monies these groups collect and “keep them in Russian banks.”

            “Having received official status,” Grishin continued, such groups even “demand land for mosques and support from the government.” And they often obtain it because officials responsible for overseeing religious groups currently have a vested interest in avoiding any suggestion that the radicals have made gains.

            Curiously, observed, the spread of Islamist radicalism in Siberia has attracted more attention abroad than in Russia. One French scholar even has noted that Saudi Arabia may see that development as something that could “weaken the second largest exporter of oil in the world.”

            One Yamal publicist, however, has been focusing on this issue. Andrey Balandin has suggested that “the Islamists are organizing a human and economic place des armes inn Russian regions in advance of a certain ‘X’ hour.”  Why aren’t Russian officials worried about this? asks rhetorically, suggesting that “perhaps this is because by that date, “they and their families already will be far away from this godforsaken country.”

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