Saturday, August 29, 2015

Moscow Needs to Expand Fight against ISIS from Battlefield to Mosques, “Vzglyad” Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – Russian security services having gained certain successes over the Caucasus Emirate and other ISIS allies in the North Caucasus over the last month, Moscow is shifting its attentions to provincial mosques where the Islamic State not only seeks recruits but raises funds for its operations.

            According to Aleksandr Topalov of Moscow’s “Vzglyad” newspaper, these mosques constitute “a weak link” in Russian efforts to defeat ISIS in the Russian Federation; and the journalist suggests that Russian officials will rely more on the Muslim Spiritual Directorates MSDs) to impose order on mosques subordinate to them (

            Russian security services have had significant success in decapitating the Caucasus Emirate over the last few months, but with each new victory, new and often hitherto unknown Islamists appear to take their place. Consequently, the counter-terrorism effort in the North Caucasus will certainly continue.

            But Topalov’s article suggests that at least some in the Russian capital now appreciate that countering ISIS requires an additional step: choking off the radical Islamic State’s influence in mosques by offering an alternative Muslim narrative, something that will require the mobilization of the MSDs.

            These organizations, which have not canonical status in Islam, trace their roots to the time of Catherine the Great and have been used by Russian Imperial, Soviet and now Russian Federation officials as quasi-state, quasi-religious administrative structures to allow the government to control individual Muslim parishes.

            That task has been more complicated for the Russian Federation than its predecessors because the number of practicing Muslims and active parishes has skyrocketed and MSDs have proliferated often without any direct state involvement. Consequently, some of the MSDs themselves are a source of the problem Moscow is seeking to combat.

            The “Vzglyad” journalist says that “the problem of recruitment into radical trends and Islamist groupings via mosques and prayer houses is becoming ever more important” especially “if one considers that ISIS representatives prefer to act from the inside very quietly and in an inconspicuous way.”

            Given the nature of Islam and especially the level of religious knowledge among Russia’s Muslims, Topalov says, that means that the real fight is over who is the mullah or imam in any given mosque because if that individual is a radical that will only increase the number of cases of “recruitment into band formations.”   

                Moreover, it is becoming clear, he suggests, that ISIS now typically divides its subversive activities “into two fronts, a legal and an illegal one. For many years, Basque and Irish separatists successfully were guided by these principles; thus, this approach is not an innovation either for Islamist radicals or representatives of other extremist trends.”

            “It is not infrequently the case,” the journalist continues, “that ‘the legal wing’ turns out to be even more successful than the one directly involved in terrorism.” That is because it is the one that serves as the chief recruiter and fund raiser for such groups.  And it often happens that those who are in the legal field at one point “become leaders of the underground” at another.’

            ISIS, it is clear, “is actively using the semi-legal channel of recruitment via formal religious institutions.”  The “only counterweight to this threat,” Topalov says, is to be found in “the activation of official Islam,” that is, the MSDs, who can and must supervise “what is taking place in provincial religious organizations.”

            It is unclear how much Topralov’s article reflects official thinking or what, if it does, such thinking will lead to. Several outcomes are possible: a new campaign to unify the MSDs, something some in Moscow and Ufa have long wanted, a related effort to suppress MSDs the government doesn’t control, and a more general campaign against radical imams and mullahs.

            Whichever course Moscow chooses, relations between the Russian government and at least portions of Russia’s burgeoning Muslim population are likely to become more turbulent and possibly explosive in the coming months.

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