Staunton, February 26 – The rise of terrorists who act on their own rather than as part of a larger organization reflects “a deep crisis of armed Islamist political movements,” Nikolay Silayev says; “but this crisis does not give any basis for optimism” because the methods Moscow has used against terrorism in the past don’t work against it and the regime has no new ones.
In a commentary for this week’s Ekspert magazine that has been given broader distribution by Interfax, the Caucasus security specialist at MGIMO says that the attack on the Kizlyar church shows that “Russia has not avoided what ISIS ideologists call ‘autonomous jihad” and faces more of it in the future (interfax-religion.ru/?act=print&div=20528).
The distinguishing feature of individual terrorist acts, Silayev says, is “doubts about the nature of the events” themselves. Are they the result of terrorism or are they the product of insanity, drugs, or the misfortunes of an individual. “The final interpretation comes from an outside source” not from the authors of the acts.
In that, “’autonomous jihad’” is like the school shootings in the United States. They appear irrational and obsessed with violence as such; and they arise, the MGIMO scholar suggests, because of the images of violence that appear on television or the Internet not because of any specific ideological program or organization.
“’The Arab spring,’” the scholar argues, “was the latest failure of political Islam,” perhaps the largest and most violence because history gives only very rarely such an opportunity for groups like ISIS and the others to emerge. Their cruelty is sometimes held to be their worst crime.
But “the problem isn’t in cruelty: many other major political and ideological projects have brought many more victims, as for example, communism. Their problem is in t heir total lack of success.” If they succeeded, people would forget the number of their victims just as they have forgotten Mao’s mad economic experiments.
“The Islamist political project,” however, “again and again has produced innumerable victims” but has been “incapable of consolidating power and establishing anything stable on a specific territory as the Bolsheviks did succeed in doing in the early 1920s,” Silayev continues. (He argues that Iran is not an exception to this rule.)
From the point of view of individual marginal figures like the shooter in the Daghestani church, this failure is irrelevant; the violence itself is enough. And that makes these individual actions beyond the reach of the strategy and tactics the Russian authorities have used to deal with Islamist movements up to now.
Russian military operations in Syria are “extremely unpopular among Russian followers of Islamic political movement,” the scholar continues. “This doesn’t mean that they all sympathize with ISIS. On the contrary, ‘the political shades’ in Russian Islam are many and the extreme radicals occupy far from the largest part of this spectrum.”
“However, the restoration of the state order in Syria means the collapse of the largest attempt at ‘Islamic revolution’ in recent years;” and that in turn ‘weakens the negotiating position of all activists of political Islam independent of their level of radicalness.” They no longer can speak on behalf of a successful project.
Moscow’s approach to the struggle with terrorism under the banner of Islam “in recent decades was comparatively simple,” Silayev says. It was based on the idea of attracting to the Russian side “moderate Islamic political activists and preachers,” isolating the radicals, and attacking them using the police and special services.
Despite all the variations over time and in space, “terrorism has been considered as a political problem for which a political solution must be found.” In the North Caucasus, the regime created re-adaptation commissions for former radicals and orchestrated the appearance of anti-terrorist fetwas and homilies from its allies in the Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs).
Four developments are forcing a change: the departure of ever more radicals from the North Caucasus to the Middle East, the growing power of the state, a recognition that talking with moderates does nothing to discourage radicals, and the fact that Islamic issues increasingly set the agenda in the civic space of the North Caucasus.
But most important, there is a recognition that for Russia, the terrorist threat is coming not from the North Caucasus as before but from migrants from Central Asia, “an entirely different problem and not a domestic but an international one.” But now in the Caucasus, there has emerged a new terrorist threat, one that is the work of individuals not groups.
And that means, Silayev says, “that the problem will consist not in securing the loyalty of influential Islamic leaders and their supporters but in not permitting the isolation and ghettoization of Islamic communities,” something that the earlier efforts to build ties with moderate Muslims didn’t discourage but promoted.
Moderate Islam is now setting the agenda in many parts of the North Caucasus because Russian policy encouraged that, failing to see that this has “increased the distance between Muslims and the rest of the population of the country.” Even moderate Muslims oppose “voluntary assimilation,” and they are able to do so.
“The institutions of voluntary assimilation” in the North Caucasus “are weak,” the MGIMO scholar says. When the defense ministry suspended the draft in the region a few years ago to solve a temporary problem, it created a larger one by depriving Moscow of an important means of integrating the Muslims of the region.
Moreover, “extra-ethnic and extra-confessional forms of solidarity such as local self-administration, unions and political parties are to put it mildly not at their best and often are under suspicion from the bureaucracy.” Until that changes, Silayev suggests, Moscow is going to face problems in the North Caucasus.
The task now, he argues in conclusion “is not to pacify Islamic activists but to create broad mechanisms of civic participation which can deprive confessional splits of their current political importance.”