Staunton, March 22 – The Islamist underground in Daghestan has restructured itself into a collection of conspiratorial cells but it has not disappeared, despite the fact that the number of terrorist incidents has declined in recent months, according to officials and experts on the region with whom the Kavkaz-Uzel news agency has spoken (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/333266/).
Magomed Baachilov, the head of the Daghestan branch of the Russian National Guard, points to this development as well as to another: In the past, it was the wives of radicals who left to go the Middle East; now, he says, the flow consists increasingly of unmarried young girls, thus creating an additional threat in the future.
Claims earlier this year by Baachilov and Daghestani interior minister Abduraashid Magomed that the situation in Daghestan itself is much improved, however, are misleading, according to Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, the director of the Center for the Analysis and Prevention of Conflicts.
“On the one hand,” she says,” he is right: now there are none of the armed groups which at one time existed in Daghestan. But this is connected not only with their destruction but also with the fact that the underground itself has changed its structure and method of operations.” Now, these people operate in “conspiratorially organized cells.”
They typically consist of people who from the outside look completely ordinary and carry out ordinary lives but “at the same time are preparing attacks.” Typically, their attacks are suicidal, because of the actions of the authorities, but they are nevertheless important as an indicator of allegiance to radicalism and opposition to the authorities.
Sokiryanskaya says that she does not think Daghestan is threatened by the return of a large number of radicals from Syria and Iraq. The borders are too tightly controlled, and the repressive measures that Russian officials use against those who do try and are arrested are sufficient to frighten most people off.
Instead, she says, Daghestanis who have gone to fight for ISIS are hiding out “in other countries or zones of military conflict” rather than trying to come back.
Akhmet Yarlykapov, a specialist on the Caucasus at MGIMO, says that the formerly organized resistance is largely a thing of the past but there are still “so-called lone wolves” who are prepared to act on their own and stage terrorist attacks. That means it is far too early to say the situation in Daghestan is stable.
Dzhoanna Prashchuk, the founder of the Chechens in Syria project, says that she has very serious doubts that any unmarried women are leaving Daghestan for the Middle East now. Some did earlier, but now ISIS does not control much territory; and many women who went earlier are in prison camps in Kurdish areas.
And Mikhail Roshchin, a scholar at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, says that Daghestanis like Muslims in other parts of Russia continue to turn to Islamist radicalism because of official persecution of their faith and because of social problems which if anything are greater in Muslim regions than anywhere else.
“I would suggest that this sympathy for the militants is a form of protest.” Some people may believe in ISIS goals, but far more see that group as one that is at least opposed to the regime under which they are forced to live. And the existence of such attitudes means that “new armed groups” can be formed in Daghestan and elsewhere at any time.
Consequently, the reported decline in the number of armed incidents in Daghestan from 24 in 2017 to 11 in 2018 is far from the full story, Roshchin says. They do not show that “no active underground remains in Daghestan. There may be fewer incidents than there were, but the size of the underground may be even larger, now in the form of “sleeper cells.”
One cannot easily predict when such “cells” will awake and cause a new wave of violence and problems.