Sunday, March 17, 2019

ISIS Shifts in Russia from Seeking Influence among Muslims to Recruiting Ethnic Russian Converts to Engage in Terrorism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – The case of two ISIS fighters killed by Russian counter-terrorist operatives in Stavropol kray suggests that the Islamic State is shifting from seeking influence among traditional Muslim groups in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga to recruiting outsiders including ethnic Russian converts to carry out terrorist attacks.

One of the two ISIS fighters who were killed last week by Russian counter-terrorist forces in Stavropol kray where they came to promote the Islamist radicalization of young people there was almost certainly an ethnic Russian convert to the faith from Volgograd, according to Andrey Serenko, an expert from the latter place.

            That there are such people from Volgograd, Serenko tells the Kavkaz-Uzel news agency, “is no surprise.”  “In 2017,” he continues, approximately 60 people from Volgograd Oblast left for the Islamic State. And these did not include only representatives of Muslim nationalities” (

            “But how many didn’t go?” Serenko asks rhetorically. “I risk suggesting that the number who stayed home was no less. Therefore today, they act according to the same principles which the propagandists of the Islamic State gave them. And those mean that it isn’t necessary for them to go on jihad in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere.”  They can act in the same way in Russia.

            Now they have tried to do so by going from Volgograd to Stavropol, two predominantly ethnic Russian regions.

            At the same time, Serenko suggests that there has not been a general massive radicalization of Muslim young people in the North Caucasus. Instead, what has occurred and is continuing to occur is what he calls “targeted radicalization,” where ISIS loyalists seek to recruit those who can carry out specific tasks as assigned.

            There are relatively few radicals among the 50 to 70 thousand Muslims living in Volgograd Oblast, he continues; and so ISIS recruiters are looking at converts to Islam from other ethnic groups or among arrivals from elsewhere who have not integrated into the traditional Islamic community there.

            Such limited but dangerous individuals form “sleeper cells,” which are “beyond doubt” extremely difficult for the authorities to track and neutralize.

            Another analyst with whom Kavkaz-Uzel spoke, Aleksandr Saygin, points out that “terrorist can appear anywhere at all: this is a transnational and transborder phenomenon.” At the same time, “radical propaganda cannot interest the overwhelming part of young people in the region.” But if even a few are recruited, they can carry out a terrorist attack.

            Mufti Beta Kifakh Mokhamad in Volgograd says that radical Islamism is declining in influence in the region, but he noted that there are some who continue to work “underground.” They may be few in number, they may be from outside traditional Muslim communities, but precisely because they are, they are hard to track and very dangerous.

            Unfortunately, he continues, “the level of professionalism of the officers of the special services leaves much to be desired. They see their task as eliminating a political opposition and not in struggling against extremism. Without the participation of the Islamic authorities, it will be impossible to defeat extremist groups who attempt to speak in the name of Islam.”

            And as long as the current situation continues, the mufti concludes, “if the Islamic authorities do struggle successfully with extremism, they risk acquiring problems for themselves from the siloviki.”

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