The emerging Islamic State Threat in the North Caucasus

The emerging Islamic State Threat in the North Caucasus

The expansion of Islamic State operations in the North Caucasus is part of the group’s wider international strategy. It also highlights ISIS ongoing power struggle with al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Since the mid-1990s, radical Islamists hailing from the North Caucasus have been behind the majority of terrorist attacks that hit the southern part of Russia as well as the country’s main cities. Sunni extremists spurred by long-standing grievances and relying on local armed groups as well as international support engaged in a protracted insurgency against Moscow. After two wars in Chechnya, the former epicentre of the conflict, Russia managed to re-establish a strong control in the breakaway region. While combat victories and far-reaching counter-terrorist measures have been guaranteeing a certain degree of stability since the mid-2000s, Islamists groups maintain the will and capabilities to carry out attacks in the region and throughout the country.

The al-Qaeda-affiliate Caucasus Emirate has, since 2007, been responsible for the majority of attacks linked to the ongoing insurgency in the region. The terrorist organisation established an operational structure capable of carrying out complex attacks such as those in Moscow metro and international airport (2010) as well as suicide bombings in Volgograd (2013). However, an intense counter-terrorist campaign that led to the killing of the Caucasus Emirate historic leader Dokka Umarov in September 2013 and the subsequent neutralisation of several senior cadres strongly weaken the group.

A radical Islamist “competition” in the North Caucasus

The insurgency riddled Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan republics have historically been an al-Qaeda stronghold in the region with transnational links between southern Russian militants and their Arab and central Asian counter-parts. However, the decline of the Caucasus Emirate and the almost parallel rise of the Islamic State created a partial shift of power in the region. Since late 2014 senior officials of the Caucasus Emirate began pledging allegiance to the Syria and Iraq-based group. The spokesperson of the Middle Eastern terrorist organisation, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani favourably responded positively to these moves and the Islamic State formed a local structure, the Caucasus Province, in June 2015.

Russia is now the main supplier of non-Arab foreign fighters to the Islamic State. According to a report issued by the Soufan Group in December 2015, 2,400 Russian Islamists coming almost exclusively from the North Caucasus are now operating alongside the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.  This shows the increased hold the group has on local militants and the developing networks that are expanding in the area, especially in Dagestan. The Islamic State is effectively exporting its ideology to the North Caucasus in a bid to obtain fighters as well as logistical and financial support. This creates a situation in which the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are entering into a competition over influence in the North Caucasus.

While there are debates concerning a potential long-term rapprochement between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the two groups are effectively competing for legitimacy and resources in multiple regions of the world, including the North Caucasus. This struggle is one that will determine the strategic balance in global jihadism as different interest groups and Islamist network will side with one or the other of the two main tendencies. In the southern part of Russia this is likely to continue to translate into attempts to garner and maintain support from local militias and newly formed Islamist armed groups. One way either al-Qaeda- or Islamic State-linked militants can generate such attention is by keeping up the tempo of their operations in the region and conducting major attacks throughout the country to score propaganda victories.

Dagestan: the epicentre of the threat

Given strict security measures being implemented by Kremlin-aligned President Kadyrov in Chechnya, the Islamist insurgency has gradually shifted its operational centre to Dagestan. Since June 2015, Islamic State-linked militants conducted several attacks in the North Caucasus republic raising concerns over the groups reach in the region. In December 2015, a gunman opened fire on a group of visitors in the Derbent fortress and in February 2016, a suicide bomber targeted a police checkpoint in same area. Additional foiled plots were attributed to Islamic States militants as police and military forces targeted networks of the Middle East-based group in Dagestan.

In the long run there is the risk that local Islamist insurgent groups of varying size and capabilities will increasingly claim that their attacks are conducted in the name of the Islamic State. This highlights three key factors: the expansion of the recognition of the ISIS brand at the detriment of the al-Qaeda one; the solid links between the Middle Eastern organisation and Russian armed groups created by the presence of hundreds of Dagestani militants in Syria and Iraq; and the overall legitimacy provided by the usage of the Islamic State name when carrying out attacks.

Wider security implications for Russia

In the foreseeable future, the current situation of competition between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State creates the risk of an intensification of insurgent operations in Dagestan. This will likely result in enhanced attempts by smaller groups formed by maximum a dozen of men to conduct attacks against police or military forces. The perpetrators will likely link those attacks to ISIS in order to make a name for them. Russian security forces will also intensify their campaign in the region in a bid to thwart planned attacks and disrupt local Islamist networks.

Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have repeatedly called for attacks against Russia and Russian interests abroad given Moscow’s game-changing role in Syria. The current competition between the two groups and the increased presence of Islamic State-aligned cells in Dagestan leads to a heightened risk of attacks outside the North Caucasus. Already in February 2016, police forces detained members of an alleged Islamic State cell in Yekaterinburg who were planning attacks in Moscow and St. Petersburg. These counter-terrorist operations are likely to intensify as ISIS may try to conduct retaliatory attacks in Russia following the Sunni extremist organisation’s recent set-backs in Syria.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.