The threat to Russia from Islamic State returnees

The threat to Russia from Islamic State returnees

The threat posed by Russian speaking fighters who travelled to fight under the Islamic State in Syria presents a complicated problem for both Russia and its allies to address. Just like its Western counterparts, Russia is worried that these returnees will mount deadly attacks on the country’s soil.

Russian speaking fighters: Call to Jihad

The danger presented by Russian speaking foreign fighters loyal to the Islamic State is not lost on the Kremlin. Since its emergence during Syria’s civil war in 2013, Russians and Russian speaking nationals from the former Soviet Union have been a prominent presence among the terror group’s fighters.

In February 2017, President Vladimir Putin, citing security service figures, stated that approximately 4,000 Russian citizens and 5,000 from Central Asia followed the ISIS’ appeals for aid. Many took part in helping to establish its ‘caliphate’, or the proto-state it carved out of the lands ISIS seized from Iraq and Syria. This figure is the largest in Europe and even outnumbers the citizens from Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, who travelled to join the Group. The large presence of Russian speakers is further reflected in the fact that it the second most common language among ISIS fighters and several of its top commanders belong to the former USSR. Independent security experts have estimated that about 400 of those fighters have already returned to Russia after fighting in Syria.

The present and looming threat of returnees

This number is significant to consider given that terror cells run by or involved former fighters show a higher level of lethality according to researcher Charles Lister. This danger is not lost on Russia’s security services either as FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov cited returnees as “the real threat” to the National Anti-Terrorism Committee last year.

Russia’s involvement in Syria prompted ISIS to issue continual threats against the country. These words soon transformed into deeds when the group released a video showing the execution of an alleged Russian spy and the attack on a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula that killed all onboard. These attacks were not confined to external targets only, as the explosions that targeted St.Petersburg in two separate attacks last year alone were also conducted by the Group. Terrorist acts further afield have also been attributed to Russian speaking fighters from ISIS –  both the bombing of Ataturk Airport and the Reina nightclub shooting in Istanbul were committed by fighters originating from either Russia or Central Asia.

Beyond the danger presented by Russian returnees, there is another significant threat posed by fighters going home to Central Asian states. Just as European authorities contend with terrorists abusing the freedom of movement provided within the Schengen Zone, there are similar fears among Russian authorities because CIS nationals do not require a visa to travel within the Bloc. Complicating matters further is the presence of an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, where security remains precarious since the U.S invasion in 2001. In the country, ISIS has taken advantage of divisions within existing terror networks to recruit new members to its cause and craft alliances with pre-existing groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Central Asian countries are at particular risk of experiencing violence given their proximity to Afghanistan and internal conditions that encourage radicalization among their populations.

How Russia is responding

In light of the challenge that Russian speaking foreign fighters represent to Moscow and its allies, the Kremlin has adopted a number of approaches in response.

Abroad, the Russians have deployed combat troops to assist the Syrian Army in the fight against ISIS, most notably in the multiple battles for Palmyra. Recognizing that militant groups thrive in areas that lack adequate security, Russia has gone on to deploy Chechen military police to defend liberated populaces while sharing intelligence with Iraq and Iran, to increase the pressure on militants.

Beyond kinetic means, the Russians have also engaged in assertive displays of diplomacy to rally allies against ISIS. In Afghanistan, the Russians have inserted themselves into the Afghan peace talks by offering to host dialogues between all relevant parties to the conflict. This has come to the chagrin of Washington and Kabul however because of the American desire to blunt the Taliban’s recent advances and pressure them into negotiations with the Afghan national government, who remain dependent on U.S support to stay in power. Without the buy-in of these players, it casts doubt on Russia’s ability to reach a diplomatic breakthrough on the conflict. To further buttress regional security, Russia has hosted military drills with Central Asian nations and increased levels of aid provided to their forces.

At home, there have been a string of arrests across the country that have led to the disruption of a number of plots against Russian targets, including the 2018 FIFA World Cup. These arrests have taken place not just in the Northern Caucasus, but in a number of major cities including another planned attack in St. Petersburg that was thwarted with the help of intelligence from the CIA. Despite this heightened vigilance preventing any major attacks from occurring, the manner in which Russian authorities police suspect communities with harassment and intimidation can contribute to individuals drifting towards the Islamic State.

Beyond arrests, Russian authorities have also attempted to de-radicalize fighters and their families as they return home from Syria. For example, there have been attempts by aid groups to reunite the children of Russian ISIS fighters found in Iraq and Syria with their families in Russia. The hope is that by keeping the families together as a form of early de-radicalization these children will not experience the same level of alienation that perhaps contributed to their parents’ initial radicalization.


Russia has thus far been fortunate in that it has successfully thwarted a number of terrorist plots before they have become active. Large-scale attacks such as the bombing in St. Petersburg have not been repeated while major international events such as the 2018 World Cup concluded without interruption from terrorists.

However, this does not mean the threat has disappeared given Moscow’s ongoing involvement in Syria’s civil war, the presence of ISIS fighters on its periphery as well as the uncertain number of battle-hardened returnees that may make their way home, bringing violence in their wake. Russia continues to actively seek the disruption of terrorist activities and deny them the ability to threaten its territory or that of its allies in the former Soviet Union.

While Russia has put in place a number of policies aimed at reducing the likelihood of violence directed against it, they remain a major target for ISIS and its followers. Until greater stability is restored in Syria and Iraq, and the caliphate is more thoroughly defeated, Russia, as well as the states of Central Asia, will be living under the specter of terrorism threats for years to come.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Nick Mucerino

Nick is a Masters student in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London (UCL) where he focuses on Russian foreign and security policies with a particular focus on its cyberwarfare elements. In addition to his focus on Russia, he also researches Turkish politics, terrorism and intelligence agencies. Beyond international politics, he has written on technology topics for an independent online media site.