There are thousands more citizens of the Russian Federation fighting on the side of the Islamists in the Middle East than Moscow admits, Akhmet Yarlykapov says, the result in large measure of an ISIS recruiting effort that the Russian authorities have not yet found a way to counter.
Russian officials say 2,500 North Caucasians are fighting in Islamist groups in the Middle East, but experts in the region say that the real number is vastly higher: 3,000 from Chechnya, and as many as 5,000 from Daghestan, the MGIMO expert says.
And those figures, he says, do not include those who have gone to Syria and Iraq from other republics in the North Caucasus or from numerous regions across the entire Russian Federation. Consequently, official statistics dramatically understate the level of Russian participation in ISIS and the threat to Russia at home.
But perhaps Moscow’s most serious error in this, Yarlykapov says, is that the authorities have underestimated the strength of Islamist recruiters working both via the Internet and face to face with young people across the country, people who are quite capable of exploiting social and political dissatisfaction to win the young to their side.
It is impossible to determine whether social conditions or the work of the recruiters is the primary factor, he continues; but he notes that “the problem of the mass departure of North Caucasian young people to the Middle East appeared much earlier than ISIS, already from 2011 when the well-known events in Syria began.”
Young people in the North Caucasus are animated by the desire to achieve social justice, the Moscow expert says. And recruiters for Islamist groups are taking full advantage of that. “As a result, we have an unprecedented flow of young people to that region, not only from the North Caucasus but in general from Russia.”
The Internet plays a key role and is available to almost everyone, but there are Islamist and ISIS recruiters “everywhere in Moscow, in St. Petersburg, in the North and in the republics of the North Caucasus,” Yarlykapov says. One reason for that is that the authorities do not fully understand the recruitment process.
Scholars like himself have had a difficult time studying this issue, he says, because they have access in most cases only to those fighting the recruiters and not to the recruiters themselves. As a result, there are many gaps and even errors in even the best analytical works that have been prepared.
The Russian authorities have had “undoubted success” in suppressing Islamist groups, but they have had less success in coping with the recruiters, in many cases because the government has underrated the nature and extent of the problem they present.
Given that Islamist terrorist groups and even an Islamic State are likely to be around for some time, Yarlykapov says, it is critically important that these recruitment networks be identified and means found to disrupt or otherwise oppose them. Force alone, as the Israelis have learned, isn’t enough.
Now, ISIS is a much more serious threat than Al-Qaeda, but it is important to counter it in ways that do not increase the risk that it in turn will be succeeded by something even worse, the MGIMO expert says. And in this, it is necessary to recognize that borders in the Middle East are likely to be redrawn along religious sectarian lines.
“’The Caliphate’ in the ISIS version already has been formed;” indeed, it has existed “at a minimum for two years, expanding in some places and contracting in others. That means we shouldn’t be discussing “the possibility of a caliphate’ but rather focusing on its existing version in reality.”
The task is urgent especially in the North Caucasus and Russia. Force alone won’t work, but “practically nothing” is being done as far as counter-propaganda is concerned: “There is no literate systematic work with recruiters and so on. As with any complex problem, this one will require a complex approach.
Many in Russia are talking about relying on “traditional Islam.” But they forget that this is “a mosaic” of various trends rather than a single thing; and they do not want to recognize that the representatives of what they call “traditional Islam have very little authority among young people.”
Unless all these things change, Yarlykapov concludes, the flow of young people from Russia to the banners of ISIS and its allies will continue.