Young Russians flow en masse to fight for Islamists in Syria and Iraq, Moscow expert says

ISIS (Image: AFP)


Analysis & Opinion, Russia

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.

Akhmet Yarlykapov, senior researcher at the Center of the Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). Image:

Akhmet Yarlykapov, senior researcher at the Center of the Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). Image:

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.

Edited by: A. N.

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  • Dirk Smith

    KARMA arriving soon to Moscow. Grab your popcorn.

    • Vlad Pufagtinenko

      Another good news story.

  • Being

    So Why did Kremlin order to bomb Syria civilians (95% of dead are civilians) and hospitals than?
    Is it really so difficult to find IS in Syria? But when France, Belgia, Germany etc. can not find IS in EU, than it is probably easier to bomb evrything alive.

    And when will start the Negotiations???

  • Forgotten Ghost

    I’ve already said that I see IS as a joint project of several nations, and that Russia seems to be benefitting from the chaos as much as Israel has. Seeing evidence for far more Russians and their neighbors joining in that chaos directly only makes it that much more difficult for Putin to distance himself from allegations of terrorism.
    As for the lack of control that “traditional Islam” has on young people in Russia and the Caucasus region, that isn’t surprising. Militant patriotism does not mesh with moderate religions. As the warmongering in the US expanded, so too did fundamentalist Christianity, which while less “militant” outwardly, thrives on simplistic (often wrong) assertions and ideals, and those ideals are intentionally fueled by a lot of heavy emotion. For every issue that the propagandists in either camp of US politics put forth, there was a node somewhere among the fundamentalists to transform it into an emotional vehicle, and often a battle cry. The religious and political realms are fused together by design, according to the concepts of broad spectrum control over the citizenry. Russia has been building mega-mosques, just as America built mega-churches.
    The American middle class flocked to those churches, and diverged from almost any semblance of Christianity, and instead adopted the rhetoric and ideals repeated to them from impressive podiums and through millions of dollars worth of sound equipment. Whatever seemed good for corporate interests, political parties, defense contractors, Israel, or anyone with power and money was slipped into the sermons, in lieu of the traditional life lessons through the scriptures. Muslims were vilified, and churches glorified war, praising young members for enlisting. Any agenda among politicians could find church support, mostly “right wing”, but there were certainly leftist agendas being pushed in other churches. Subtle division ensued. Israel is worshipped in American churches, for nothing more than it’s geographic location, despite the majority of Judaics looking down on Christianity, many spitting on Christians in Israel, and even the fact that the Talmud states that Jesus is in hell, boiling in excrement. I have even heard Monsanto praised in a church, and the congregation was instructed to distrust anyone that spoke against them, or voiced a preference for organic food, as these people were supposed to be closet racists that wanted Africans to starve by denying them the surplus that GMO crops allegedly produced.
    Religion will always be used as a tool for evil when in nations ruled by tyrants, or it will be marginalized and attacked if it is unsuitable for weaponization by the state. By observing the false sermons, one can fairly gauge the intentions of the state, as they relate to the direction of the populace sought by them. Orthodox Russia is being groomed with Soviet nationalism, and Russian Islam is being touted as “moderate”, yet somehow they are leaking a considerable amount of followers into IS. The way it looks, Russia is cultivating nationalist Christians for the long war, and subversive militant Islam for the short term. It’ll take more time to know for sure at my level, but hopefully enough nations and citizens will be sick of it in time to stop what is occurring.

    • Quartermaster

      When it comes to fundamentalist Christianity you have no clue what you are talking about. Given that one fact, the rest of your post also becomes questionable.

      • Forgotten Ghost

        You again? I thought we already established that you simply must be contrary to things that I post, and I simply do not value your assertions.

        As for having “no clue”, perhaps you should very slowly, very carefully read what I wrote- I was referring to what I *have witnessed directly* in regards to the changes of sermons in churches. I have seen pastors in small communities do a fairly admirable job of remaining true to the original message of the church, while larger churches, and those that cater to smaller groups in the rural South have integrated propaganda into their sermons. If you haven’t seen what I am referring to, perhaps it is because we are not the same person. If the term “fundamentalist Christianity” means something different to you, consider that any European reading my post will understand that a “fundamentalist” points towards the Joel Osteen/John Hagee crowd. Though this may seem to be an overly simplified lumping to you, it is not meant for you.

        I have already explained to you that I don’t care if you’re an Obummer-hater, and now I will tell you that I don’t care if you really are an American fool or a troll, or if my statements (which are true and experienced by myself) against commercialized Christianity offend you. Be a stereotype if you wish, but for crying out loud, don’t bother me with your self-inflicted problems.

        • Quartermaster

          I am a “fundamentalist” Christian and have run in thoise circles my entire adult life. When I say you are clueless on the matter it is simply statement of fact that you have no idea what you are talking about. I don’t say this just to oppose you, but because I am intimately familiar with facts you have demonstrated you are ignorant about.

          There is a very small number of people that you have so labeled that see things as you have stated. A very small number. The rest of us are observers, and many of us even opposed the US entry to Iraq in 2004. There were also very many conservatives that opposed it as well.

          “Fundamentalist Christians” have no use for commercialized Christianity. The commercialized Christianity you have seen is not fundamentalist Christianity. period.

          The “self-inflicted” problems you refer to simply do not exist beyond your own ignorant mind. You also need to stop the stupidity of my being “an Obummer hater.”

          I am a native born US citizen and have served in its military. I don’t care if you think I’m a troll or not. Your lack of familiarity with Fundamental Christianity, yet speaking about it, places everything else you post in question. This is not limited to just you. If I spoke about something I demonstratively know little about, I would be in the same boat as you are. I therefore restrict myself to what I know. You would well advised to do the same, or qualify what you say just a bit more than what you do as you are trying to come across as an authority when in actuality you are simply ignorant.

          • Forgotten Ghost

            Your reading comprehension is so bad, I’m not even going to bother re-quoting myself in order to explain.

            If you are a real American, then you are precisely what is wrong with this country today. Look up…. read again- I address the definition of “fundamentalist” as it is seen in Europe, not to YOU.
            I have no desire to constantly answer you every time you fail to comprehend what I have written. I do not wish to continue expending energy on you, so take what you think and feel, and use it in a direction that does not coincide with me.

          • Quartermaster

            I couldn’t care less if you answer me. You post nonsense and I see I will answer you. You posted nonsense.

    • Vlad Pufagtinenko