Terrorist threat to Crimea: Russian ties to the Islamic State

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Moscow, March 11, 2016. (Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/Files/Reuters) 

Analysis & Opinion, Military analysis, Politics

Last week Caucasus.Reality published a report about Moscow evacuating ISIL commanders from Syria with the help of the leadership of Chechnya. According to Kurdish sources, the Russian army did not perform a military operation to save children. Instead, they negotiated the release of ISIL fighters who were captured by the union of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” after the capture of the city of Raqqa.

Rabbi Abraham Shmulevich, president of the Institute of Eastern Partnership (Israel) evaluates the accuracy of this report and traces the links between Moscow and ISIL. He is certain that Russia makes use of ISIL. “It’s beyond doubt.”

People were given a choice: prison and death, or go to Syria.

“I don’t have any evidence to suggest Moscow importing terrorists from Syria, but certainly Moscow was exporting them there. Over the course of many years, Russian security forces literally moved out not only militants from the North Caucasus and other Russian regions to the Middle East, they exported the peaceful opposition –people who didn’t even plan to engage in any armed struggle. They were given a stark choice: prison and death, or Syria,” Shmulevich said.

The most famous of these were former commander of Tajikistan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs security forces, Gulmurod Khalimov, who became an ISIL fighter in May 2015, and Islamic preacher Nadir Abu Khalil (Nadir Medetov), who also joined the “Islamic State” in 2015.

“Khalimov had excellent military training, having studied in Russia, the United States, and Israel. It is curious how he managed to get to ISIL through Moscow, along with his entire detachment of eight people. It is difficult for me to imagine that a person who adheres to extremist views could calmly, without the knowledge of Russian special services, fly from Moscow to Turkey, together with his whole detachment. There are many ways to get to Turkey secretly, for example, through Bulgaria or Cyprus. However, he, and other radical Islamists left quite openly. In theory, these people would have been registered with Russian special services as terrorism suspects, and their comings and goings would have been monitored closely. However, they traveled freely, knowing that no one in Russia would stop them. Russia was simply directing the flow of people to Syria. Many militants from the post-Soviet space ended up there with the help of Russian special services,” explains Abraham Shmulevich.

Many militants wound up in Syria with the help of Russian special services

Shmulevich has similar questions about the how Nadir Medetov, who had been under house arrest, managed to “escape” to Syria.

“Recalling the zeal with which Moscow searches for imaginary terrorists in Crimea, the contrast here is striking. On the peninsula, Crimean Tatars are searched and detained almost daily, they are given substantial prison terms and, at best, forced out to Ukraine – but not to Syria. Meanwhile, actual militants and terrorists are allowed to move freely through the capital’s airports. And that’s taking into account that the human rights situation in the Caucasus is even worse than in Crimea,” he said.

Sometimes the Russian authorities don’t even try to hide their policy of exporting oppositionists, militants and radical extremists to ISIL, explaining they use this tactic to remove terrorists from the territory of Russia and thereby ensure peace and tranquility in the North Caucasus. However, Shmulevich is sure that this justification does not withstand scrutiny, since many fighters who go to fight for ISIL have precisely the opposite goal.

A few years ago, Abraham Shmulevich interviewed a member of the Islamic State underground. The militant admitted that he intended to learn the art of war in Syria, then return to the Caucasus and continue fighting the Russian authorities there. Such cases, he added, are by no means rare.

“It can’t be that Russians don’t understand this because the terrorist Shamil Basayev began to fight against Russia only after he had acquired his combat experience during the war in Abkhazia,” the analyst recalled.

Nevertheless, Abraham Shmulevich believes that ISIL field commanders are unlikely to go against Moscow, especially considering that some of them were trained in the Soviet Union.

Russia supplies highly valuable personnel to ISIL

“ISIL relies on the flow of people, especially since Russia supplies them with very valuable personnel. In fact, we have a mutually beneficial alliance between Russian special services and Islamic terrorists. Against this backdrop must be placed the recent terrorist attack in New York, committed by an expatriate from Uzbekistan, and the Tsarnaev brothers, and other terrorist attacks in France. All these facts fit perfectly with the information communicated by the Kurds. The destabilization of Europe and the increasing flow of refugees to the West are certainly beneficial to Moscow. In addition, it is incorrect to say that ISIL is being destroyed. Yes, terrorists leave big cities, but they retain their influence on many people. This Islamic State is built like the medieval Catholic orders or the modern Vatican – they control some physical territory, but it’s the network structure, the ideological influence on its members that is at the core,” explains Shmulevich.

At the same time, the Israeli expert notes that while there is insufficient information on the precise nature of the relationship between Russia and ISIL, whether their partnership is limited to an alliance, or whether the militants can be truly considered a creation of Moscow.

“We do not know whether there is a deeper relationship, for example, a financial relationship. However, if Putin’s government acts by the same methods as the Soviet Union, then likely the support goes quite deep,” suggests Abraham Shmulevich.

Russia may use ISIL to carry out terrorist attacks in Crimea and blame Crimean Tatars

The analyst notes that Moscow can use the “terrorist threat” to justify the repression in Crimea and in the North Caucasus:

The same way Moscow deems Crimean Tatars as terrorists, likewise Moscow declares peaceful political opposition or even economic rivals in the Caucasus as “terrorists.” Moreover, one can not exclude the possibility that Russia will use ISIL terrorists to carry out terrorist acts in Crimea and blame the Crimean Tatars, for example, as a way to legitimize their repression. Such a terrorist attack could be organized in Russia territory of Russia in order to incite hatred toward the Crimean Tatar people. A trial balloon of this sort has already been released when Ukrainians were accused of having links to ISIL.

Shmulevich says, “Most likely, such a scenario hasn’t been implemented, so as not to damage the image of Putin as winning against terrorism. However, it’s still possible that the ‘terrorist card’ will be played before the presidential elections.”

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