Blake Holley, March 6, 2017
This is third article in this series discussing the phenomenon of terrorism in Russia today. Despite several strong factors that, according to theory, should result in an outbreak of terrorist activity throughout Russia, such an outbreak has not occurred. Attacks have been sporadic and often non-lethal, and, according to Russian media, security services have been highly successful in preventing militants from engaging in any act other than planning.
The Russian government has taken many steps to prevent a rise in radicalism. The modern Russian information space has strict content controls, which limits access to radical information. The government maintains a monopoly on decision-making power regarding Islam and how it is taught and promoted in the country, which has resulted in few charismatic leaders in Russia. In addition, external pressure is not great in Russia as Kazakhstan and the South Caucasus act as buffers to radicalism spreading north from Central Asia and the current economic situation hindering Russian participation in the Hajj pilgrimage.
The Russian online information space is both tightly controlled yet immensely vast. Information regarding “non-traditional” religious affiliation or ideology can lead to swift arrests if discovered on Russian social media and websites can be removed from RuNet (Russian internet) access with the tick of a box on a computer in Moscow. However, internet-savvy individuals can still find what they are looking for, more often than not, though access to such information may be allowed only as part of an FSB surveillance net. As Internet anonymizers are now illegal, many potential radicals are scared to access too much information in fear that they will become marked by security services and eventually arrests.
To further decrease radical influences, Russia maintains what it calls “traditional religion”, an official version of religious teachings with approved scholars and clerics who may deviate at the cost of prison or expulsion. This practice has, over the past ten years, removed the possibility for imams to preach and spread radical ideas, resulting in a lack of powerful, charismatic religious leaders.
Several such leaders were present in the two Chechen wars, and other such leaders have appeared in Kazan or other large Muslim cities outside of the North Caucasus. These leaders were either jailed or, in case they were becoming too powerful, promoted, which forced them to move to Moscow and work within the government apparatus under direct supervision.
Even in Syria today, with estimates of some 4,000 Russian jihadists operating as part of the Islamic State, there are no strong, charismatic Russian leaders who are attempting to spread their message and recruit new members to their movements.
This lack of leadership has developed into an environment where young men sporadically attempt to stage attacks. However, the lack of leadership results in a lack of experience and organization – the attempts are sloppy, poorly designed, and without effective operational security.
Russia, despite a geographical position which places it in relatively close proximity to the Middle East and Afghanistan, is relatively secure in its position due to “buffer states”, countries which serve as a buffer zone to protect against any variety of threats. The strongmen leaders of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have, thus far at least, been highly effective at preventing the spread of Islamic radicalism in their countries.
For countries to be used as transit points for jihadists, it is generally believed that radicals must first gain a foothold and then use that foothold to facilitate supply and recruitment operations. However, without the foothold, detection by security services is simple and the need for operational security too high for effectiveness. Thus, Russia’s buffer zones act as a major logistical barrier to jihadists who wish to enter Russia or move supplies to the country.
Finally, Russian Muslims are less exposed to the ideas of many other types of Islam as they have recently been unable to attend the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca due to cost and people from Muslim majority countries are generally scrutinized more heavily before receiving a Russian visa. The current economic situation in Russia has severely hampered Russians’ abilities to travel across the board, not just to the Hajj, and the Russian government is believed to actively suppress Hajj participation by throwing out applications and engaging in other acts of bureaucratic sabotage, resulting in the country not meeting its Hajj quota for the past several years.
Moscow can never fully stop ideological composure, but that fact has not stopped the Kremlin from trying.
There are two important caveats to this article. The first is that, while Islamist terrorism was the focus here, as it is the most visible and “popular” form of terror activity today, the majority of factors in both this article and the previous may apply to virtually any form of political grievance. In fact, many far-east scholars have claimed that “terrorism” may take the form of indigenous militia of Russia’s far-east regions fighting for independence against the government. This author believes that such claims are highly unlikely, though, if the most impoverished areas continue their economic decline, the Russian security landscape is likely to change dramatically in the next 5-10 years.
Furthermore, this series of articles has purposefully neglected the North Caucasus and perhaps the most important terror challenge facing Russia today – the return of North Caucasus militants from Syria. In 2013-2014, the Kremlin actively encouraged militants to travel to Syria, so as to physically remove them from Russian territory and provide a safe environment for the nearby Olympics. Unfortunately, this policy had one major flaw – what happens when the war in Syria dies down and the militants want to return home? My next article will seek to answer this question and many more.
Blake Holley holds a Masters in Governance and Global Affairs from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and currently works as an intelligence analyst and specialist on Eurasian security issues based in Atlanta, Georgia. His primary focus is on North Caucasus terrorism and strategic forecasting.