Terrorism, Or Lack Thereof, in Russia Today

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Blake Holley

October 30, 2016


This article is the first of three examing the current state of the phenomenon of terrorism in Russia.  This article will examine the recent history of terrorism in Russia and describe the current environment.  The second article will examine factors that should, theoretically, lead to a proliferation of terrorism in the country and the third article will examine factors that likely prevent the spread of terrorism.


For the purposes of this article, discussions of terrorism in Russia will focus on Russia outside of the North Caucasus region.  This is because the North Caucasus can be described as a low-level insurgency occurring in a kinetic conflict zone, not an epicenter for terrorism instilling fear in the population at large.  The insurgency employs terrorism as a tactic, although the primary focus of such attacks is against police and security forces, not the civilian population.  Indeed, much of the Russian population does not believe that the North Caucasus poses such a threat to Russia any longer, although ISIS does maintain a presence there.


Rather, this article will focus on what I call “ISIS-style terrorism”, which can be defined, simplistically, as low-level attacks against civilian targets using knives and vehicles as weapons, as well as more “traditional” attacks using firearms, bombings, and suicide operatives, which, again, target civilians and civilian infrastructure.  These attacks, according to ISIS’ own magazine Dabiq, are designed to instill fear directly into the population and inspire other militants to engage in similar attacks.  Therefore, for the purposes of these articles, terrorism will be defined as “political violence staged for the purpose of destabilizing society and instilling fear in the population.”


ISIS-style terrorism has thus far not yet occurred in Russia.  Theoretically, the ground is ripe for the seeds of terrorism, and the cracks are indeed beginning to show.  Since the November 2015 bombing of a Russian passenger plane leaving Sharm-el-Sheikh, which remains the most prominent terror attack facing Russians since the March 2010 Moscow Metro bombings or the late 2013 bus and train station bombings in Volgograd, the following incidents have been the most significant terror-related incidents in Russia:


  • 8 February 2016 – Security units arrested seven suspected ISIS militants in Yekaterinburg.  Although news reports indicate that the group was planning an attack in Moscow, the group may have been a recruitment cell.
  • 8 April 2016 – Members of an ISIS-related recruitment cell were arrested in Volgograd.
  • 12 April 2016 – St Petersburg police arrested a suspected ISIS militant.
  • 16 April 2016 – Moscow police arrested a suspected ISIS militant
  • 17 August 2016 – Four suspected militants were killed in an apartment raid in St Petersburg.
  • 17 August 2016 – Two youths, who allegedly claimed to be members of ISIS attacked a police post with hatchets along a road in Balashikha, located about 13 miles northeast of Moscow.  ISIS officially claimed responsibility for the incident.
  • 20 October 2016 – It was reported that an ISIS militant was arrested in Kazan during preparations for a bombing attack against a factory.
  • 20 October 2016 – Police units arrested seven members of the extremist group “Tabligi Jamaat” in Tatarstan.  Although experts debate the militant nature of Tabligi Jamaat, the Sunni proselytizing group is known for radicalizing members who have gone on to perpetrate attacks.
  • 23 October 2016 – Security forces killed two and captured one believed to be associated with ISIS carrying explosive devices in Nizhny Novgorod.  ISIS officially claimed responsibility for the incident.


It is clear from the list above that Russian security services are diligent and capable of finding suspected terrorists before they are able to strike.  However, the incidents listed above indicate a somewhat “traditional” mindset for the militants in Russia, focusing on using explosives and attacking security units, not the creativity shown by militants in Europe, who use vehicles and knives in small scale attacks against civilians.


For example, what is to stop a militant from entering a busy shopping mall in Yekaterinburg and staging a stabbing spree?  Security is generally minimal in such locations, consisting of one or two guards with a metal detector wand.  Indeed, a single, unarmed security guard is unlikely to stop a determined terror attack and a determined militant would likely be able to dispatch several victims before police could arrive.


Given the amount of time that ISIS has had to set up operations in Russia, as well as political, economic, and social factors that are believed to lead to radicalization, the aforementioned list of incidents is paltry, at least compared to similar incidents in Western Europe.  This is especially striking as ISIS has sought to encourage potential militants to conduct small-scale attacks with knives and vehicles, rather than grand attacks with high-explosives and assault weapons, two types of objects that are difficult to acquire in Russia.  However, the above list does indicate cracks forming around the edges of Russia, which may soon lead to catastrophic attack.


But why should Russia be a target?  Russia’s bombings against Sunni civilians and civilians infrastructure in Syria, as well as support for Syria’s Shia government, widespread discrimination and oppression against Central Asian migrants, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, and dwindling economic prospects in Russia are among the most prominent factors.  Russia experts have been screaming loudly and frequently since Russia began its involvement in Syria that the conditions for terrorism are increasingly present and apparent.


However, ISIS has, for whatever reason, not shown a dedicated interest to attacking Russia.  ISIS’ Russian-language magazines are exceedingly mild in its treatments of Russia, focusing its attention much more against the United States, Europe, Bangladesh, Africa, and Persian Gulf states.  Plus, despite having, by many estimates, up to 5,000 Russian militants in ISIS’ ranks, there is no charismatic leader talking to Muslims living in Russia and attempting to direct them.


Despite several political, economic, and social processes that would theoretically encourage the spread of radicalism and lead to terror attacks, the proliferation of terrorism has been slow and ISIS appears to have made little progress in establishing itself inside of Russia.  The next two articles in this series will examine the above points and more in greater detail.


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.

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