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In recent months, discussions of Russia in Washington and European capitals have focused on the Kremlin’s ongoing neoimperialist aggression against Ukraine. But Wednesday's coordinated terrorist assault on the Chechen capital of Grozny—which left at least 20 dead and scores more injured—should refocus global attention on a problem that Russia itself increasingly is confronting: a resilient wave of radical Islam.
Indeed, the Caucasus Emirate—the notorious al Qaeda–linked terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for the brazen December offensive in Grozny—has carried out a spate of attacks over the past year, including the high-profile bombing of a train station in Volgograd on the eve of the Sochi Olympics. Russian President Vladimir Putin might claim that his country has turned a corner in its fight against terrorism, but these attacks—and the overall security situation in the North Caucasus—paint a very different picture.
And now, Russia's problem with radical Islam is poised to get much, much worse, for at least three reasons.
The first is Syria. Over the past three and a half years, the conflict between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and assorted opposition forces has steadily transformed from a civil war into an international jihad. Syria has progressively taken on Afghanistan’s old role as Islamist fighters and would-be holy warriors from North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have flooded to the front there.
Russia is not immune from this trend. Russian counterterrorism experts estimate that there are close to 1,000 active militants fighting in the North Caucasus right now, and that, to date, some 400 or so fighters have left the Russian Federation to go fight in Syria. The latter number, they say, is made up almost entirely of new recruits—people who had not previously taken up arms. Officials in Moscow worry that, when the fires of Syria’s fast-moving holy war die down, these foreign fighters will return home and swell the ranks of the Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus by as much as a third. (Indeed, this fear goes a long way toward explaining why Russia continues to back Assad’s brutal regime. Quite simply, Moscow would much prefer Damascus do its dirty work than be forced to deal with mounting Islamic militancy at home.)
Second, Russia could soon become a significant theater for radical Islam’s newest poster child, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Since its meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria earlier this year, the group has become a truly global threat and a beacon for disaffected radicals the world over. ISIS has received a notable level of support from militants in the North Caucasus and could soon receive much more, given the terrorist organization’s decision to start focusing on the “post-Soviet space.” This fall, Abu Omar al-Shishani, a top Islamic State commander, warned that the group would soon make its mark on Russia and the Caucasus. It might have already done so; at least some Russian analysts believe that the Grozny attack was tied to ISIS in some fashion.
The third trend, which underpins the other two, has to do with Russian demographics. Although Russia as a whole is beset by long-term population decline, its Muslim community is faring a good deal better. Comparatively robust birth rates have put Russia’s Muslims on track to account for 20 percent of the country’s population by the end of this decade—and much more by the middle of the century. But the ultranationalist identity embraced by Putin’s government in recent years includes little room for this swelling cohort, leaving Russia’s Muslims atomized and susceptible to the lure of radical ideologies.
Moscow’s response has been predictable. When it has paid attention to the problem at all, the Kremlin has tended to prefer force to finesse, repression to inclusion. The two bloody and grinding insurgencies fought by Russia’s armed forces in the North Caucasus since the early 1990s are a testament to Moscow’s preferred brand of counterterrorism.
The situation remains much the same today. In recent weeks, for example, local authorities in Russia’s Tatarstan region have responded to signs of renewed Islamic activism by banning certain translations of the works of the revered scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari. This move, taken without much thought to appearances, has led to charges that the Kremlin is on track to prohibit Islamic literature altogether, and done much to irritate the ummah and galvanize further opposition to the authorities, observers say. That, in turn, may lay the predicate for further governmental repression, and still greater domestic instability.
Western policymakers, currently focused on Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its designs on other parts of the post-Soviet space, have tended to overlook the terrorist threat confronting Russia. Yet it represents a critically important part of the puzzle, insofar as Moscow’s behavior abroad—including its efforts to reacquire Slavic lands—is at least in part a reaction to a rising religious challenge to which the Kremlin currently has no ready answer.