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
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