It’s no secret that young men and women from the North Caucasus are fighting in Iraq and Syria for Islamic State. From Europe, where they lived as refugees, and Egypt and Syria, where they studied in religious institutes, men and women originally from Russia’s North Caucasus have been travelling to join Islamic State (IS) over the past 18 months.
But there are also young men and women who have travelled to Iraq and Syria from Chechnya itself. And now these fighters are appearing on YouTube, declaring they will return to their homeland and ‘put things right’. Chechnya’s security services, however, are trying to limit the influence of IS ideology on the republic’s youth, which continues to emigrate under various guises.
From the ‘Emirate’ to ‘Daulya’
‘Iblis state’, this is what Chechnya’s top brass calls the terrorist organisation known as Islamic State. Indeed, the word iblis (‘devil’ in Arabic) appears often on Ramzan Kadyrov’s Instagram account and official government websites, and you can hear it from Chechen public officials at various events inside and outside the republic.
Though people understand all too well what terrorism is and what to expect from it, for your average citizen of Chechnya, IS is something deeply foreign.
After all, in Chechnya – and the North Caucasus more broadly – there are still people connected in one way or another with ‘terrorists’. Some work under the flag of the Caucasus Emirate, others – IS, which people call daulya (‘state’ in Arabic) here.
It’s no secret that young men and women from the North Caucasus are fighting in Iraq and Syria for Islamic State.
Few people in the region understand the differences and competition between these organisations.
But the majority believe that the Caucasus Emirate and daulya are just two sides of a single evil, and one that has to be fought. Chechnya’s leadership has a few tricks up its sleeve.
‘This isn’t what they were brought up for’
Just recently, Ramzan Kadyrov gathered several of Chechnya’s wannabe terrorists—young men who had been actively calling for the overthrow of the state on social media. In a video released earlier this month, we see five young men, heads bowed, listening to Kadyrov as members of their family, dead with shame, sit opposite them.
In turn, the head of the young men’s home district of Vedensky speaks out, then the local police chief, and then the qadi—they don’t spare them harsh words. Kadyrov’s adviser on religious affairs (who studied in Syria), explains at length the falsehood, the superficial nature of the ideology under which the young men have fallen.
Eventually, it’s the parents’ turn. A bearded old man with grey hair and a cane, the father of one of the young men, begins a heated diatribe against his offspring but stops before he can finish—he bursts into tears in front of everyone present. The mothers of the detainees are even more emotional. Fighting back tears, these mothers claim they didn’t bring their children up correctly, and ask the Chechen people, and Kadyrov, for forgiveness.
Muslims during Eid prayer in a mosque named after Akhmad Kadyrov. Photo (c) Said Tsarnaev via RIA
Nowadays, this kind of event isn’t rare in Chechnya, and these gatherings are given serious airtime in the republic’s media.
In Chechen society, after all, each individual has obligations to their family. Tradition has it that when an individual commits an act forbidden by society, it leaves a mark on the whole family. Public shaming is therefore one of the most effective preventative measures used by the Chechen authorities to dispel youthful interest in IS. Indeed, Kadyrov himself leads this campaign of reproach, which local television broadcasts to the whole republic.
Struggle for the Internet
Most of the ‘prophylactic work’ – finding and arresting potential IS fighters – happens online. It is here that recruiters operate, whether real people involved in routing recruits to Iraq and Syria or trolls [different word] who fashion themselves as official representatives of IS.
Chechnya’s leadership understands that IS propaganda relies on a specific – and twisted – interpretation of Islam.
But then there are those who promise help in ‘sending you off to jihad’. The preparation of a route can take weeks and months at a time, and those who wish to join IS will have to hand over various details to their traffickers.
As a result, though, these young men can end up in Chernokozovo—their interlocutors turning out to be members of the Chechen security services.
Chechnya’s security services have been using these tactics long before the emergence of IS, and many young men who wanted to ‘join the forest’ winded up behind bars.
Together, we’ll win
Preventative work against extremism is conducted across Chechnya, with involvement on all levels—from bureaucrats and parliamentary deputies to village heads and spiritual leaders. Everyone everywhere is talking about why IS ideology is wrong. As soon as you reduce the pace of work, you lose your job.
But you can lose your job for other reasons, as the scandal involving the daughter of Asu Dudurkayev, the head of Chechnya’s migration service, showed in May 2013. Seda Dudurkayeva left for Syria, where she married an IS fighter she had met online. Though her parents tried to retrieve Seda on several occasions, in the end they were unsuccessful.
As a result, Asu Dudurkayev lost his post, which he had held for more than a decade. Kadryov also spoke out on the matter: ‘Dudurkayev, the head of one of the most important services, doesn’t have the moral right to speak with his employees about morality and ethics, patriotism and religion. His own daughter has joined the ranks of the Wahhabists and bandits, who spill the blood of innocent citizens.’
Such stories are not so widespread in the republic, but are far from rare. The work of Chechnya’s migration service has become far more severe as a result: acquiring a foreign passport isn’t so easy any more, especially if you’re planning to work or warm your bones in Turkey.
Chechnya’s leadership understands that IS propaganda relies on a specific – and twisted – interpretation of Islam. Special training courses have thus been started for clergy and other workers in the religious sphere. These courses, which aim to fight IS propaganda, are free to attend, but are obligatory for all religious teachers.
More than 300 representatives of the clergy are involved in these courses, which, aside from studying the Quran, teach its students how to pull young people recruited by extremists away from ‘false ideas’.
The state has now also published pamphlets for imams on how to fight Wahhabism. And now there are exams planned for spiritual workers in three years’ time, the results of which decide whether an imam stays at his mosque or is replaced by a more qualified representative.
It’s your telephone that counts
The security services can now demand passers-by to hand over their telephones—an effective, if not popular, method of combatting the followers of IS.
Chechnya’s leadership declared war on IS right from the very start.
At Grozny’s central market, from time to time you can now observe how police officers check youths’ telephones: if they find banned or at least suspicious information, then the person involved can expect an unpleasant conversation with his parents, spiritual leaders and police officers.
This kind of invasive practice is hardly surprising: Chechnya’s leadership declared war on IS right from the very start. Kadyrov has stated on several occasions that the Chechen people have paid a high price for peace and prosperity, and no one should be allowed to jeopardise it. Anyone who joins IS should forget about ever coming home.
Kadyrov’s statements, as well as the measures taken by religious representatives and security services, are paying off: things are quiet in Chechnya. In comparison with neighbouring Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, where IS (according to local security officers) and other extreme groups seem to be making inroads, Chechnya is peaceful.
Meanwhile, the security services, together with imams, seek to combat any manifestation of extremism in the republic—with certain, positive results.
But people in Chechnya understand that this may just be the ‘calm before the storm’. The republic cannot do this alone. It’s the situation in Syria and Iraq that has to be solved, and the situation in the North Caucasus depends on decisive moves there.