Between dialogue and violence: the North Caucasus's bloody legacy

After Paris, we need to act against radicalisation. Russia's legacy in the North Caucasus tells us how not to. Русский


Varvara Pakhomenko
14 December 2015

The Paris attacks and the bombing of the Metrojet plane over Egypt have shown that the terrorist threat from jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, and ISIS in particular, demand an effective response. But that response should not lay the foundation for new cycles of violence.

The North Caucasus has been riven by armed conflict of varying intensity for more than 20 years. The Russian government, having recently called for the creation of a broad anti-terrorist coalition, considers its experience here to be a positive one. As a foreign ministry official recently commented in Kommersant: ‘Russia’s practical experience of combating international terrorism in the North Caucasus is the only successful example of its kind. There is yet to be such a successful example of deradicalisation of part of a population.’

That approach, however, is a worrying prospect. Moscow’s almost total reliance on military force to suppress underground insurgency and its rejection of dialogue with moderate voices may have reduced violence in the North Caucasus short term, but it cannot guarantee a lasting peace.

A legacy of violence

Starting as a fight by the Chechens for national independence, the conflict in the North Caucasus turned into a supra-regional jihadist movement. It has now become part of the international ‘Islamic State’ project.

Before fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the North Caucasus conflict was one of Europe’s most violent. In the previous five years alone, almost 6,000 people have been killed or wounded—more than a quarter of them civilians.

The breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, declared by Dzhokhar Dudayev in 1991, welcomed foreign jihadists and established ‘full Sharia law’ in 1999. Russian army forces invaded in 1994 but withdrew after two years of intense fighting, and Chechnya preserved its de facto independence until the second war broke out in 1999, when Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time, made it a priority to bring it to heel.


Grozny, Chechnya. CC Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Russia’s military invasion of Chechnya was preceded by wide scale bombardments and rocket attacks that almost completely destroyed the capital Grozny and caused a large number of civilian deaths. The insurgents left the city for remote mountain regions, with some crossing the border into Georgia.

The invasion was followed by sweeping ‘mopping up’ operations and raids by special forces (siloviki) throughout the republic. Human rights organisations estimate that 15,000-20,000 civilians died during this second campaign, which only served to alienate even those who deplored the policies of Chechnya’s rulers between the two wars.

Subsequently, Putin decided to put his trust in a number of local groups that opposed the previous government and favoured political inclusion within the Russian Federation. Putin’s choice as leader fell on Akhmad Kadyrov, father of the present Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The process of establishing the personal hegemony of the Kadyrov family involved the abduction of insurgents’ relatives, torture, assassination squads, violent disappearances and summary executions—some of them large scale.

Human rights organisations estimate that 15,000-20,000 civilians died during the second Chechen campaign

The remaining groups were declared terrorists, beyond dialogue, and, to a certain extent, this transformed the conflict into one internal to Chechnya. There was little chance for the underground fighters to return to civilian life: they were either killed or forced to change sides and join the defence and law enforcement agencies, where they still work, their lives preserved in return for loyalty to the Kadyrov administration.

By the mid-2000s, insurgent activity had declined. Many fighters had been killed, with others fleeing abroad. Without the resources to carry out quasi-military operations, they organised horrific acts of terror with suicide bombers, which required fewer human resources—hostage-taking at the Nord-Ost theatre in 2002, the Beslan school tragedy in 2004, explosions in the Moscow Metro in 2010.

Each of these attacks was followed by extreme reprisals: waves of arrests and disappearances around the country, special forces operations and criminal trials, including widespread framing of innocent people.


In an attempt to combat growing Islamist radicalisation in the North Caucasus, the Russian authorities encouraged so-called ‘traditional Islam’—Sufism in the eastern part of the region—and its representatives in the Muslim spiritual bodies, which are basically quasi-governmental structures. The authorities also began to harass not only former insurgents, but moderate members of fundamentalist Islamic movements, referred to as ‘Wahhabists’ in Russia (the term ‘Salafi’ is now more common).

Supporters of Salafi Islam preach the need for Muslims to follow the precepts of Islam as laid down by the Prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs who succeeded him. Their criticism is directed at, among other things, the conformism of the official Russian Islamic hierarchy, the practise of venerating relics and sheiks, as well as the low level of religious literacy among old imams.


July 2013: Portraits of Imams in the School Museum at Gimry, Dagestan. CC International Crisis Group / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In 1999, Dagestan passed a law forbidding ‘Wahhabism’. The Kremlin-appointed Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov was a former mufti, or Islamic scholar, who was also intensely critical of the Wahhabists. Akhmad’s son Ramzan now publicly states that he will kill people for even a ‘whiff of Wahhabism’, as ‘the Prophet Muhammad called on us to do’.

This has left its mark. In the North Caucasus, people are often called ‘fundamentalists’ on the basis of their appearance: beard or trouser length and headgear for men, hijab for women, and where they place their hands when praying. For example, in the early 2000s, in nearby Kabardino-Balkaria it was not just a small group of armed radicals who were persecuted by the authorities, but the wider Salafi community. Arabic language and Quran study courses were closed down, as were mosques. Muslims were arrested, tortured and humiliated, and had crosses shaved on their heads. All this led to a sizeable group of Salafis going underground and organising an extensive attack on the capital Nalchik in October 2005. Kabardino-Balkaria still has an armed and active underground to this day.

The state, in its desire to combat the fundamentalists (a tiny minority of whom were prepared to take up arms) took sides in the religious dispute between tradition and fundamentalism, thus losing its role as neutral arbiter and moving public discussion into the religious plane.

The state, in its desire to combat the fundamentalists, lost its role as neutral arbiter

Meanwhile, the underground turned into a regional jihadist force. In 2007, Doku Umarov, the ‘President’ of the ‘Republic of Ichkeria’, disbanded this organisation and created the ‘Caucasus Emirate’—a network umbrella organisation linking armed groups across the North Caucasus, and which was designed to become a parallel state based on Sharia law. This new structure continued to employ terrorist tactics, with attacks on civilian, military and religious targets.

In response, the security forces received carte blanche and a guarantee of immunity from prosecution from the Chechen authorities. Having suffered serious losses (2,584 operatives killed or wounded in the previous five years), the siloviki were frequently motivated by a personal desire for revenge. When the security men received carte blanche and a guarantee of immunity from prosecution from the Chechen authorities, they only continued to use similar harsh tactics here and elsewhere.

This development led to a new twist in the spiral of violence and the further spread of more extremist ideas, with the epicentre of the conflict shifting between Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Dagestan.

The soft approach

In 2010, however, during the relatively liberal time of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, a new approach to the North Caucasus was tried, combining the existing harsh security forces’ methods with a basket of ‘soft’ tactics and a more liberal policy on religion.

Medvedev called on Russia’s law enforcement agencies to stop using corpses as a performance indicator,, and the National Anti-Terrorist Committee, an organ whose work, unlike that of the police, is assessed on how many terrorist acts it prevents, rather than the number of criminal cases investigated, came up with a number of new initiatives.

In Dagestan, and later in Ingushetia, new regional ‘Adaptation Commissions’ were set up to consider shorter sentences, or even freedom, for insurgents and their accomplices who wished to return to normal life, and to guarantee at republican level that they would not be tortured. This was an important rider, as fear of the ubiquitous torture which people faced if they gave themselves up was a strong disincentive for militants wanting to leave the underground. Relatives, human rights campaigners and Salafi activists were all recruited to help with negotiations over surrenders during security operations. People were no longer arrested for wearing long beards or hijabs.


Makhachkla, Dagestan. CC Un Bolshakov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.The authorities in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Karachayevo-Cherkessia began to liberalise their policies towards moderate Islamists and initiated a dialogue with moderate Salafite leaders. These leaders could, in turn, go public with community initiatives— nurseries, schools, cafes, mosques, health centres and Shariat meditation facilities. Many imams used their sermons to urge young men not to join the insurgents, which endangered Muslim lives, but instead live according to Islamic precepts.

This soft approach led to a reduction in tension, and the flow of recruits to the underground, although rapid results were never to be expected from such ‘therapeutic’ measures. That said, Doku Umarov, leader of the Caucasus Emirate, did call on the insurgents to stop committing terrorist acts against peaceful Russian citizens, given that, following the parliamentary elections of 2011, these citizens were themselves protesting against their government.

In words only

When the authorities’ statements on the need to improve governance remained just that, statements, the challenge presented by the Islamists to the corrupt administration—with its degraded social structures and inability to guarantee the rule of law—became ever more obvious. And in the absence of public politics, free elections and free media, the Islamists began to channel their mood of protest into a political force with the ability to conduct a peaceful mobilisation and offering an alternative political concept: a state ruled by Shariat law.

The secular sphere was constantly shrinking. And if in Chechnya that was happening under pressure from the government, which imposed a Sufi interpretation of Islam, in Dagestan, non-believers began to feel threatened by the growing presence of the Islamists, the actions of the jihadist underground and the inability of their government to protect them.

It was, however, the tactical goal of guaranteeing security at the Sochi Olympics, rather than the strategic necessity of competing with the Islamists, that brought an end to the soft approach in 2012-2013. The 2014 Winter Olympics were taking place, after all, only 300km from an active conflict zone.


July 2013: The destroyed house of the third wife of the insurgent leader Magomed Suleymanov. CC Varvara Pakhomenko/International Crisis Group/Flickr. Some rights reserved.With Vladimir Putin once more in power, it was back to a total strong-arm strategy. Work began on destroying the underground’s structure: extensive military operations against the insurgents were complemented by a war on the sources of their finance (90 percent of them were local) and money laundering operations. Some senior officials were arrested, including, in June 2013, the mayor of Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala (who was accused of having links with the armed underground).

The work of the Adaptation Commissions was suspended, and—in the case of Dagestan—discontinued. There were raids on Salafites in mosques, halal cafes and their homes; the arrestees were photographed, fingerprinted, had their voices recorded and samples of their saliva taken for DNA testing. They were given numbers, put on a so-called ‘Wahhabist Register’ and limited in their ability to leave the region. Salafi educational and business initiatives, the schools, nurseries, mosques and cafes, were closed down.

The Dagestan authorities have started adopting the practice of holding fighters’ relatives responsible for their crimes and destroying their houses, which originates in Chechnya. Whole villages were left devastated after extensive raids by security forces, and then blockaded for months afterwards with a curfew in force. A mass of criminal cases were fabricated against Salafi Muslims, including women (whom the authorities considered suspicious); many activists were killed and others forced to leave the country.

Islamists from Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria mostly fled to Turkey, and initially to Egypt too. Chechens, on the other hand, with their more nationalist aspirations, headed for the EU. In 2013, Syria was the only country to lose more citizens than Russia to Europe: in that year, 15,000 Chechens applied for asylum to Germany alone. This did not stop prime minister Dmitry Medvedev from remarking that Chechnya ‘is unique in its success in combatting terrorism’.

The activities of the underground fighters did indeed tail off. While the number of people killed by militants numbered 1,129 in 2013, in 2014 the figure was 525, with only 95 in the first six months of 2015. To a large extent, this echoed the situation of a decade before: when fighting on home soil became impossible, the militants changed up ideologically and geographically—only now people wanting to fight headed for Syria.

Under the direction of Aliaskhab Kebekov and Magomed Suleimanov, the Caucasus Emirate previously positioned itself as part of Al Qaida, and resisted the growing influence of IS in Russia. But after Russian special services killed these two remaining Emirate leaders in April and August of last year respectively, the underground, albeit weakened, closed ranks and transferred allegiance en masse to Al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS.

This pledge was accepted, and the creation of a Caucasus branch of IS was announced. After Islamic State declared its Caliphate in summer 2014, Al-Baghdadi named Russia as the main enemy of Muslims after the USA, and IS makes threats periodically to transfer the current conflict into Russia, to ‘liberate Muslim lands’. IS is yet to carry out a large-scale terrorist act inside Russia, though the FSB claims to have prevented a terrorist act in Moscow in October 2015.

When fighting on home soil became impossible, the militants changed up ideologically and geographically—only now people wanting to fight headed for Syria

The North Caucasus conflict seems to have left Russian territory. Some experts even suggest that the security forces have consciously forced the militants out into Syria in the hope that they’d be killed there. Now the Sochi Olympics are over, though, and the stream of Russian-born fighters to Syria is only increasing. Cautious of the risks attached to returning fighters, at the end of 2013 the authorities made legislative changes to allow people returning from the conflict to be charged with fighting against Russian interests abroad.

Judging by statements made by the security services, 10-15 percent of Russia’s foreign fighters have already returned. Some of them have joined the underground; many have been arrested and sentenced. The Russian authorities have tried to prevent people from traveling to Syria since at least summer 2014: identification measures have been stepped up at the border, particularly for those traveling to Turkey (the main transit country for people wishing to get into Syria).

Summer 2014 also saw the first charges levelled against people trying to leave for Syria. If returning fighters were initially given two to three years, now an attempt to leave gets five years in prison—even though prison is one of the main environments for conversion and radicalisation in Russia. The first people sentenced are now beginning to be released, as are those who were imprisoned before the Winter Olympics (whose cases were so clearly fabricated that the judges had to give them minimal sentences).

A new threat

The estimates vary, but between 2,000 and 7,000 people have travelled from Russia to Iraq and Syria—fighters from Caucasus Emirate, people who didn’t believe in armed jihad in the North Caucasus but who decided to fight in Syria, their families and civilians (teachers, doctors, engineers, religious activists).

People who were previously moderate are now undergoing radicalisation. For instance, take Nadir Abu Khalid (Nadir Medetov), a young and popular preacher in Dagestan, who fled to Syria and pledged his allegiance to IS in May 2015 after spending eight months under house arrest on a seemingly fabricated charge. Or Kamil Ubu Sultan (Kamil Sultanakhmetov), from the Dagestan town of Kayakent, who helped set up a dialogue with the authorities several years ago, and whom Dagestan’s opposition considered a possible parliamentary candidate. After several kidnap attempts and a criminal case opened against him, Ubu Sultan first left the country, and then became an IS preacher.


A mosque in Gimry, Dagestan. CC Varvara Pakhomenko/International Crisis Group/Flickr. Some rights reserved.After Arabic and English, Russian is the third most popular language inside Islamic State. The video claiming responsibility for the 224 people killed over the Sinai was presented by a young man of Slavic appearance in accentless Russian. And aside from Russian citizens, there’s still fighters from other post-Soviet countries. According to the authorities in Chechnya and Dagestan, the number of people leaving is rising. Official statistics put 3,000 Chechens fighting for IS, with at least 500 from Chechnya itself (which has a large diaspora).

And though the Caucasus is the main supplier of foreign fighters, people travel from across the country: several dozen from Khanty-Mansiisk in Siberia, more than 70 from Astrakhan in the south, several hundred from Bashkortostan, as well as the new converts from the ethnic Russian population—Moscow State University student Varvara Karaulova being only the most prominent example. Children of public officials, such as the daughter of the head of Chechnya’s Federal Migration Service, are also leaving. Anecdotally at least, most people in Dagestan or Chechnya know someone fighting in Syria.

‘Islamic State’ has become a strange kind of social utopia, where people strive for justice, for new forms of equality. Some journey to die in the holy land of Sham, but many want to live in the new Caliphate. This is a positive agenda—the creation of institutes differentiates IS from Al-Qaida, which focused on its struggle with the west and the ruling regimes in Islamic countries. The rising popularity of IS within Russia has created serious challenges to western security, and the Paris attacks demonstrated this—it’s already clear that several of the killers didn’t spend any time in Syria.

Practically all the militant groups in Iraq and Syria have declared jihad against Russia, not just IS

The downing of the Metrojet flight in October—the most serious terrorist attack Russia has faced since Beslan in 2004—has shown that, after entering into war with the global jihadist movement, the threat can come from anywhere. This war isn’t a computer game on the television screen anymore, ‘a test of Russian military hardware, a training exercise in real combat conditions’, as my Siberian friend described it.

Practically all the militant groups in Iraq and Syria have declared jihad against Russia, not just IS. Russians abroad—diplomats, military personnel, tourists—are potential targets, particularly in countries with IS presence and a less than perfect security situation (Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey). The US and Israel have long lived in this situation, and what Russia wasn’t prepared for—hence the flight ban.

With the air strike campaign in Iraq and Syria intensifying, many militants, particularly foreign fighters, are now leaving those areas under attack. Their destination is unknown. Grey zones like Libya and Afghanistan are possible destinations, but some of them will return home. Currently, there’s no rehabilitation programmes for these people, even though they are needed on a federal level.

The only exception is Ingushetia, where the Adaptation Commission renewed its work following the Sochi Olympics. Since its inception, it has examined 68 cases of former fighters and people who have helped them, and this year it has looked at six cases of militants from Syria. This soft approach has likely contributed to the falling number of deaths in Ingushetia, the smallest of the Caucasus republics, from 326 deaths in 2010 to 37 in 2014.

The future of deradicalisation

Russia has suffered numerous terrorist attacks throughout its recent history. Since the beginning of 2000, 1,321 people have lost their lives, and more than 3,276 been injured in attacks involving 82 suicide bombers. But can we talk about ‘successful deradicalisation’?

In recent months, the Russian authorities have sought to demonstrate their tolerance to Islam. The lightning-quick finish and opening of Moscow’s new mosque (the ‘largest in Europe’) in time for Eid, permission for new mosques to be built in Kislovodsk and Stavropol, the opening of an Islamic ‘window’ in the Kazan branch of Sberbank, the ban on courts declaring holy books such as the Quran ‘extremist’—these are all signs of a softer touch.

But the authorities are betting exclusively on ‘traditional’ Islam. This is the message laid out in the ‘Social Doctrine of Russian Muslims’, a document recently passed and published by the Council of Muftis of Russia in May 2015. The Russian government has to realise that the growing influence of Islam in the eastern republics of the North Caucasus—Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia—is a fact. Islamists are a part of society; you have to conduct dialogue and try to integrate them as far as possible, preventing violent forms of resistance at the source.

Instead of making moderate Salafi leaders their allies, the state continues to pressure moderates. These are people who criticse the Takfirist approach of IS, their extreme violence and the declaration of a Caliphate. The pressure on moderates leads to further radicalisation of these leaders, and thus the loss of necessary communication channels. Islamist youth have few authorities: family, traditional Islam, the state (whose task it is to prevent extremism)—none of these are respected.

Islamists are a part of society; you have to conduct dialogue and try to integrate them as far as possible, preventing violent resistance at its source

Pushing Salafis out of their own mosques creates a situation whereby it will be even harder for the authorities to control what happens in these environments. In recent months, three Salafi mosques have had their imams replaced with people from the republic’s spiritual administration. The recent raid on the Kotrova Street Mosque in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s main Salafi institution (and one famed for its suspected connection to extremism), coincided with the replacement of that temple’s imam. Afterwards, one local fundamentalist activist, who had previously condemned IS publicly, remarked to me: ‘Now we can only rely on Allah and ISIL, no one else will stop this state terrorism.’

In this situation, calm is visible. According to statistics from Russia’s Interior Ministry, their database of family members and people friendly to militants (dead and active) in the North Caucasus totals 30,000 people. And while a certain oversight over these people is necessary, the methods used only aid radicalisation instead of making these families allies—most of them would like to see their children alive. As one highly-placed Dagestani official told me a few years ago: ‘Today, we’re fighting against the children of the people we killed in the 1990s.’

The exclusive use of force, the suppression of alternative religious and political thinking, the establishment of authoritarian models of governance aren’t solving this conflict, but pushing it deeper inside. This leads to protest not only becoming radicalised, but also its territorial expansion. The short-term effect of decreasing violence merely results in more brutal forms of resistance. The North Caucasus does have experience of softer measures, which don’t give such quick results—but do lay the foundations for long-term peace.

The Russian authorities have essentially refused the softer approach. Today, they rely on force, leaving fewer and fewer chances for dialogue.

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