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On shaky ground: Russia’s FSB vs migrant radicalisation

Scrambling to address the growing threat of Islamist terrorism from Central Asia, Russia’s security apparatus is forced to depend on questionable foreign intelligence services.

Labour migrants from Central Asia, detained after a police raid at a market in Lublino, in Moscow’s suburbs, 2013. Photo (c): Andrey Stepin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

For years, the focus of Russian counter-terrorism efforts has been on the unruly North Caucasus. The Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) have built up substantial analytic and operational capacity, ready to deal with any terrorist threat. However, this has been at the expense of other strategic directions. Facing a new threat, unable to generate comparable assets over night, Russians are instead having to turn to the security agencies of Central Asia. These make the FSB look positively liberal and impartial, and as a result not only is Moscow likely to have to make concessions to its Central Asian partners, but Russians will increasingly become proxy-repressors for their strongmen and kleptocrats.

The 3 April bomb attack on the St Petersburg metro led to the inevitable initial flurry of allegations, speculation, and barn-door-closing activity by the security agencies. Suspects were named then exonerated (although for some their lives were still made miserable regardless), and scarcely a news cycle passed without footage of black-balaclava clad special forces being deployed or some new theory.

The bomber was Akbarzhon Jalilov, a 22-year-old ethnic Uzbek who had been born in Kyrgyzstan, but held Russian citizenship. He had worked in low-paying jobs in Moscow and may have travelled to Syria to be trained by Islamic militants in 2014, but if he did, he was back working in a sushi bar in 2015. Three weeks after the attack, the Imam Shamil Battalion, a Chechnya-linked element of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, although it is hard not to suspect that they were simply cashing in on the situation. As Jalilov died in the attack – again, it is unclear whether he meant to, or whether he was another victim of his own bomb – and left no suicide manifesto or message, this is still uncertain.

What is clear, though, is that Russia is now facing a double-barrelled challenge for which its security agencies, however formidable in their own heavy-handed way, are unprepared: “lone wolf” attacks unconnected to larger terrorist groups, and attacks by Central Asians. It is not as though the Federal Security Service (FSB) was not aware of the potential of both; back in 2014, one officer from the service told me that he was concerned simply not enough was being done about them. It was rather that – not totally without reason – the government always put priority on the threat coming from the jamaats, organised insurgent and terrorist cells from the North Caucasus.

If anything, as Islamic State began to come under pressure from early 2016 and as more and more Russian citizens who had gone to fight in Iraq and Syria began to return, typically to or through the North Caucasus, this focus only sharpened. St Petersburg paid the price.

“What can we do about the Central Asians?”

There are maybe 4 million, but possibly up to 7 million Central Asian migrants and labourers in Russia, perhaps half unregistered illegals. Not all, of course, are the classic Central Asian workers one sees working cleaning, construction and agricultural jobs across the country, but the majority are, and they pose many very severe challenges for the security agencies.

They are often barracked in so-called “man-camps” where they largely keep themselves to themselves, not least because they are paid little and often are seeking to send remittances home. Indeed, their camps may well be in inaccessible locations, or a construction team may be squatting illegally in their work site. They are often bussed to and from work. In such circumstances, it is extremely difficult to contact and cultivate individuals to become intelligence sources within a group. As for placing agents inside them, it is not enough to have operatives who look Central Asian, they have to sound it, too. Furthermore, many labour gangs are recruited from a specific town or region, and thus an agent would also have to negotiate the inevitable questions about common family, experiences, schooling and the like. As one FSB officer put it, “if you were trying, you could hardly construct a harder human intelligence target.”

The very process of hiring migrants in Russia tends to be deeply corrupt, verging on human trafficking

What is more, the very process of hiring these migrants tends to be deeply corrupt, verging on human trafficking. Employers often have every reason to keep their workers out of the public – and especially official – gaze. As a result, they often under-report numbers, shred the paperwork of workers who abscond (and who may be precisely the sort who have left to pursue some terrorist goal) and themselves try to avoid any connection with the security agencies.

People lay flowers and light candles to commemorate the victims of last month’s terrorist attack on the St Petersburg metro. Photo: CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: Julian Buijzen / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Nor are the formidable electronic surveillance assets of the state of much use. In some cases, frugal groups will have a single, cheap cellphone that they use collectively. As a result, there is limited scope to use it to track one person’s movements, and even if a suspicious message is identified, it is hard to know who is responsible. Those who use their phones more extensively, though, appear well-aware of the dos and don’ts of basic information security, and typically use secure programmes such as ProtonMail, Telegram and even Skype.

Along with these practical issues is a fundamental one of a lack of knowledge within the security agencies. For years, although there has been a background awareness of the need to have relevant expertise, the (real and perceived) threat from the North Caucasus has consumed everything else. Besides which, careers in the political and economic security areas are well known to be the best ways of improving one’s career and financial prospects, respectively, so able officers have often been disinclined to work on Central Asian security.

This has often led to crass oversimplifications with serious potential operational implications. The Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, for example, is relatively strong amongst Central Asians, especially Moscow and the Siberian and Far Eastern regions. The FSB considers it a terrorist movement, but its main leaders are opposed to terrorism, and instead it is certain radical elements who, in part because they fear being outflanked by Islamic State, are adopting a more radical stance. As a result, the sometimes quite nuanced use of religious differences and cultivation of faith leaders seen in the North Caucasus and Tatarstan, is eschewed for a much more indiscriminate and heavy-handed approach.

Spooks of a feather...

This neglect of the problem is coming to bite Russia as pressures on and between Central Asians grow, as discussed by Edward Lemon and John Heathershaw. The economic slowdown has led to migrant workers’ conditions worsening, as employers cut margins. The opportunities to send back remittances have diminished.

Meanwhile, whether or not Russians’ attitudes towards the Central Asians have changed (there seems to be no data to suggest it has) the country’s intervention in Syria, and the heightened level of propaganda from Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist movements has intensified. One result appears, according to one of the few MVD officers seriously trying to track migrant labourers’ opinions, is that they at least believe they face greater discrimination.

These are exactly the kind of conditions in which individuals or small groups (the Russians believe Jalilov did have accomplices) can more easily self-radicalise, without needing to travel abroad, or connect with known terrorist organisers, or doing any of the other things which may bring them to the security forces’ attention.

The kind of intensive physical security operation which followed the St Petersburg attacks is of only limited effect 

The kind of intensive physical security operation which followed the St Petersburg attacks – more bag checks, extra patrols, greater use of metal detectors at transport hubs and the like – is of only limited effect. As much as anything else, it is about public reassurance. In any case, it is expensive and tends soon to become of diminishing effectiveness as people lose their focus.

Building up human intelligence networks and the specialist analytic capacity to make use of it will take time, so for the moment Russians are relying all the more heavily on what I have called the “RepressIntern,” the often-close formal and informal cooperation between their security services and those of regional allies in Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, Belarus and the South Caucasus. 

Rustam Inoyatov, head of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service since 1995 and one of the country’s most powerful - and most feared - people. Photo CC: Xalq Karahati. Some rights reserved.

In part, this is folded within the formal intelligence sharing through bilateral arrangements and also the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation structures. However, it also reflects the “old Chekist network” given the continued strength of KGB veterans in many services. 

As a result, there is considerable scope for mutual assistance, not just sharing files and insights. The FSB has demonstrated an eager willingness to watch, eavesdrop on, arrest and even deport those whom friendly Central Asian regimes regard as threats. For Dushanbe and Tashkent, for example, Russians arrested and deported five people in 2011-12 alone. It has even been willing to turn a blind eye when agencies such as Turkmenistan’s Ministry for National Security and Uzbekistan’s National Security Service operate against targets on Russian soil. 

Whereas once the FSB was in the happy position of being the “elder brother” to which the others came for favours, now the opposite is true

Now, Moscow is calling in its markers, because Central Asian security services offer the best opportunity it has for timely information on the potential threat. Jalilov, after all, was identified thanks to intelligence from Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB). Whereas once the FSB was in the happy position of being the “elder brother” to which the others came for favours, now the opposite is true. 

This is hardly a comfortable position for Russia, especially as much of the drive behind the creation of structures such as CSTO was to institutionalise Moscow’s informal empire. However, it is more serious than that. Many of these services are of deeply questionable quality, tending to adopt crude methods that make even Russia look positively discriminating. 

According to an FSB source, for example, one set of dossiers supplied by Uzbeks managed to confuse names and dates of birth, such that a 53-year-old visiting university professor was almost arrested as a potential terrorist assassin, had not the Russian side double-checked. Likewise, the intelligence they provide is likely to be politically-weighted, as authoritarian regimes seem to portray dissidents as terrorists. 

Finally, intelligence sharing is always transactional. Moscow was willing to help its “little brothers” because that was a form of soft power (spook power?) that helped strengthen its claims to a leadership role within the region. 

If Russians increasingly have to ask for favours from the Central Asians, there will inevitably be a potentially uncomfortable political price to pay

If Russians increasingly have to ask for favours from the Central Asians, there will inevitably be a potentially uncomfortable political price to pay. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has already shown an unprecedented willingness to criticise – almost to troll –Russia since then, but this may well prove only the start of things. 

Russia has ratified a defence cooperation deal with Uzbekistan on terms more favourable to Tashkent than originally anticipated. Moscow has toned down some early criticism of Kazakhstan’s decision to replace Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet. Meanwhile, there are concerns that the campaign against Central Asian “terrorists” inside Russia will also snap up some of the few remaining enemies of states such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan within the country. All told, the “little brothers” see an opportunity, and appear to have every intention of exploiting it to the full.


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