ISIS Comes to Russia

Defectors from a homegrown jihadi insurgency in the Caucasus are now on Team Caliphate. Here’s what that means.

Illustration by The Daily Beast

At the same time that bombs rain down on the Islamic State, and it grapples with tactical setbacks in Syria and solidifying its hold in Iraq, ISIS continues to expand its brand, this time in the Caucasus. In June, one of the most important and respected rebels in the North Caucasus pledged loyalty to ISIS.

The defection of Amir Khamzat, commander of the Chechen Vilaiyat, [territorial-administrative units that roughly correspond with the regional republics], represents a large gain to the standing of ISIS and its expansion into Russia. A statement posted [to Twitter] on June 21 read: “We testify that all Mujahideen of the Caucasus—in the Velayats of Nokhchiycho [Chechnya], Dagestan, Galgaicho [Ingushetia] and KBK [Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay]—are united in their decision and we do not have differences among ourselves.” This statement led ISIS on June 23 to embrace the pledges of loyalty and declared the creation of a new Vilaiyat under the control of Dagestani Amir Rustam Asilderov, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Kadarskii.

Estimates of the size of the insurgency are hard to come by, as Russian official statistics are notoriously unreliable, and the autonomous nature of the insurgency means local cells’ size can fluctuate with the seasons and a revolving door of committed recruits. Despite this, an estimated 249 militants were killed in 2014 alone, and some 5,816 civilians, security officials, and militants have been killed since 2010, according to the site Caucasus Knot, which tracks the conflict in the region. Additionally, Russian officials estimate some 2,200 Russians have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, mostly from the North Caucasus. With the presence of ISIS established, those same recruits are more likely to stay local and fight in the Caucasus.

Russia is no stranger to Islamic terrorism. What began in the 1990s as a struggle for Chechen national independence has been gradually coopted and consumed by an Islamic insurgency that spreads throughout the region. The formal evolution from national to Islamic resistance culminated in the 2007 creation of the Caucasus Emirate under the leadership of longtime fighter Dokku Umarov.

Despite being connected to the wider jihadist movements by goals and aspirations, the Islamic fight in the Caucasus has taken a backseat to more popular and accessible jihadist locales in Iraq and Syria. A position that saw the insurgency failing to mount attacks against the Sochi Olympics. Despite spending most of their time on the run from Russian security forces, lately the biggest threat to the Emirate comes not from the government but fellow jihadists of ISIS.

The tension between the Emirate and the hub of general jihadist attention and effort in Syria in Iraq—with the Emirate losing recruits and funding to these Jihad locations—was compounded when the Emirate’s Amir Aliaskhab Kebekov (replacing Dokku Umarov, who was killed in 2013) attempted to assert his control not only over the Emirate but among Caucasus fighters in Syria about whether to support Jabhat al-Nusra and in turn al Qaeda or ISIS. The call for fighters to support al-Nusra further alienated the Emirate from the growing profile of ISIS.

Kebekov’s call for solidarity with al Qaeda apparently did not go over well, especially among the younger fighters of the Emirate who make up a majority of its recruits since they suffer significant casualties and most older veterans are dead after years of conflict. In November and December six commanders in the Chechen and Dagestan wings of the insurgency declared loyalty to ISIS. This action included several well-respected commanders—including Rustam Asilderov, leader of the Dagestan wing of the insurgency.

Asilderov’s defection was telling of the general mood of the insurgency—discontent with leadership under Kebekov, who was the first non-Chechen to lead the insurgency (he is an Avar theologian from Dagestan). Rather than focusing on spectacular attacks inside Russia, he outlawed the use of suicide bombings and attempted to create support amongst the local population in the Caucasus, which alienated the more aggressive and younger elements of the insurgency.

The Emirate has always struggled with the issue of central control. With its creation in 2007, the insurgency was broadened from Chechnya to the wider Caucasus republics, which also led to the alienation of many of the older Chechen and nationalist-oriented fighters. The new pan-Caucasus orientation led to the creation of various Vilaiyats that oversaw republic and regional operations with a multitude of various smaller Jamaats, [smaller local-level organizations], organizing resistance at the local level. Despite the nominally hierarchical organization, the Emirate has little operational control over the local Jamaats and even Vilaiyats.

The insurgency is more than anything driven by local resentments against capricious and corrupt governance that fosters an environment easily exploited by radical Islamist ideology. As Jean-François Ratelle (PDF) has noted, “As a result of this loose ideological structure factors such as personal vendettas, criminal activities and local issues play a more significant role than ideological Islamic grievances in the daily dynamics of this insurgency movement.”

Thus the Emirate has provided an overarching umbrella or “loose-confederation” of atomized groups fighting for a myriad of reasons with little direct control by the central leadership and spend most of their time running from security forces and Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s trained guerrillas, known as Kadyrovtsy.

The defection of those mid-ranking commanders led to harsh condemnation by not only Kebekov but the Qadi (religious judge or authority) Abu Usman Gimrinsky. Adding to the chaos, by April, Kebekov was killed and replaced by Abu Usman, who is struggling to control the exodus of followers.

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The defection of Amir Khamzat to ISIS may destroy whatever’s left of the jihadist legitimacy of the Emirate. He commands a large amount of respect amongst commanders (he is also one of the few veterans left of the wars in the 1990s). Khamzat was also responsible for some of the Emirate’s most recent large-scale attacks inside Russia such as the 2010 Moscow Metro Bombings, the 2011 Domodedovo Airport attacks, and a surprising attack on the heavily policed Chechen capital of Grozny in late 2014. The importance of his position is also increased due to the short lifespan of insurgent leaders, making Khamzat’s remarkable longevity a source of prominence and stature.

Whatever the reasons, aligning with ISIS is unlikely to dramatically change the nature and capabilities of the insurgency. Due to the atomized and independent nature of the organization, each local commander and grouping is left a significant degree of autonomy to carry out attacks, fund-raise and operate. The central hierarchy more than anything provides a general theoretical orientation for the insurgency, along with providing a modicum of Islamic justification for their actions. While operating under the same flag, the level of day-to-day control by ISIS will not increase, as even in the day of instant communication and global connection the ability to coordinate while maintaining the necessary secrecy is a much more complicated reality.

What it does do is further grow the legitimacy of the ISIS as the caliphate amongst extremist Muslims worldwide. The spread of pledges of loyalty to ISIS from locales such as the Caucasus or from Boko Haram in Nigeria contribute to the growing momentum and establishment of the ISIS as the revival of the caliphate.

Yet whatever flag the insurgency in the Caucasus flies under, it is likely that it will operate under much of the same conditions and constraints as its predecessor, although possibly with a flair for the more theatrical attacks and perhaps more recruits now convinced to stay home and fight than travel to Syria. And while Russia will be pleased by its ease to connect its long-running fight with the wider global fight against Jihadism, the governance shortcomings that feed this extremism will continue to provide plentiful recruits for the insurgency.