Militant jihadist groups are trying to create a caliphate in the Caucasus in south-west Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, largely unnoticed by international media. Russia is aware of the growing danger but its response so far has been oddly phlegmatic. In this special report for Global Sources Magazine, David Edgar, an international journalist, analyst and editor of intelligence publications, slips behind the shroud to survey the expanding tentacles of Islamic State.
THE Caucasus Emirate group, affiliated to al-Qaeda, was formally cobbled together in 2007 from the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and Caucasus Front organisations, and also includes the Vilayat Dagestan (Dagestan governate) of the Islamic State. Today, the group is a small association of militants in Dagestan, loyal to Abu Usman Gimrinsky (also known as Magomed Suleymanov). He took over as emir in May after the death of Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani (Aliaskhab Alibulatovich Kebekov).
“The Caucasus Emirate has been greatly weakened,” Gordon Hahn, an advisory board member with the US-based Geostrategic Forecasting Corp., told Global Sources Magazine. “The decline began in 2012, first due to the emigration of fighters and potential recruits to Syria and Iraq.”
Those remaining do not accept the Islamic State (Daesh) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph – Abu Usman frequently calls him “an imposter,” Hahn added. By 2014, attacks attributed to the Caucasus Emirate were 25-33 percent fewer than at its peak in 2010-11.
“This year, Caucasus Emirate emirs representing an overwhelming majority of the mujahedin defected to Daesh which recently took them into the fold as the ‘Vilayat Kavkaz’ (Caucasus governate) of the Islamic State”, Hahn said. “Its leader is the former Emir Abu Muhammad Kadarsky (Rustam Asildarov) of the Caucasus Emirate’s most powerful network, the Vilayat Dagestan.”
Danger in numbers
It is now this unified Caucuses Governate of Daesh that is the biggest threat in the region. However, although Russia defeated Islamist groups in the latter part of the Chechen wars, and is well aware of the new threat, it appears to have done little more than banning selected Islamic literature and adopting minor punitive measures to prevent the spread of jihadism.
Mairbek Vatchagaev, co-editor of the Caucasus Survey and a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, told GlobalSources Magazine these measures are misguided. “Russia perceives the jihadists in the North Caucasus as a group manipulated from abroad. This is naïve and even criminal, not taking into account the people’s longing for a feeling of inclusion. Ostracising Islam as a whole pushes more young people towards jihadism.”
Hahn said he expects the formation of the Caucasus Governate of Daesh to lead to a rise in the number of suicide attacks in the Caucasus in the next year. “Moreover, whatever is left of the original Caucasus Emirate may seek to go one-up on the governate and radicalise its tactics, possibly returning to using female suicide bombers and more attacks on civilians.”
“It remains to be seen what, if any, new measures the Kremlin will undertake through the National Anti-terrorism Committee (NAK) and FSB to counter this growing Daesh threat, which has only emerged in recent months and weeks,” Hahn said. “It cannot be excluded that Moscow might attempt to strengthen counter-terrorism co-operation with the West, given their common interest and the Kremlin’s ability to compartmentalise on occasions. This was demonstrated by its participation in the … Iran nuclear agreement, despite the continuing conflict in Ukraine.”
Missing the point
Vatchagaev said that while the spread of jihadism in the Caucasus is by and large overlooked by most leading media channels, he believes that many of the analysts who do cover the North Caucasus “assume that the Islamic State will be introduced into the region by those who return from Syria and Iraq.”
He argues that this is not so. “No one is coming back. Those who have been in the North Caucasus have themselves become part of the system created by al-Baghdadi in the Middle East.” Moscow, he said, must accept that the Islamic State has a foothold in Russia represented by the Caucasus Governate of Daesh and the threat should not be underestimated. “Islamic State does not have any public framework restrictions in pursuing its goals, and is therefore far more dangerous than the former Caucasus Emirate.”
In Russia, the largest concentrations of Muslims are in the northern Caucasus, Tatarstan, Bashkiria and Moscow. Islam has significant influence in the Volga region thanks to radical Uzbek and Kazakh groups. Tatars are also involved in such movements as they try to advance unity in the Turkic world.
The spread of Islamic extremism is not just Russia’s concern. “I suspect that the other post-Soviet state to be most affected by the threat of the Caucasus Emirate and Governate of Daesh is Azerbaijan. The Caucasus Emirate has already attempted operations, as in a 2012 Eurovision plot to attack Baku,” said Hahn. The Caucasus Daesh Governate emir, Abu Muhammad, was a leading figure in the Vilayat Dagestan, which organised the plot.
The reach of the Caucasus jihadists was already sizeable, even before the formation of the Caucasus Governate of Daesh. They influenced an area stretching from the Azov Sea near the Russian border with Ukraine, down to Abkhazia in western Georgia, and the country’s Pankisi Gorge, and from Artezian, south of Astrakhan down to the border with Azerbaijan.
Competition between the Caucasus Daesh Governate and the Caucasus Emirate is likely to be fierce. Countries neighbouring this jihadist “territory” in the Caucasus will have to take more dramatic measures to prevent any further spread of the tentacles of the Islamic State.