Of the four Caucasian nations – Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia – only the last seems to have none of its nationals fighting with Islamic State jihadis in Iraq and Syria. Georgian authorities estimate that more than 200 of its citizens, primarily ethnic Chechens from the Pankisi Gorge region, are fighting in Syria and Iraq, while the Baku estimates that 200-300 Azeris are there as well.
While Russia has battled indigenous Islamist militants for decades, most of the country’s previous terror attacks had domestic causes, primarily Chechnya and Dagestan. There had been no major attacks on Russians caused by international groups before October 31, when an IS bomb caused the A321 crash and the death of 224 people over Sinai, a terrorist attack confirmed by Federal Security Service (FSB) head Aleksandr Bortnikov.
While the figures are necessarily vague, Russian security forces estimate that the number of Russian jihadis fighting alongside IS militants in Syria and Iraq range from two to seven thousand. As for “official” statistics, on November 19 Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov told journalists, “Some 2,719 Russian citizens have left Russia for Syria, 160 of them have been destroyed, 73 returned and have been convicted, 36 more arrested.”
Not only are Russian nationals fighting alongside IS jihadis in Syria and Iraq, but IS is now operating in Russia’s simmering north Caucasus. On November 23 Russia’s National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK) announced that Russian security and police forces in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic eliminated an armed IS group. Eleven gang members hiding in a reinforced base in the mountains were killed after they opened fire and tried to break through their encirclement. NAK operations headquarters said in a statement, “The gang had organized channels for sending local residents to Syria to fight alongside terror groups,” adding that the militants were also preparing a number of high-profile criminal operations across the north Caucasus, including attacks with the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in public places.
More ominously, Chechen Prosecutor Sharpuddi Abdul-Kadyrov said at a meeting with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov that his office has launched nearly 300 criminal inquiries against individuals fighting alongside IS militants, stating, “Instances have been recorded of Chechens joining the Islamic State ranks; each one of them is under preliminary investigation. By November, 292 criminal cases have been opened against 311 persons.”
Russia is also coping with its radicalized citizens returning from fighting alongside IS militants. Earlier this month, a court in Naberezhnyye Chelny in Tatarstan sentenced a Russian national, Mikhail Golovenko, to six years in prison after he admitted to fighting with IS militants in Syria. According to the court, Mikhail Golovenko arrived in Syria in May 2014 and voluntarily joined IS’ Katibah Sabr detachment in Raqqah province. After training, Golovenko was assigned to guard facilities near the IS-controlled town of Sinjar in Iraq. In May, Golovenko returned to Russia, was arrested and convicted of membership in an illegal armed group.
In an indication of how seriously the Islamic State takes its interest in Russia, it is offering a $5 million reward for killing Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, having long threatened Russia and its North Caucasian Federal District, promising to “free Chechnya from Russia.”
Concerns about the vulnerability of its northern Caucasian districts dominate Russia’s aerial military operations in Syria. Besides targeting IS elements since October 31, two non-IS groups persistently bombed by Russia’s initial airstrikes in Syria are Katibat Al Tawhid Wal Jihad, dominated by Uzbeks, and Jaish Al Muhajireen Wal Ansar, where Chechens and reportedly Crimean Tatars predominate, as both groups swore loyalty to and subsequently merged with Jabhat al-Nusra, consequently stiffening its presence in Syria’s Aleppo province. Russian security forces determined that the flow of Caucasian sympathizers is directed toward Jabhat al-Nusra affiliates and IS alike, leading to the merger of the groups with the IS in Russian security concerns.
While Armenia is close to areas infested by the Islamic State, it shares no frontiers with Syria or Iraq, unlike neighboring Turkey and Iran. Armenia’s miniscule Muslim community is served by the country’s sole mosque, the Blue Mosque in Yerevan. It is a Shi’a mosque and its mullah is Iranian, which rules out the possibility of Sunni radicalism emerging there.
Two months ago IS jihadis destroyed the Holy Martyrs Armenian church in Deir ez-Zor, the sixth-largest city in Syria, erected to commemorate the victims of the 1915 massacres in eastern Anatolia. The Holy Martyrs Church, consecrated in 1991 as a memorial, served as a pilgrimage site for Armenians living in Syria and neighboring countries. Armenia’s Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian condemned the desecration of the church, which contained the remains of victims, calling it a “horrible barbarity.” Nalbandian urged the international community to eliminate funding and supply sources to the IS to eradicate what he referred to as a disease that “threatens civilized mankind.”
The Caucasus remains divided – Armenia remains closely allied to Russia, Azeri-Russian relations are formal but cool, while Georgia broke diplomatic relations with Russia after its brief 2008 armed conflict with its giant northern neighbor. While little is certain in the turbulent region, if anything positive might be achieved by the threat the IS poses, it might be the lessening of political tensions in the Caucasus to combat the IS death cult, lest it inflict yet more “horrible barbarities” there.