July 10, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Russia’s Middle East Ambitions Complicate CT Cooperation

• Russia has climbed to the top of the list of countries targeted by the Islamic State

• It may no longer just be Chechens that present a threat to the Russian homeland
• Russia’s determination to play a bigger role in the Middle East has caused difficulties with international partners, which may lead to less effective counter-terrorism cooperation.

Shortly after declaring the Caliphate at the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic State (IS) published an issue of its new online magazine, Dabiq. As one might expect, it is full of lofty rhetoric about the dawn of a new era that will see Muslim honor and dignity restored and lead to the final defeat of the enemy (at Dabiq) as prophesied.

More interesting though, is the way it defines the enemy. To quote from the magazine, its opponents are “the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr (non believers), all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the jews [sic].” Russia, therefore, is now aligned with the more traditional extremists’ bogeymen. Elsewhere in the magazine, people from the Caucasus feature first in the Caliphate’s list of different nationalities it has already gathered together.

Hardened fighters from the Caucasus, by some estimates between 1,500 and 2,000, have been fighting with extremist groups in Syria—and now in Iraq—since 2011. Omar al-Shishani, a Georgian born commander in charge of Chechen fighters, has featured particularly prominently in IS propaganda. He and other leaders will have had some influence on the way that the more local IS and Jabhat al-Nusra leadership think about the world, so perhaps it is not surprising that Russia is now more prominently listed among the enemy. But this is nonetheless a new development. Although the Caucasus region has always been seen as a ‘front for Jihad,’ support from elsewhere has been more verbal than practical. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is undergoing a gradual mythologizing in the pages of IS’s online productions as the founder of the movement, only arrived in Afghanistan after Russian forces had withdrawn, and his subsequent career did not involve Russia at all.

The terrorist threat to Russia has remained fairly constant since the end of the second Chechen war in 2002. There have been some terrible incidents such as: the Dubrovka Theatre siege in October 2002, in which about 130 hostages and 40 attackers died; the Beslan school attack in September 2004, in which over 330 people died; and the Moscow Metro bombings in March 2010, which killed more than 40. And many more, both small and large, although fewer since the reported death of Doku Umarov, the leader of the Russia’s main domestic terrorist group, the Kavkaz Emirat, shortly before the Sochi Winter Olympics held earlier this year.

But any influx of trained Chechen returnees to the Caucasus would be likely to have an immediate impact, even though there are disagreements between those who support al-Qaeda and those who support IS. Russia will obviously not want to see the attacks resume, and in addition to the Caucasus, it will see a potential threat coming from terrorist groups in Central Asia as well. All the more reason for the Russians to monitor and control any growth in the threat to its interests from extremists in the Middle East. But Russia’s current policies there may make the job more difficult.

Before the Syrian uprising, Russian involvement in the Middle East was limited, and although a member of the Middle East Quartet looking at Israeli-Palestinian issues, and of the P5+1 group negotiating with Iran over its nuclear capability, it had little influence and few levers to pull. Events in Syria changed that, and as Russia continued to supply material support to President al-Assad and block progress in the Geneva process, its role and importance increased, though at some cost to its international relationships. Furthermore, following IS’ dramatic advances in Iraq, Russia was quick to send fighter jets to help the government beat back the threat. The out-spoken Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has made the reassertion of Russian engagement in the region all the more obvious, and has presented it in terms of rivalry with the United States rather than in support of a common interest.

Nonetheless, in the longer term, the US and its European allies will continue to play a far larger role than Russia in the Middle East, and Russia will need to quantify the negative consequences of its current increased involvement. If it is seriously worried about the spread of terrorism, it seems to be going about dealing with it in a strange way. The Russian security organs will know a lot about Chechens and other Russian fighters in Syria, but Russia will not easily be able to protect its interests from the miscellany of non-Russian supporters of IS or similar extremist groups, without international support.

While nobody wants to see any country suffer from terrorism, proactive cooperation between states arises from professional relationships that are nurtured over time in a spirit of shared purpose. The Russian Federal Security Service has done a great deal to foster closer links with other services and to develop a common understanding of the threat from international terrorism, including by instituting an annual meeting of the heads of intelligence, security, and police services to discuss the problem. But Russia is in danger of wasting these efforts if it pursues its interest in regaining influence in the Middle East by making counterterrorism a competitive rather than a cooperative business.


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