Interview with Gordon Hahn about ISIS

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In late July 2016 terrorist organization Islamic State (Islamic State – terrorist organization forbidden in Russia), responsible for a number of recent brutal attacks across Europe and Middle East, declared jihad against Russia. It took two weeks for the first ISIS terrorist attack to happen: in mid-August two young men from Chechnya attacked with axes the policemen at the police station in the Moscow Region. Rethinking Russia spoke to Gordon Hahn – analyst, geostrategist and author of Russia’s Islamic Threat (2007) and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (2014) – about whether this threat should be taken seriously, about the dynamics in the relations between ISIS and Russian jihadists and why Dagestan is currently the hotbed of the jihadism in Russia.

Rethinking Russia: About a month ago Islamic State called on their members to carry out jihad against Russia. Why now and why Russia?

Gordon Hahn: Russia has been fighting its own jihadi insurgency for approximately two decades since mid 1990s when the separatist Chechen Republic Ichkeria was formed and where the initial radical nationalist movement took on jihadi elements and was partially tied to Al Qaeda. This jihadi movement with leaders such as Shamil Basaev and Khattab has been present ever since in the North Caucasus and somewhat in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. That is the first reason for ISIS to turn its attention to Russia.

Secondly, in a more general way jihadists seek to establish a global Caliphate throughout the whole world and Russia is just one of the victim states that they chose as a target. Finally, Russia has been expanding military operations against jihadists outside its own borders. It helped in Central Asia and obviously, more recently, it bombed ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. All this gives jihadists a “good reason” to target Russia.

RR: Do you think Russian authorities should take this call seriously and if yes, why?

GH: Absolutely because there is a branch of the Islamic State in Russia in the North Caucasus and they have been able to send operatives to Moscow and even to some places like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The Caucasus Vilaiyat (Arabic, meaning “province” – RR) of the Islamic State officially joined the Islamic State last summer. It consists largely of Dagestanis and Chechens who split from the original Caucasus Emirate. It is not clear to what extent the Caucasus Emirate still exists but to whatever extent it does, it used to declare its support for Al Qaeda and recently because of a split a fraction pledged allegiance to the Islamic State which continues to challenge Al Qaeda for the leadership of the global jihad.

Since ISIS called for jihad against Russia and there is now a branch of the Islamic State in Russia, there is no reason why they should not try to pull an attack now. They have been carrying out small level attacks in North Caucasus, the question is whether they will hit places like Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Ufa, Kazan or Volgograd.

RR: You wrote a book about the global jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and beyond. What is specific about it? In which was is it different from global jihadism in Europe, for example?

GH: My book was generally about the transformation of the radical nationalist Chechen independence movement into the global jihadist organization. One major difference from the European groups is that it is an indigenous organization to Russia and it is very well organized. Most attacks carried out in Europe right now are being carried out by lone wolves but the Caucasus Emirate was formed long before ISIS ever existed. It had ties to Al Qaeda, it was inspired by Al Qaeda, it used its ideological writings and actually carried out foreign operations, for example an attempted operation in Azerbaijan in 2012 or the Sharia4Belgium plot that was uncovered in 2010, and many more. There were also inspired lone wolves like the Tsarnaev brothers in the USA with the eldest Tsarnaev actually trying to join the Dagestan Vilaiyat of the Caucasus Emirate before coming to the US and carrying out the Boston marathon attack.

RR: Why did they move from the association from Al Qaeda to the association with the ISIS? I understand that there is tension between the two and the competition for the leadership for global jihad.

GH: Caucasus Emirate originally had ties to Al Qaeda and have been inspired by it, so it must have been something important happening inside the Emirate to make it switch sides. The biggest fear of the Caucasus Emirate was that the ISIS being based in Syria and Iraq would be attracting fighters from the North Caucasus and taking them away from the Caucasus Emirate draining the human resources. And this was precisely what happened: the number of attacks carried out by Caucasus Emirate in Russia, mostly in North Caucasus, declined sharply beginning in 2012 and this is precisely when the fighters from the North Caucasus and potential recruits started going to Syria and Iraq. As an example I can mention the case of Tarhan Batirashvili who was affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate and who was actually financed and sent to Syria by the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate Dokku Umarov where he joined the groups allied with Jabhat al-Nusra that formed their own group of international jihadists.

So it turned out to be a big drain on the Caucasus Emirate to have this major organization close by. The fact that many of the Caucasus fighters first began fighting with groups under Jabhat al-Nusra or tied to Jabhat al-Nusra underscores the fact that Caucasus Emirate had preference for Al Qaeda. I think there was a general suspicion amongst those in the Caucasus Emirate that Caucasus fighters might get short scored in this new organization – ISIS – and it was hard to tell what Al Bagdadi and ISIS were up to straight away. Caucasus Emirate hesitated initially to join up, but last summer the organization split with about 80% of emirs endorsing eventually the Islamic State.

RR: There is reported evidence that in the 90s Chechen separatists refused to join Al Qaeda saying that Al Qaeda had its own jihad (which by that time was going global, i.e. against USA and its allies) and Chechnya had its own (against Russia). Is this trend gone? Are there any jihadists who take distance from the global jihad and do not relate to the ISIS cause?

GH: There was a split within the Caucasus Emirate between those who wanted to continue the radical nationalist movement – led by Ahmed Zakaev currently based in London – and a more radical group built around Shamil Basaev and Khattab until he was killed in 2002 followed by Basaev being killed in 2006. When Dokku Umarov became emir, he had decided that he will follow the path of Basaev to abolish all the old institutions of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, the so-called government and parliament, and establish pure sharia law based institutions structured in strict discipline under a leading emir with religious credentials and sharia court judge. By 2002 when the shura was held in the mountains of Chechnya after the conventional forces were defeated by the Russian army they declared their intention to shift to a sharia law based organization over time and this was when Maskhadov was still the leader. This plan was eventually fulfilled by Umarov.

There are very few people in Chechnya today who still support the radical nationalist Chechen independence movement. Those who are supporting it, are all based abroad because they would be hunted down either by the jihadists or by Ramzan Kadyrov.

RR: How do you evaluate the size of the radicalized population in Russia in terms of numbers and in terms of percentage of the Muslim population?

GH: It is fairly small. If you include jihadists and Islamists (general distinction between jihadists and Islamists is that while both promote the creation of Islamic state, the former resorts to violence when the latter acts in a non-violent way – RR) who joined organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir or Salafist organizations, I would say that they constitute at a maximum 5% of total Muslim population in Russia.

We did not see any acts of violence recently, and the authorities have been using strong tactics and were able to crash the Caucasus Emirate and limit the presence of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and even some of the Islamist groups like Muslim Brotherhood. It is not such a serious problem as it was back in 2009-2011 but there is always a possibility that there will be a resurgence.

RR: Which geographical areas do you think are most susceptible to the call? How does it resonate in the Muslim areas of Russia outside Caucasus such as Bashkiria and Tatarstan?

GH: The presence of jihadists is Bashkortostan and Tatarstan is much more episodic. There were a few terrorist attacks back in 2011-2012 in Tatarstan, there were a few episodes of jihadis being exposed and hunted down in Bashkortostan. But Tatars and Bashkirs are much better integrated into the Russian society, there is a lot of intermarriage between Tatars and Bashkyrs and Russians, they are well educated, they go to universities, they get promoted. They have been well integrated for centuries whereas the Caucasus was conquered a bit more than a century ago and the process of integration never was completed, not even in the Soviet period and especially not in the mountainous regions of Chechnya and Dagestan. It is completely different dynamics in Caucasus really.

RR: And if you compare Dagestan and Chechnya, which one is a hotbed for jihadists today?

GH: Jihadists are absolutely more active in Dagestan. First of all, even if we go back to the quasi-jihadi resistance in the imperial times, it was led by Imam Shamil – an ethnic Avar – and Avars are the main ethnic group in Dagestan. Dagestan was bound to take over the Caucasus Emirate simply because its population is bigger, Dagestanis tend to be more fervently religious, there are closer ties with the Middle East in Dagestan than in Chechnya. Besides, Dagestan has been Islamic longer than Chechnya has. For all these reasons, there are more chances of having an Islamist movement forming in Dagestan. A generation of leaders that started with the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and came from Chechnya terminated with the killing of Dokku Umarov who was killed by the Russian special services in September 2013 on the eve of the Olympics. The next emir was an ethnic Avar from Dagestan Ali Abu Muhammed al-Dagestani (born Aliaskhab Kebekov – RR), the next emir was a close associate of his, also an Avar from Dagestan – Abu Usman Gimrinsky (born Magomed Suleimanov – RR), both of them coming from less accessible regions in Dagestan. The group that broke out from the Caucasus Emirate and joined the Islamic State was also led by an ethnic Avar from Dagestan – Abu Muhammed Kadarsky, his born name is Rustam Asildarov, and he is the emir of the Caucasus Emirate of the Islamic State. This trend is pretty much inevitable and has to do with a number of above-mentioned factors as well as with rather strict regime in Chechnya compared to Dagestan.

Interview by Yulia Netesova

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