Russian reaction restrained & cautious

The wreckage of a car destroyed in a suicide car attack is seen in Vladikavkaz, North Caucasus, on Sept. 9, 2010. Russia’s reaction to the unrest in Egypt was prompted by concerns that the wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa could lead to the radicalisation of the region.  

In contrast to many other nations, Russia reacted with extreme discretion and caution to the turmoil in Egypt. Following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, President Dmitry Medvedev said Egypt should hold legitimate elections and respect religious rights. In the first official reaction, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement asking Egyptians not to resort to violence and to strengthen democratic structures. The Kremlin earlier warned outside powers — presumably the United States — against wading into the crisis with “ultimatums.”

Moscow's restraint was prompted, among other things, by concerns that the wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa could lead to the radicalisation of the region — a major source of militants and money for Islamic insurgency in Russia's North Caucasus in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

It took Russia a decade of bloody war to curb separatism in Chechnya, but militancy in North Caucasus has been on the rise again sending deadly ripples across Russia. Three weeks ago, a suicide bomb attack on Russia's largest Domodedovo Airport in Moscow killed 36 and wounded 180 people. It was the second attack in the Russian capital in less than a year. In March 2010, two “black widows” blew themselves up in the Moscow metro within minutes of each other killing 40 and wounding 80 people. Notorious Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov claimed responsibility for both attacks. In a video posted on a rebel website, he vowed to make 2011 a “year of blood and tears” for Russia and carry out attacks “monthly and weekly.”

In recent years, the low-intensity insurgency has spread from Chechnya to neighbouring territories in North Caucasus and undergone a transformation from a nationalist and separatist movement to pure jihadist movement that feeds on the radical strains of Islam.

In 2007, Umarov dissolved the self-proclaimed separatist “Chechen Republic of Ichkerya” and announced the establishment of a “Caucasus Emirate” appointing himself the “Emir of Caucasian Mujahidin.” Umarov embraced global jihad, pledging to fight a jihad against not only Russia but also the United States, Britain and Israel. “Our brothers are fighting today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somali and Palestine,” Umarov said. “Everybody who attacks Muslims wherever they are will be our common enemy.”

It was a dramatic change of strategy. While separatist rebellion in the Caucasus has a long tradition dating back to the 18th century, religious extremism was never its driving force.

Historically, North Caucasus has been dominated by moderate Sufi Islam. However when the war broke out in Chechnya, Arab preachers and militants financed with Saudi money streamed into the region bringing with them the fundamentalist Wahabbi/Salafi strain of Islam. The seeds of radical Islamism sowed by Arab jihadists and Arab money have now sprouted across North Caucasus, which is the most depressed and corruption-ridden region in Russia. Unemployment among the young is as high as 80 per cent. Corruption is absolute. Millions of dollars poured into the region under federal programmes to uplift the local economy are stolen on a regular basis. “Official” muftis have discredited themselves by endorsing corrupt authorities. All this provides fertile soil for Islamic radicalism.

“Jihadisation” of the rebel movement helped Umarov take his war of terror from Chechnya, which has been largely pacified under the iron rule of former militant Ramzan Kadyrov, to neighbouring Muslim regions under the banner of radical Islam. The strategy paid off. Umarov reinvented the concept of a multiethnic Islamic state in the Caucasus that was popular during Russia's wars for control of the region in the 19th century. The “Caucasus Emirate” united militant groups, jamaats, operating in the region's ethnically defined Muslim autonomies — Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Adygeya.

Terrorist activity in North Caucasus has sharply increased since the establishment of the virtual “Caucasus Emirate.” In 2010, for example, the region saw a fourfold rise in terror attacks, according to Russia's Prosecutor General Office. Terrorists staged more than 900 attacks in North Caucasus last year, killing and wounding about 800 police and military personnel as well as hundreds of civilians.

“Russia is facing a far higher terrorist threat than Israel,” says Major General (retd.) Vladimir Ovchinsky, former head of the Interpol office in Russia. “In Israel, the warring sides are divided by a wall, whereas in Russia there is no fence between North Caucasus and the rest of the country.”

Foreign militants, predominantly Arab natives trained in al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan, have been active in North Caucasus since the early days of the Chechen war. Last year alone, the Russian security services killed two al-Qaeda emissaries in Umarov's entourage — Mohmad Mohamad Shabaan and Abu Haled, both of Arab origin. More Arab militants were killed in Chechnya in the earlier years, including Khattab, Abu Walid, Abu Dzeit and Abu Omar Safs.

“The Caucasus Emirate is a branch of the al-Qaeda and part of its project of setting up a global caliphate,” says Dr. Alexander Ignatenko, president, Institute of Religion and Politics. There are strong fears in Russia that foreign support for insurgency in North Caucasus may grow if radical Islamic groups, such as the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, gain power in Egypt and other Arab countries. “There are no guarantees the radicals will not come to power in Egypt and Yemen,” warns Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. “This, in turn, could have destabilising consequences for the situation in a much broader region.” The rise of radical Islamists “is a threat to the entire region's security that can resonate in the Caucasus and even Tatarstan [a Muslim region in central Russia],” echoes Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy head of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, has long renounced violence and its leaders deny they ever provided any financial or other assistance to rebels in North Caucasus. However, Russian security services believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has long-standing links with Russian Islamists and has funnelled millions of dollars to Chechen separatists through various charity foundations, such as the now defunct al-Haramain Islamic Foundation based in Saudi Arabia. The charges were recently confirmed by a U.S. court. In September 2010, the Oregon Court convicted the al-Haramain co-founder Sedaghaty for smuggling out $150,000 to Chechen rebels in 2000. (Al-Haramain, registered in Oregon, was investigated for suspected involvement in the 9/11 attacks.)

In 2003, Russia's Supreme Court banned the Muslim Brotherhood along with its more radical splinters like al-Gama's al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, 12 other Islamist groups for their role in promoting extremism in Russia. The court accused the Muslim Brotherhood of pursuing “armed jihad without any territorial bounds” in the name of “re-creating the Great Islamic Khalifat in predominantly Muslim territories, including Russia and other former Soviet countries.”

“Russian regions with majority Muslim populations, especially North Caucausus, are very much on the radar screens of the Muslim Brotherhood,” attests Elena Suponina, a Russian expert on the Arab world.

The influx of Arab militants to North Caucasus has recently thinned out, partly thanks to the efforts of the Russian security services, but also thanks to Moscow's success in establishing dialogue and understanding with the Arab world. The Egyptian government led the way in controlling the illegal flow of young militants to Russia and cutting off the links between Russian Muslim students at Egyptian universities and local radicals. The main credit for this turnaround goes to Egypt's intelligence service chief Omar Suleiman, appointed Vice-President after the start of the unrest.

However, “destabilisation in the Middle East could bring a new wave of jihadists to North Caucasus,” warns Ms Suponina. This would be a nightmarish scenario for Moscow as it struggles to curb terrorism that may pose a grave threat to major international sports events Russia is set to host — the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, next to the violence-hit North Caucasus, and the 2018 World Football Cup, which will be held in a range of cities from Kaliningrad to the Ural Mountains. The suicide bombing in the international arrivals of the Domodedovo airport that killed several foreigners may be an indication that Russian jihadists are also gearing up for the approaching world games.

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