Marooned in jihad: Russian fighters blocked from returning home
Tunis - Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea, at first sight, is indistinguishable from any other provincial capital in Russia’s southern hinterlands. Cars nose through traffic, nudging along crowded streets outside the rectangular State Theatre or sit at lights in front of the city’s imposing Grand Mosque.
However, throughout the city stand the heavily armed police and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers of the Russian state, clear indicators of a city under occupation.
The rich fields that cover this small, mountainous country seem to belong in a different world to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq. However, legions of young men and their families from Dagestan and throughout the former Soviet Union have gone to the Middle East to build the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate. Now, in the face of military defeat and conscious of the brutal welcome awaiting them at home, they are considering a future untethered to the geographical confines of their caliphate.
The most recent figures from the Russian Civic Chamber estimated that approximately 2,500 Russian nationals and 7,000 others from post-Soviet republics were engaged with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Interpol said in 2015 that Russian passport holders made up about 8% of ISIS’s total.
“Caucasian Muslims left for the Islamic State because they shared its ideas and ideology,” Alexey Malashenko, chief researcher at the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Centre, said in e-mailed comments. “They wanted to continue to fight because their struggle in the Caucasus became senseless. They were almost defeated. In the Middle East, they received more opportunity for self-realisation.”
Russia has been fighting a growing Islamic insurgency along its southern border since separatist nationalist rebellions of the North Caucasus morphed into a movement dominated by jihadist dogma. This growing religiosity found expression with the proclamation of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007 and ISIS’s thriving Wilayah Caucasus, which spreads the word of jihad through southern Russia.
In the build-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Moscow unleashed the full fury of its security apparatus upon its volatile south in response to attacks thought to have originated there.
“It was quite tough. They closed mosques. They would detain 50, 80, 100 people in a single security sweep and these were not suspected fighters but non-violent Salafis,” former Crisis Group analyst Ekaterina Sokirianskaia said during a telephone interview.
“In parallel frequent security operations against Caucasus Emirate essentially paralysed it. They couldn’t do anything.”
The emirate’s incapacity quickly turned to ISIS’s advantage, with its slick propaganda machine deriding their domestic rivals and calling to Russia’s frustrated jihadists often in their own language, citing their own grievances and enticing them to join “the five-star jihad” in Syria and Iraq.
Russian-born fighters soon rose to prominence in ISIS’s ranks. An ethnic Chechen from Georgia, Tarkhan Batirashvili, with the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani, was apparently ISIS’s minister of defence before being killed in July 2016. Siberian-born Anatoly Zemlyanka gained notoriety when he was shown beheading a fellow Russian in a 2015 execution video.
Those fighters’ reach exceeded the boundaries of their adopted homeland. In June 2016, an ISIS attack on Istanbul Ataturk Airport in Turkey, in which 44 people were killed, was thought to be carried out by three former Soviet nationals and orchestrated by a Chechen, Akhmed Chatayev.
“They’re known to be fearless, especially the Chechens,” Sokirianskaia said. “They’re very visible within ISIS and have reputations as good fighters.”
Following the collapse of much of ISIS’s caliphate, many of those fighters and the families who travelled with them are considering a future beyond Syria and Iraq. “Not many will go home. They know what’s waiting for them there. Torture is widespread and jail sentences are long,” Sokirianskaia said.
Like thousands of others left in the vacuum of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s diminishing promised land, Russia’s lost sons and daughters are weighing their options.
“Some will try and get to Turkey, though staying there is getting very difficult. Some will try and get to Ukraine. Most will stay in Syria to fight and die,” Sokirianskaia said. “They can join ISIS operations elsewhere. A Chechen was recently killed in the Philippines.”
Denied everything but the belief system that drew them to Syria’s civil war, Russia’s orphaned jihadists fight on.