Wednesday, 03 July 2024

June 23 Makahchkala Attacks: Implications for the Kremlin Featured

Published in Analytical Articles

By Emil A. Souleimanov and Huseyn Aliyev

July 3, 2024

On June 23, a series of coordinated attacks were carried out in Dagestan’s two largest cities Makhachkala and Derbent, targeting Orthodox churches, synagogues, and a traffic police post. The attacks left 26 people dead (including five attackers) and dozens injured. This attack signaled the apparent revival of the jihadist scene in Russia’s largest and demographically most populous North Caucasus republic, fuelled in part by increasing antisemitic tension and militarism due to the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This new upsurge of violence can also be attributed to the worsening socio-economic conditions in the republic, the over-engagement of the law enforcement and security services with the war in Ukraine, and the accumulation of general discontent among Dagestani youth with limited channels for peaceful expression.

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BACKGROUND: With the exception of the October 2023 storming of Makhachkala airport, incidents of antisemitism in Dagestan are historically exceptional. Until recently, this republic on the western shores of the Caspian Sea has been characterized by religious tolerance. For centuries, the community of Mountain Jews have lived here without tension with other ethnic groups. Likewise, Russophobia has never been widespread in Dagestan and the republic’s Orthodox minority has enjoyed peaceful relations the muslim majority. The attacks on June 23 can be attributed to the rhetoric and practice of the Islamic State, which about a decade ago captivated part of the revolutionary-oriented Dagestan youth and introduced the idea of communal “enemies of Islam.” The attacks on Jewish temples were likely the response of local jihadists to the situation in the Gaza Strip, which has resonated heavily among Dagestanis and prompted the idea of Islamic solidarity with the suffering of Palestinian Arabs.

While many Dagestanis openly express their willingness to travel to Palestine and join the local resistance, this is not an option due to Israel’s tight control over the borders of Palestine’s administrative territories. Unlike the Middle Eastern conflict, the war in Ukraine appears to be rather unpopular and the motivation among Dagestanis to join the Ukrainian troops fighting against the Russian invasion is not very strong. Dagestani soldiers in the Russian army who went to war in Ukraine in 2022 or did not oppose recruitment have exhausted their potential – just like many other Russian veterans, they are disgusted by mistreatment, the lack of proper financial compensation and insufficient medical care.

IMPLICATIONS: Provided that the war continues and thousands of Dagestanis and members of other – especially North Caucasian – minorities are forcibly mobilized to the frontlines in Ukraine, it can be expected that opposition to the war will grow. This will go hand in hand with opposition to the unpopular regime in Moscow. It should be recalled that in 2022, the most significant protest actions in Russia against the mobilization of soldiers to be deployed in Ukraine took place in Dagestan. Reportedly, these public protests contributed to Moscow’s reluctance to order a second round of forced mobilization, instead deciding to focus on providing financial motivation for potential recruits. With some exceptions, for example forcible recruitment of of guest workers from Central Asian countries who have recently obtained Russian citizenship, or pressure towards generally discriminated groups to enlist in the Ukrainian front, the Kremlin is carefully seeking to reduce the “pool” of mobilized people to those who go to war more or less on their own initiative.

So far, there are no signs that the attacks, considered to be a singular incident, will politically undermine Putin or the Kremlin. Yet a series of similar incidents could undermine Russian authorities (in the region rather than across the country), as they would point to the systemic inability of the security agencies to ensure the safety of citizens at this critical time. Simultaneously, Moscow is seeking to get the most out of the bloody attackes, for example by suggesting that it was organized from Kyiv and NATO countries as was claimed by Dagestani MP Abdulkhakim Gadzhiyev.

However, associating the Makhachkala attackers with Ukraine or the West has proven difficult even for Kremlin officials. A far more credible link has been revealed between the attackers and local officials, three of which were related to the head of Sergokalinsky district in eastern Dagestan, Magomed Omarov. Despite a series of official statements about the detention of Omarov and his expulsion from the United Russia ruling party, as well as several recorded video apologies from members of his family, the links between the disgraced regional official and the attackers remain unclear. Pro-Jihadist sympathies among Dagestani officials and the participation of their family members in the republic’s Islamist insurgency were previously recorded during the peak of the insurgency in the 2010s. However, the June 23 attacks demonstrate an unprecedented development as the attackers were not known for their involvement with the Jihadist underground. The absence of an official claim of responsibility for the attack from the local Islamic State Group branch “Vilayat Kavkaz” makes it even more difficult to establish the attackers’ affiliation to existing Jihadist groups in the region. Conversely, one of the attackers was a member of the pro-Kremlin “Just Russia” political party, another associated with the famous MMA wrestling club owned by Khabib Nurmagomedov, indicating that the suspected militants were associated with Dagestani elites.

While the Jihadist attack on Moscow’s “Crocus” centre in March was a first indication of Russia’s inadequate preparedness to counter terrorism, and demonstrated a mediocre performance by its security services, the Makhachkala attacks in June further confirm that Moscow lacks effective rapid response mechanisms to counter a rising Islamist threat. Efforts to delegate the blame for Jihadist attacks on Ukraine and the West not only increase the complacency of Russia’s security services (such as the FSB), but also reduce their capacity to prevent similar attacks in future.

CONCLUSIONS: There is a real prospect that a worsening situation on the Ukraine front necessitating a new round of mobilization in Russia and/or a further deterioration of the socio-economic situation in the country could trigger a revival of the resistance, which has deep roots in the North Caucasus. Moscow would then face a partisan movement, whether Islamist or ethno-separatist, for which there are clear precedents in the republic and in the region.

The Makhachkala attacks therefore demonstrated that – in a situation of more limited control by the security forces – Dagestan remains a potentially explosive republic, where individuals equipped with firearms and lacking connections to any established armed groups are able to carry out simultaneous armed operations. Thousands of Dagestanis who in the 2000s and early 2010s first fought in the local resistance and then reoriented themselves to the Syrian civil war, currently lack a battlefield where they can deploy.

Dissatisfaction with systemic corruption, lack of political freedoms, and the worsening economic situation in the republic has not disappeared. Yet the options for channeling this dissatisfaction wihtin the republic have so far been very limited. Simultaneously, the weakening of Dagestan’s security services have resulted in reduced control over the republic’s Islamist environment. Thus, the attacks should serve as a wake up call. Russia is neglecting the socio-economic and security situation in this key North Caucasian republic at its own peril.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Emil A. Souleimanov is a professor at Charles University. Huseyn Aliyev is a Lecturer at Central & East European Studies, University of Glasgow.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.

Read 5253 times Last modified on Wednesday, 03 July 2024

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