BACKGROUND: For several years, the Kremlin has shown little concern over terrorists or potential terrorists from the North Caucasus or other Muslim enclaves of the Russian Federation going to Afghanistan to fight. The late Emir Seifullakh, one of the leaders of the North Caucasian resistance, even claimed that the Kremlin has supported such ventures in the past. The reason for such a calculation was quite clear: those who were training to fight in foreign countries would most likely never return to Russia. The Kremlin’s chief concern was not the Russian Islamists who went abroad but the foreign jihadists, mostly of Middle Eastern and Pakistani origin of various ethnic backgrounds who came to Russia. The foreign fighters brought not only stamina, dedication and expertise but also weapons and funds. Some of the foreign fighters, such as Ibn al-Khattab, played an important role in the First Chechen War.
This situation, however, has recently changed. By the beginning of the Second Chechen War, the number of foreign fighters and funding declined considerably in Russia. At the same time, another trend emerged: increasing numbers of Russian jihadists went to foreign countries to fight, primarily to Afghanistan and later to Syria. While some of these fighters became fully engaged in foreign wars and the international jihad movement, others decided to return to Russia to proceed with the fight and apply the skills they had acquired abroad. Moscow has become increasingly concerned over this development, especially regarding the ability of returning jihadists to use acquired experiences or materials to engage in terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction.
Moscow’s concerns were not groundless. Russian authorities have started to deal with jihadists who, upon receiving training and experience in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, return to Russia. Their plans to use weapons of mass destruction either directly or indirectly are not just empty talk. In October 2013, Russian law enforcement arrested two young men from the North Caucasus who planned to blow up the Maradykovskii factory in the Kirov region.
The factory engages in the destruction of chemical weapons, and an explosion in the facilities could lead to mass casualties. The detained men had a map of the factory and possibly a helper inside among the factory personnel. They had passports for travel abroad and were planning to go to Syria. One local noted that such an alarm (perepolokh) had not been heard in the region in at least the last ten years. Alarmed by the event, the authorities increased security arrangements in the Kazan Gunpowder factory. Yet, they were not able to prevent another terrorism attempt. On November 16, an unknown individual fired a rocket at the petro-chemical plant in Nizhnekamsk, again a target against which a successful terrorist attack could have led to mass casualties.
IMPLICATIONS: What do these developments imply for Moscow’s foreign policy? To start with, President Putin’s interest in eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons is not a sham and cannot be reduced to a desire to provide his U.S. counterpart with an excuse for not launching a strike against Syria and a possible broader conflict with Iran. The Kremlin genuinely wants to eliminate chemical weapons that could, especially in the case of the Assad regime’s collapse, fall into the hands of the jihadist insurgents who could then transport them to Russia. The same consideration also plays a role in the Kremlin’s desire to keep Assad in power. The Russian government understands that the entire chemical weapon stockpiles might not be destroyed and that the regime’s collapse could well help potential terrorists obtain chemical weapons for future use in Russia. Secondly, the Kremlin has now started to comprehend the danger that Russian jihadists who are trained to fight in foreign countries could return to Russia in the future. It has also begun to consider instability far from Russia’s borders as a security problem for Russia itself and has ended its policy of implicitly encouraging jihadists from Russia to go abroad to fight, and Russian authorities now treat them in the same way as those who are preparing to fight inside Russia. For example, in May 2013 Russian law enforcement arrested the members of a terrorist organization in Astrakhan who recruited people to fight in the North Caucasus, as well as Afghanistan and Syria.
Finally, the Kremlin’s desire to increase its influence in Central Asia is not due exclusively to its interest in reaping economic benefits or preventing the U.S. and China from increasing their influence in the region at Russia’s expense. It is also due to a genuine fear of an influx of jihadists from Afghanistan with experience in handling all types of weaponry. Indeed, already at the May 2013 CSTO summit in Bishkek, Putin expressed concern over NATO’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is clear that the Kremlin, while pleased with the decline of U.S. influence in many parts of the world, views the abrupt end of the U.S.-led venture in Afghanistan as deeply concerning. The Kremlin understands the risk that jihadists could well move north – to Central Asia and Russia proper.
There is no doubt that Moscow’s anxiety will increase when the actual withdrawal starts. While the common interest in curbing the spread of jihadism outside Afghanistan and Syria is a factor that could provide a ground for cooperation between Russia and the West, such prospects do not seem overly optimistic, as demonstrated by the experience of the Sochi Olympic games where Moscow rejected broad U.S.-Russian intelligence cooperation against the terrorist threat. Although limited cooperation on these issues is possible even in the perspective of current developments in Ukraine, the Kremlin remains deeply suspicious of Western intentions.
CONCLUSIONS: Moscow desire to limit U.S./Western influence is just one of one of the variables determining Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Kremlin is increasingly concerned that increasing numbers of jihadists from Russia could return home after receiving training and combat experience in Syria and elsewhere. It especially dreads the potential use of weapons of mass destruction by these fighters and has already experienced a handful of such attempts. While the Kremlin understands that the West is facing a similar problem, the development of deeper cooperation to counter international terrorism is unlikely due not just to events in Ukraine but also because of a general Russian distrust of Western intentions.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.
(Image Attribution: Mas BaEn’s)