ISIS: a Threat to the Greater Caucasus

ISIS: a Threat to the Greater Caucasus

By Sergei Markedonov

Over the past two years, the political dynamics in the Greater Caucasus region (the North Caucasian republics within the Russian Federation and countries of Transcaucasia) has been overshadowed by developments in Ukraine and the Middle East.


Meanwhile, the region continues to face a large number of risks, ranging from unresolved ethnic conflicts (the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in particular) and competing integration projects (the Eurasian project and the North Atlantic one) to terrorist activities committed under the banner of radical Islamism [1]. In the summer and autumn of 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) jihadist grouping identified Russia and the Caucasus region as targets for its struggle [2]. How dangerous will the export of ISIS capabilities and ideology be for the Greater Caucasus region?


Various risk factors


Currently, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which has initially self-proclaimed itself on Iraqi territory, has greatly expanded its authority far beyond the borders of that country. ISIS influence has been seen in Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian republics. Moreover, quite a number of people from European countries are fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State [3]. The grouping is carrying out its terrorist activities directly on the territory of EU member countries. And even in North America, governments and law enforcement agencies are faced today with countering the activities of this most powerful jihadist grouping [4].


On the surface, the threat posed by the Islamic State does not look that grave. Its declared global goals notwithstanding, the Islamic State’s activities are currently confined to two Middle East countries, namely Iraq and Syria. For the rest of the world ISIS appears to be a kind of “ideological franchise.”


As such, over its short existence, ISIS has already managed to make many enemies. Even Saudi Arabia, a country often associated with funding and supporting jihadism, considers this grouping to be a terrorist structure [5], let alone Turkey and, particularly, Iran, which, along with the West and the Shiites, are regarded by the Islamic State as its main enemies.


It should be noted that the number of terrorist attacks in the Russian Caucasus has been steadily declining. If in the fourth quarter of 2014, 168 people fell victim to terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage (101 killed and 67 wounded), in the first quarter of 2015, this figure fell to 51 (31 killed and 19 wounded). In the second quarter of this year, there were 44 casualties (38 killed and 6 wounded). Many leaders of the Islamist underground, such as Aliaskhab Kebekov, the ringleader of the terrorist Caucasus Emirate, were eliminated [6]. In Azerbaijan, religious radicals have been split (in the southern part, they look up to Iran and Shiite Islam, while in the northern part – to Dagestan and the Salafi movement) [7]. Commenting on threats to the Georgian national security, Defense Minister Mrs. Tinatin Khidasheli said at the end of July 2015 that she did not expect the Islamic State to create any problems in Georgia [8].


Experts also point out that the adherents of the specific, to put it mildly, ISIS version of Islam believe that most Caucasian Muslims are following the wrong religion. Therefore, their identity is no longer Caucasian in the strict sense of the word: the self-proclaimed caliphate has become their new homeland and the struggle for it has become its top priority [9].


Alongside this, recognizing the truth of the above arguments, it is impossible to ignore another set of problems. After leaders of the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant proclaimed on June 29, 2014 the establishment of a caliphate on the territories under their control, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being named its caliph, the latter in his July 1, 2014 address “A Message to the Mujahideen and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan” [10] issued the call to jihad and urged Muslims to emigrate to the caliphate. He enumerated the regions of the world from which al hijra (migration) was particularly desirable, and the Caucasus was mentioned among others [11].


Radical jihadists, claiming to be defenders of “pure Islam” on a global scale, had prior to this mentioned the Caucasus in their appeals extremely rarely, although some representatives of al-Qaeda and related structures came to light in the Russian Caucasus in the recent past [12]. But since the summer of 2014, the Caucasus region has been regarded by the Islamic State as one of its primary ideological and political enemies.


ISIS against the Russian Caucasus


In early September 2014, representatives of the Islamic State released a video threatening Russian President Vladimir Putin and promising to “dethrone him.” ISIS militants expressed their readiness to participate in the “liberation of Chechnya and all of the Caucasus.” [13]


And although last year's message blamed Russia’s leader, above all, for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the North Caucasian context was not just a passing reference. According to SITE Intelligence Group analysts (which monitors the activities of terrorist and jihadist groups), the Islamic State is paying special attention to Russia due to the influence of immigrants from the North Caucasus [14].


One of the major reasons behind Russia's stance on Syria, which has been consistently maintained since the very beginning of the civil conflict in that Middle Eastern country, is the due attention paid to the possible consequences should radical jihadists gain a victory in that country and neighboring states, and should states collapse throughout the entire Middle East region. The unfolding of such a scenario could have a negative impact on the situation in Russia and in its immediate vicinity.


In recent years, Syria has become, on the one hand, a rallying point for radical Salafists from the North Caucasus, while on the other, the situation these is shaping the minds of not just these individuals, but of other Russian Muslims too. There is little doubt that dozens and hundreds of young people in Syria are learning how to fight against regular armies and state security forces, experience which they can later use against Russian interests [15]. Moreover, Moscow has consistently promoted an interfaith dialogue, while the Russian project per se is positioned as a fusion of different cultures, peoples and religious confessions [16].


However, the problem of the Islamic State now is not just a foreign policy challenge. This structure is laying down roots in the North Caucasus.


On November 21, 2014 Suleiman (Movsar) Zaylanabidov, one of the commanders of insurgents operating in the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan, swore allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A month later, on December 19, 2014 Abu Muhammad al-Kadarskii, the emir of the so-called Dagestan Vilayat, followed suit [17].


On June 12, 2015 the commander of suicide bombers’ brigade Riyad-us-Saliheen (Gardens of the Righteous in Arabic) [18] Aslan Byutukaev swore allegiance to the ISIS leader (in his address, he spoke on behalf of all jihadists in Chechnya). Nine days later it was reported via the Internet that militants from several North Caucasus republics pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. According to the tape, all jihadists of various Vilayats (as the provinces of the Caucasus Emirate are called) [19], including those of Dagestan, Nokhchiycho (Chechnya/Ichkeria), Galgaycho (Ingushetia and North Ossetia) as well as the United Vilayat of Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay are united in this decision, and they have neither religious nor political disagreements [20].


Thus, by the end of 2014, a number of rebel warlords in the North Caucasus pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and not to the Caucasus Emirate. The North Caucasus sabotage and terrorist underground did face splits before (in 2010, Doku Umarov broke with some warlords of Chechnya). However, these splits took place inside the region and occurred without interference from powerful external forces (even remotely matching the Islamic State).


Traces of the Islamic State in Georgia and in Azerbaijan


Georgia faces a certain degree of influence from the Islamic State as well. So, Abu Omar al-Shishani aka Abu Omar the Chechen, as he is often referred to in the Russian media, is very close to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili (his farther is a Georgian, while his mother belongs to the Kist people, who are a Chechen subethnos living in the Pankisi Gorge) [21]. According to Umar Idigov, the head of the Integration Fund of the Caucasus People and a prominent member of the Council of Elders of the Pankisi Gorge, about two hundred Chechens-Kistinians from Pankisi were involved in the civil war in Syria back in 2013 [22]. In June 2015, Georgian special services detained in the Pankisi Gorge five people suspected of ties with the Islamic State, including Salafi Imam Ayub Borchashvili, who played a significant role in radicalizing young people in the Akhmeta district of Georgia [23]. In addition to the Pankisi Gorge, traces of the Islamic State have been found in the Kvemo Kartli region (mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis) and in Adjaria (an autonomous region home to Muslim Georgians) [24].


The Islamic State is causing problems in Azerbaijan as well. The ethnic Azerbaijani Abdulla Abdullayev (he was detained during a special operation by the Turkish secret services) used to be one of the most influential recruiters for ISIS, who had organized Caucasian jihadists’ transit through Turkey to the Middle East until July 2015 [25]. Jihadists of Azerbaijani origin have been fighting for some years in the ranks of various terrorist groups in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In early 2015, information emerged about the death of 100 ISIS insurgents of Azerbaijani origin during the armed conflict in Syria, and ten suspected Islamists were arrested by the Ministry of National Security of Azerbaijan [26].


New threats and Islamic traditions


Moreover, it is necessary to emphasize that the discourse of radical Islamism and jihadism is not new to the Greater Caucasus region. The Caucasus Emirate was proclaimed by Doku Umarov in October 2007 [27]. Since then, his followers have managed to commit many bold and bloody crimes. However, the reduced number of terrorist attacks notwithstanding, it would be at least naive to believe that such views are a thing of the past. Radical moods are being fed by unresolved social problems as well (such as land disputes and ineffective secular authorities and judicial systems). The radicals have more than once made themselves known in Georgia (suffice it to recall the controversial special operation in early September 2012 against an armed group close to Lapankuri village in the Lopota gorge and the Gldani prison scandal, which played a decisive role in the heavy defeat of Saakashvili’s supporters during the parliamentary elections) [28].


Jihadists were observed in Azerbaijan too: diplomats from other countries and representatives of power structures of the republic have made reports of their activities as a security risk more than once. Accordingly, citizens of Saudi Arabia went on trial on charges of terrorist attacks and of having links with al-Qaeda (for example, in May 2008) [29]. Thus, ISIS missionaries and recruiters will act knowing the region and its peculiarities, as its natives could provide the required assistance. It should also be noted that apart from ISIS followers in the Middle East, there are Caucasian militants, albeit not many in number, who have already sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi [30].


In contrast to the terrorist network structure of al-Qaeda, ISIS is consistently trying to carry out the project of state-building. Today, it is confined to Iraqi and Syrian territory. At that, supporters of the Islamic State (in Russian too) actively promote not only cruel punishment and scenes of “fighting for the faith,” but also social order on the territory controlled by them. They are presented as an alternative to what the world is today, with a strong emphasis on the idea of justice and the rejection of corruption and lack of spirituality [31].


Therefore, to date, the so-called Islamic State represents a complex challenge to Russian security. First, it stands against Russia’s national interests in the Middle East and in the post-Soviet space (ISIS representatives have indicated their desire to gain a foothold in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries). Second, the Islamic State’s export of subversive and terrorist activities creates additional security risks inside Russia, threatens interfaith dialogue and the civic unity of Russian society, which represents various ethnic groups and religious confessions. Meanwhile, any internal political destabilization (especially in conjunction with radical jihadism or separatism) could be used by external forces as a means to interfere in Russian affairs in order to weaken Russia’s international influence.




Given the complex nature of the threat posed by ISIS, it would be expedient to intensify preparations of of adequate solutions. In this regard, it appears reasonable to:


Coordinate the activities of diplomatic agencies and special services of the Caucasus region on this issue;

Establish coordination structures in the Russian government bodies and law enforcement agencies to ensure constant interaction between domestic policies (in the North Caucasus for example) and foreign policies (the Middle East, the Caucasus countries);

Intensify propagandistic and awareness-building efforts to promote Caucasian Islam (the Russian form in Russia) to counter-balance the extreme jihadist version of ISIS.























12. Markedonov S. Radical Islam in the North Caucasus. Report. Washington. Center for Strategic and International Studies.2010.












18. This subversive and terrorist unit was created in 2002 by Shamil Basayev. It became known during the terrorist attack in Moscow in October 2002, when terrorists seized the Dubrovka Theater Center during a performance of the Nord-Ost musical.


19. The Caucasus Emirate is a self-proclaimed theocracy, which Russian Federation and the United States have recognized as a terrorist organization. It was established in October 2007. Currently, it is being actively ousted by the Islamic State, claiming to be the main shock power of jihadists in the North Caucasus and other regions of Russia populated by Muslims.






In 2008, Abu Omar al-Shishani participated in the “five-day war” in South Ossetia, but failed to find himself in military service. Later on, he went to Turkey and then to the Middle East, where he joined the Islamic State.



According to the 2002 population census in Georgia, the number of the Kist people is about 7.1 thousand.












28. At that time an armed group of Islamic militants was spotted in a remote Caucasian gorge of Lopota. Some of the militants killed during the deadly clash were identified as citizens of Georgia, residents of Pankisi. At first, official structures (the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the government) denied the existence of Georgian citizens among the militants. But then the name of one of the liquidated individuals became known: Aslan Margoshvili (a 23 year-old native of Duisi village and a third-year student of the Moscow University). He and some other killed militants belonged to the radical youth. See:









Sergei Markedonov, PhD in History, Associate Professor, Department of Regional Studies and Foreign Policy, Russian State University for the Humanities, RIAC Expert








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