Staunton, April 13 – Statements by Russian security officials and actions by siloviki [law-enforcers] including declaring a new counter-terrorism operation against an area of 4,500 square kilometers with some 368,000 people show that Dagestan has become “the northern front” of the Islamic State, according to Anton Bredikhin.
In a study on the Kavkazoved portal, the analyst notes that “the authorities and special services are worried that participants [from the North Caucasus] in the illegal armed formations [of ISIS] will again return to Russia and that the terrorist war [there] will continue with new force).
Senior FSB officials have identified North Caucasians among the senior commanders of ISIS and have suggested that “no less than” 1700 Russian citizens are now fighting with that force, almost all of whom are from the North Caucasus and especially from Dagestan, the most Muslim of Russia’s southern republics.
This statistic by itself, Bredikhin says, “means only one thing: the next goal of the Islamic State can be the Caucasus and its most currently unstable part – Dagestan.”
For the last three weeks, Russian siloviki have been conducting a counter-terrorist operation in six adjoining regions of Daghestan: Buynaksk, Novolak, Kazbek, Khasavyurt, and Kizilyurt, areas that include not only highland rural areas but the cities of Buynaksk, Kizilyurt and Khasavyurt as well.
The scale of the operation suggests, the analyst says, citing the work of Akhmet Yarlykapov, a scholar at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, that the Russian force structures have “operational information” about the appearance in Dagestan of former militants of the Islamic State.
Sergei Melikov, the presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus, adds that “we are receiving information about the recruiters of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ appearing in our higher educational institutions, and this means that that the authorities … must devote close attention to the extra-curricular activities of students.”
Students because of their stage of life are attractive candidates for recruitment, he suggests. Others, like Aleksandr Perendzhiyev of the Association of Independent Military Political Analysts, say that the Islamic State is quite familiar with the presence of Wahhabism and radicalism in the North Caucasus and Dagestan “above all.”
Bredikhin says that Russian official figures confirm the increasing activity of militants in Dagestan: between 2010 and 2014, the number of terrorist crimes there went up from 63 to 472, the number of people identified as having committed them from 36 to 251, the number of extremist crimes from five to 50, and the number of people identified as having committed them from one to twelve.
So far, the ISIS-linked groups are less well-organized and aggressive than the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion which has gained fame for its fight against pro-Moscow forces in Ukraine. But whether this will remain the case is very much an open question, the North Caucasus analyst says.
But regardless of how limited the threat appears to some in Chechnya and Moscow now, “that ‘a Northern Front’ of ISIS has been opened in Dagestan is a confirmed fact.” And Dagestan is ultimately only a small part of the problem, Bredikhin says.
The ISIS returnees have formed “a straight line of instability” between the Islamic State, the Pankisi Gorge, and Dagestan. Whether it will intensify and spread further depends, he suggests, on what Moscow does next. But the center’s task is clear: it must “strengthen its positions in the Caucasus and the Near East” in order to protect Russian territory.