Staunton, VA, February 5, 2017 – The Russian media is filled with stories about the threat that migrants from the Middle East and returning ISIS fighters pose for European countries, but Moscow has largely ignored the far greater danger such people pose to Russia which has its own and vastly larger Muslim population, according to Mikhail Remizov.
In an interview with Dmitry Steshin, a military correspondent with Komsomolskaya Pravda that was published yesterday, the Moscow political analyst says that Russian officials have failed to recognize this danger and assume that putting former ISIS fighters in jail for three to five years is enough to prevent bad things from happening.
Just like the Bolsheviks over a century ago, he adds, ISIS radicals aren’t discouraged by prison terms: they see them as an opportunity to perfect their radical understanding and to recruit others. Indeed, Remizov says, Muslim radicals, both homegrown and coming in from abroad, are for Russia today “the Bolsheviks of the 21stcentury,” fully capable of making a revolution.
Many in Russia are comforting with the fact that there are not that many ISIS returnees – a few thousand at most, the Moscow analyst says – forgetting that before 1917, the tsarist secret police also counted the Bolsheviks as too few to matter, but the numbers “didn’t prevent them from becoming the nucleus of the force that carried out a revolution.”
A seedbed for the radicalization of ethnic Muslims are Russia’s 725 prison camps, where “an ordinary ethnic Muslim, completely apolitical at first, often sees in ‘jamaats’ [organized by radicals] his only defense and protection, both from other prisoners and even from the administration.”
Indeed, the influence of these radical jamaats in Russian prison colonies is now so great that jailors divide the camps between those falling in the “black zone” where ordinary prisoners set the tone and a “green” one where Muslims do. According to Remizov, the radicals should be isolated as they are in Kazakhstan so they can’t spread their message.
Many argue that radical Islam as an ideology can be defeated only by an alternative ideology. At one level that may be true, the Moscow analyst suggests, but at others, the use of force against them, if it is massive and effective, can be “a convincing argument” and cost the radicals support.
Right now, Remizov says, “terrorist activity on the territory of Russia is not very high, although its potential is great.” When it is relatively low, such activity can be undercut by refusing to identify actions as having Islamist roots; but when the level of activity increases, then one must call things by their right name and thus mobilize society against them.
Remizov then described what he called “the geography of jihad” inside Russia. “Islamism as before plays a big role in Dagestan. To a lesser degree it does in Ingushetia.” The situation in the Middle Volga had gotten worse in the recent past but now has entered “a certain plateau and is not intensifying.”
At the same time, he says, Western Siberia, where Islamic traditions are weaker, is becoming a center of radicalism because migrants and returning ISIS fighters can “often set the tone” and are not opposed by indigenous Muslim groups. The same thing is true in Eastern Siberia and the Far East as well.
Steshin interjects that there is also a problem of the rise of Islamist groups in the Far North because “brigrades from Islamic regions came there in Soviet times, built cities, worked and settled.” Remizov agrees, adding that migrants internal or external “are more inclined to radicalism” than those who have been any one place for a long time.
Remizov says that he doesn’t expect large numbers of jihadists to come from Central Asia anytime soon given that most of the radicals have already left the countries of that region for Russia or the Middle East where it is easier for them to operate than it is when they are in their homelands.
But perhaps his most important observation is that Russia now faces the same kind of “second generation” problem that European countries do with their immigrants. The first generations of such migrations, other scholars have pointed out, usually seek to adapt as they make their way.
Their children, however, precisely because they have been “integrated” by learning the national language and having established themselves in the economy, are more inclined to turn to radicalism. That is now happening in Russia too, Remizov says, something that is especially dangerous given the more than 20 million “ethnic” Muslims already there.