Meanwhile, the December 19 assassination of Andrei Karpov, Russian ambassador to Turkey — by a Turkish policeman who shouted “Allahu Akbar” and made said his act was revenge for the Russian bombing of Aleppo — have renewed Kremlin concerns about backlash to their actions in Syria.
Today, December 20, President Vladimir Putin gave a speech at a concert to honor State Security Agency Workers’ Day that focused on Russia’s counter-terrorism initiatives. He said that the murder of the Russian envoy in Turkey has “caused particular pain to us.” He also expressed condolences to Germany for yesterday’s terrorist attack in Berlin that killed 12 and injured 48.
Putin ordered intelligence agencies to work with their colleagues abroad to increase the security of Russian foreign offices and personnel. State security agencies and the National Anti-Terrorist Committee must “maintain extreme concentration and engagement.”
“Carefully and skillfully, you must go on acting on all the anti-terrorist fronts. Among these are the neutralization of militants and their leaders, the prevention of terrorist crimes and the termination of funding channels for terrorism.”
Putin also called for attention to social networks; saying young people should not be allowed “to be drawn to radical groups.” Clearly, Putin has no intention of ignoring these recent events. In fact, he likely wants to use them to advance various parts of his agenda.
Fragmentary and Contradictory Reports of Violence in Grozny
The disjointed news stories and official statements that have come out of Chechnya in recent days about the suspected militants killed in Grozny last week only indicate that the Kadyrov government is likely not telling the whole story about what happened.
It is not clear, for example, whether the young men shot dead after running over a policeman were part of an organized terrorist group or were related to ISIS.
Apparently, three men were killed in a clash within Grozny, but Kadyrov first described a clash on a Grozny street, and uploaded a clip to show the area was safe now, then later berated the press for describing the clashes as taking part within the city.
Kadyrov also uploaded a clip of special forces trudging through the snow near a ravine outside of town, then showed four bodies laid out neatly — although it is not clear where and how they were killed or if they are related to the first incident.
As Liz Fuller of RFE/RL’s Caucasus Report noted, the motives and the affiliation of the Grozny militants in question are not clear and reports are contradictory. Grozny residents gave accounts of shoot-outs at two different locations within the city. The incidents took place after a sports event with visitors from other cities near a hotel where some of the guests were staying, RFE/RL reported.
A surveillance camera footage unofficially uploaded to YouTube shows a traffic policeman run over by a speeding car, and the shoot-out that followed.
The shoot-outs in Grozny were the most major incident since December 2014, when militants from the Caucasus Emirate attacked the press house and a school in Grozny, resulting in the deaths of 14 militants, 11 policemen and one civilian. Their attack appeared doomed from the start but was planned; it’s not clear if the young Chechens who ran over the policeman this past weekend, apparently in a stolen car, had planned an attack on police.
Regional commentators on the violence said the young men could have been motivated by rebellion against Kadyrov’s autocratic rule rather than following instructions from ISIS, although given the history of the Caucasus Emirate, Islamist terrorism cannot be ruled out.
Just what is the scope of the ISIS problem within Russia and how many Russian citizens have joined the terrorist movement?
3,200 Russians Reportedly Joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq
On November 21 of this year, Ilya Rogachev, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department on New Challenges and Threats, said “more than 3,200 Russians had gone to Syria and Iraq to fight on the side of terrorists since the start of the conflict,” Gazeta reported.
“In recent years, the global terrorist threat has acquired a new quality due to the appearance and activism of ISIL. Iraq and Syria are at the epicenter of activity of this group. Even so, threats are clearly present in other countries and regions of the world as well: in North Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Europe has not been bypassed by such ‘attention’. We, too, sense it in Russia.”
He said that according to Russia’s evaluations, “the threat emanates from fighters of Russian origin who have been ‘broken in’ in Iraq and Syria.”
How did the number jump from 2,900 reported by the FSB in December 2015 to 3,200 in November 2016, despite Russian law-enforcement’s surveillance and prosecution, and despite the number of militants Russia reportedly killed? As we see, some of Russia’s own estimates go even further, to 4,000, yet no evidence is supplied to back up any of these claims.
A Non-withdrawal, and Confusion Over Whom Russia is Supposedly Killing
In the original source, Makarov even gave a precise figure of 3,417 Russian citizens, and said “about 200 neophytes” had joined ISIS who had accepted Islam but were not residents of Russian provinces where Islam was “traditional.” He said some of them returned and criminal cases had been opened up against them. As of the end of 2015, 900 criminal cases were under investigation involving Russian citizens who had fought with ISIS.
“At this time, 2,800 Russian citizens are under surveillance by the FSB who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to take part in combat. In addition, 92 recruiters were exposed for the Islamic State, a terrorist organization banned in Russia and other foreign unlawful armed formations.”
Makarov also claimed at the time that the situation in the North Caucasus was stabilized because radials from the region went to fight with ISIS. Terrorist attacks within Russia and killings by Russian troops of suspected Islamists do seem to have lessened in the last year, but not disappeared entirely as this past week’s incident illustrates.
As of March 2016, 20 Russian police officers were killed in battles with Islamists, a figure that was three times as less as in 2014, according to Makarov.
It is worth looking back at the figures officials have given over the last two years, and also to understand their provenance.
History of Russian Government Estimates of Its Citizens in ISIS
In his annual report of the FSB’s activities on December 14 at a meeting of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee and the Federal Operations Headquarters, FSB chief Bortnikov said said they had “prevented 42 terrorist attacks and destroyed 129 fighters, Gazeta reported:
“This year in Russia, during counter-terrorist operations, 129 fighters have been destroyed, including 22 heads of the bandit underground. Forty-two terrorist attacks were prevented including in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod.”
What we could conclude is that Russia has seen the number of its citizens fighting on the side of ISIS double, even by its own official numbers, as it has become more active in Syria, launching a bombing campaign in September 2015. And there is some indication (from the Chechen intelligence agents cited by the New Yorker) that the number is far greater than admitted.
While Moscow has enabled Islamists in Russia to go to Syria and track them, it does not seem able (or willing?) to stop them from either leaving or returning to Russia; only some are arrested. The trials are very rarely publicized; we recall the case of one man with very scant information provided whose conviction was publicized on the eve of the bombing in September 2015; another, involving a woman student at Moscow State University with much more coverage is now on trial, and there have been a few others.
So it seems that just as Russia was unable to hold Palmyra after ostensibly taking it from ISIS, so it has not solved its own domestic problem of Islamist fighters tied to ISIS — and the extent of the problem may be larger than admitted and at least in part of its own making.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick