How Many Russians Are Fighting for ISIS? A Brief History of The Kremlin’s Arbitrary Numbers

December 20, 2016
Caucasus Emirate graffiti in Latakia left by Chechen fighters. Photo via

How Many Russians Are Fighting for ISIS? A Brief History of The Kremlin’s Arbitrary Numbers

The clashes in Grozny between December 17 and 18, which left seven militants and three traffic police dead, have re-opened the question of the nature of the insurgency that Russia faces and the effectiveness of Russian counter-terrorism methods.

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.

Rogachev commented:

“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.”

“According to data from law-enforcement agencies and intelligence, more than 3,200 have traveled to the conflict zone. In a number of cases the persons indicated, after gaining experience running combat operations and acquiring ties to international terrorist organizations, upon return to Russia join the bandit underground active on the territory of the North Caucasus region.”
Gazeta noted that a year ago, on December 15, 2015, the FSB reported that it had counted 2,900 Russians “suspected of joining the terrorists of Syria and Iraq.” They said they had “destroyed 198 in the course of battle and 214 returned” to Russia.
“They have all been placed under tight control in law-enforcement agencies: 80 have been tried, 41 arrested,” Aleksandr Bortnikov, head of the FSB reported.
At that time about 1,000 Russians were said to be under investigation for taking part in combat abroad.
The reports of precise numbers and accounts of tracking fighters as they leave Russia and return — and in some cases statistics about their arrests and trials — open up the question of how much the FSB controls these fighters, not only to gather intelligence but to perform missions.
As we reported, “The Russian special services have controlled” the flow of Islamist radicals from Russia to Syria “from the very beginning,” according to Yelena Milashina of Novaya Gazeta. They haven’t interfered, and sometimes have assisted it, seeing “a threat to state security only in those who try to return from this war.”
But while FSB chief Bortnikov and others seem sure of their numbers, it is important to note that they have changed significantly over time in recent years in ways Russian authorities never seem to account for.

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

More curiously, this past March, when the Kremlin announced that it was withdrawing some of its air force and personnel from Syria, Putin listed among his accomplishments in Syria that “2,000 bandits had been killed, natives of Russia, among them 17 field commanders.” The structure of that phrase leaves it somewhat unclear as to whether in fact 2,000 natives of Russia were killed, or whether 2,000 ISIS fighters were killed and among them were Russian natives. At that time, Russian authorities had estimated the number of fighters in Syria who were originally from Russia to be 2,700, a number that appears to be based largely on a single informant’s source. Therefore it seems convenient that now “only 700” are left.
Russia was said to be among the top three suppliers of fighters to ISIS, along with Saudi Arabia and Tunisia
To add to the mystery, that same month (March 2016), according to Vladimir Makarov, deputy head of the counter-extremism bureau of the Interior Ministry, there were “up to 3,500 Russian citizens” in ISIS, Time reported, citing Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia’s state newspaper of record..

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 claimed that “the flow of Russians into the ranks of the Islamists has been virtually completely cut off.” They were stopped from flying to Turkey and intercepted at the Turkish-Syrian border, he said.

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.

And there have been some attacks now recorded outside the North Caucasus in Moscow and St. Petersburg, after years of these cities being free of terrorist incidents.

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.

Makarov’s statement inevitably lent support for the theory that Russia solved its domestic terrorism problem by enabling Islamist fighters to go abroad, where they had a good chance of being killed, and where they might be more easily caught at the border when attempting to return home.
But how could the president’s citation of the number of terrorists (2,000), most of whom were supposedly killed on the battlefield, be so different than the number one of his top counter-terrorist officials is citing (3,417)?

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 February 2015, at a conference on combating extremism sponsored by the White House, FSB director Aleksandr Bortnikov said that “up to 1,700 Russian citizens may be fighting in Iraq on the side of the Islamic State.” It was during this period that the large number was given for the first time, and experts in other countries also began to note with alarm that their citizens were joining ISIS.
In November 2015, Oleg Syromolotov, deputy foreign minister for counter-terrorism gave the figure of ISIS fighters from Russia as 2,719, of which 160 had been killed.
At that time he said 73 returned and were arrested and tried and 36 were in pre-trial investigation.
In December 2015, Dagestan’s Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomed said that a number of residents of Dagestan had left for Syria with their wives and children. He said there were 900 fighters from Dagestan in ISIS, and there were 650 open criminal cases in Russia as a whole regarding persons alleged to have participated in ISIS abroad.
What caused a surge from February 2015 to November 2015 to bring some 1,000 new fighters to ISIS, even as supposedly hundreds returned home and were arrested, creating 650 criminal cases? 
There may not have been any incident, as the figures themselves appear to be arbitrary. 
The original figure of 1,500 was based on the testimony of one Islamist suspect arrested by Russia who reported on training camps for his fellow Russian citizens.
The arrest of Rashid Yevloyev, a Russian citizen from North Ossetia, in January 2016 revived the coverage of “Islambek,” a fighter reported by Kommersant to gave testimony against Yevloyev, said to be from Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a jihadist group made up of Arabs active in fighting the Syrian government.
This is the group said to be joined by many Chechens from Russia; it is said to be the main recipient of “green corridor” militants channeled from the North Caucasus to Syria, according to research by Yelena Milashina of Novaya Gazeta cited in an article by The Interpreter’s editor-in-chief Michael Weiss.
Islambek said he himself joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar in February 2013 after flying to Istanbul and then making his way to Haritan to a Caucasus Emirate camp commanded by Feyzulla Margoshvili, a fighter from the Pankisi Valley in Georgia who used the name Salakh ash-Shishani. He said there were 1,500 fighters from Russia at the camp, equipped not only with small arms, grenade-launchers, and 23-mm anti-aircraft artillery, but also the Igla and Strela surface-to-air missile systems.
Islambek said the fighters lived in multi-story dwellings in groups of 30 to 100, divided up by ethnicity or “profession.” So there were buildings for Dagestanis from the village of Gimri, Azeris, and Crimeans as well as for spetsnaz and explosives experts, said Kommersant. This is how he arrived at his number — estimating the number of houses.
Thus the testimony of one fighter (who has not been seen by reporters) who is now reported to cooperate with the FSB is the basis for the bulk of the number of Russian citizens said to have joined ISIS.
From this base of 1,500, the FSB went on to claim “1,700” fighters throughout 2014 and then increased this to “2,700” in 2015.
Are there any other estimates independent of the Russian government? It seems both Russian and Western scholars use the figures issued by Russian law-enforcement. 

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.”
In addition, 898 “bandits,” i.e. Islamist fighters, were detained and the head of the Vilayat Caucasus, the local branch of the Islamic State, was killed, Bortnikov reported. In Moscow, 12 person were arrested on suspicion of terrorism.
The number of suspected Islamist terrorist killed is actually much reduced from past years when it could go as high as 400. This was a result of encouraging fighters to go abroad to fight with ISIS and die on the battlefield there; also the successive killing of the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, a group recognized as terrorist by the US and other countries we well as Russia, scattered their followers.
The numbers of Russian citizens fighting in ISIS continue to be hard to pin down, and seem to vary depending on political circumstances and the speaker. In November, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Chechnya said 480 people had joined ISIS from Chechnya; about 200 of them were “destroyed” and 47 young people who “had been deceived into joining ISIS” had been returned to Chechnya. Kadyrov’s figures appeared to create the impression that the issue was waning.
But as reported, Chechen intelligence officials told the New Yorker that between 3,000 and 4,000 Chechens left to fight for IS — a figure as large as the number given for all Russian citizens by officials in the past year.
Mairbek Vatchagaev, an ethnic Chechen and co-editor in chief of the journal Caucuses Survey told “About 3,000 Chechen fighters went through that mash since the beginning.”
Kadyrov said the number of fighters overall ranged “from 50,000 to 200,000 fighters”. 
But scholars at Northwestern University have estimates that are far fewer for foreign fighters in ISIS, with between “5,000 and 5,400” from Europe, which presumably includes Russia.
The Pentagon has said 50,000 fighters have been killed by the US-led offensive since 2014 and an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 remain.

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