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Russian FSB Chief: Islamic State Is A 'Terrorist International'

Security forces during a special counterterrorism operation in Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria in southern Russia.

Security forces during a special counterterrorism operation in Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria in southern Russia.

The Islamic State (IS) group has become a de facto "terrorist international," the director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) has said.

Aleksandr Bortnikov said that IS had absorbed militants from around the world, significantly increasing its capacity.

Bortnikov made his comments on December 9 at a meeting of Russia's National Antiterrorist Committee (NAC), of which he is chairman. The meeting discussed the terrorist threat to Russia over the past year and plans to counter it in 2015.

While praising the Russian security services for thwarting eight domestic terrorist attacks in 2014, the FSB director admitted that the "North Caucasus bandit underground" had remained active. This was almost certainly in part a reference to the recent terrorist attacks in Grozny for which the North Caucasus Salafist-jihadist militant group the Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility.

That Bortnikov mentioned the threat of Islamic State alongside the threat of the Caucasus Emirate -- which he did not name specifically -- reflects a growing concern in Russia about the domestic terror threat posed by Islamic State. These concerns are not baseless, at least in terms of the threat posed by the increasing trend of radicalization by Islamic State propaganda. However, the comment could also indicate a tendency to conflate or at least hint at a correlation between the militant insurgency in the North Caucasus and the rather amorphous threat of "Islamic State radicalization."

It is not surprising that Bortnikov did not refer specifically to the Grozny attacks nor suggest that the Islamic State group itself was responsible for them -- after all, the Caucasus Emirate explicitly claimed responsibility for the Grozny assault and the FSB has not suggested that any other group was behind the events.

However, there has been a clear trend in some parts of the Russian media and among some analysts to suggest that Islamic State was in fact behind the recent terror activity in Chechnya. There are likely a number of reasons for this narrative. As in other countries, there have been increasing fears in the post-Soviet region of the effects of Islamic State on domestic security. There are also political reasons for suggesting that the the Sunni group was behind the Grozny attacks. Moscow has seen Chechnya as a successful outcome of its main project in the North Caucasus: stabilization and the elimination of separatism, terrorism, and (as part of that) the radical Islam espoused by the Caucasus Emirate militant group in favor of the "Chechen Sufism" promoted by pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

The December terror attack in Grozny therefore calls into question Chechnya's security and the ability of the Chechen government (and by extension Moscow) to prevent attacks. More seriously for Moscow, the attack shows that Kadyrov's Chechnya has not succeeded in stamping out terrorist groups on its territory.

For some, therefore, it is politically useful to shift blame for the Grozny attacks onto outside forces, specifically Islamic State, which detracts attention from concerns that the domestic Islamist insurgency is still active in Chechnya.

Bortnikov's Solution To Combating Terror: Stop Spread Of Ideology Among Youth

As a measure to combat domestic terror in the Russian Federation, FSB chief Bortnikov called for the prevention of the spread of terrorist ideology among young people.

"Unless mistrust toward the philosophy of violence is generated among citizens, unless the information sphere is reliably protected against the penetration of [that philosophy], our security actions will not give the desired result," Bortnikov said.

Russia is not the only country to express concern about the spread of Islamic State (and other) extremist propaganda. In September, for example, U.S. officials warned that Islamic State operates the "most significant propaganda machine of any extremist group."

In the former Soviet space, concerns about the effects of Islamic State propaganda on domestic security are soaring. Kazakhstan moved to ban a recent Islamic State video that showed Kazakh nationals, including children in a training camp in Syria, while a government analyst said that banning extremist websites was justified amid the threat of Islamic State.

Russia has also moved to block what it considers Islamic State or extremist Islamist propaganda. Russia has banned pro-Islamic State accounts on the VKontakte social network (though many still remain and new accounts are opened to replace banned ones), and recently temporarily blocked the Vimeo video sharing site after an Islamic State video was posted there.

Russia has also blocked websites run by Western analysts tracking the conflict in Syria, likely because the sites link to or discuss jihadi content.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena