Russia's Supreme Court has said that the Russian authorities are investigating at least 58 criminal cases against Russian nationals who are involved in the conflict in Syria and are fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS) group.
The Interfax news agency reported on January 30 that it had obtained a copy of a Supreme Court decision that stated that the investigations related to "the participation by Russian citizens in the illegal armed group Islamic State, involvement in such participation, as well as carrying out the relevant training."
The investigations are being conducted under articles of the Russian Penal Code that deal with promoting terrorist activities, training with the aim of carrying out terrorist activities, and the organization of an illegal armed group or participation therein.
According to Interfax, the Supreme Court decision also states that a Russian citizen is also among the commanders of Jabhat al-Nusra. The case against the citizen, who was not named, was filed on June 9, 2014 and is being investigated by the Federal Security Service (FSBN) in Tatarstan and relates to the suspect's alleged fighting in Syria between December 2013 and February 2014.
It is likely that the individual being investigated for links to Jabhat al-Nusra is fighting with a faction named Seyfullakh Shishani's jamaat, an Uzbek-led group that is part of Jabhat al-Nusra even though it maintains its own structure and consists mainly of Russian-speaking militants.
The Supreme Court material obtained by Interfax also states that there are links between the Islamic State group and militant groups in the North Caucasus. However, the information provided by the court is only partially accurate and contains some claims that are, at best, rather odd.
"The commander of [the IS group's] northern front is a Georgian emigrant, T. T. Batirashvili. Operating under his command is the Khattab Brigade, North Caucasus jihadis from the brigades of Shamil Basayev [a Chechen militant killed in 2006, reportedly by the FSB] and Dzhokhar Dudayev [a rebel Chechen leader, killed in a Russian rocket attack in 1996], and also groups that are part of the 'Turkish Jamaat' and 'Abu Hanif's Jamaat,'" the court document said, according to Interfax.
The Supreme Court is referring to Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Umar Shishani, who is from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. Batirashvili had previously been the Islamic State group's commander in northern Syria but is now considered the group's commander in the whole of Syria.
The information about the so-called Khattab Brigade seems to come from an October 2012 report put out by Kavkaz Center, the website of the North Caucasus militant group the Caucasus Emirate.
The Kavkaz Center report was published several months after the first reports of Chechen fighters in Syria began to emerge, and appears to be largely a piece of propaganda aimed at promoting the idea that Chechen militants were legendary in Syria.
The report cited "Kavkaz Center sources" as saying that "troops named after Dhokhar Dudaev, Shamil Basayev, and Emir Khattab are operating in various regions of Syria. However, these detachments do not have a single Chechen or Caucasian. In them, Syrians are fighting. The thing is that Dudayev, Shamil Basayev, and Amir Khattab are very popular among the Syrian rebels and the mujahedin [jihadis] so that some groups refer to their detachments by their names."
The Kavkaz Center report went on to say that "about 150 volunteers" from the Caucasus Emirate were also fighting in Syria in four different groups.
Of the two other groups referred to by the Supreme Court, Abu Hanif's jamaat (fighting group) is part of the Islamic State group and is based in Raqqa, where it opened a kindergarten for the children of Russian-speaking militants. The group has not been active on social media in recent months, however. The group is named after its Dagestani commander, Abu Hanif.
It is notable that, regarding the links between the Islamic State group and the North Caucasus, the Supreme Court did not note (at least not in the extracts of its decision quoted by Interfax) the fact that several Caucasus Emirate groups in Daghestan and also Chechnya have recently switched allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a phenomenon that has meant that IS-affiliated factions are present in the Russian Federation. (Practically speaking, of course, the groups consist of the same militants as before the switch to IS.)
While Russia has ostensibly ignored the fact that local, Caucasus Emirate militants have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, the move by the Supreme Court to announce that almost 60 cases of Russians fighting with IS are being investigated is part of a reaction to growing concerns about the IS group in the Russian Federation, including concerns about blowback from returning fighters and the influence of the group on domestic militants.
In a move that came amid these growing fears of the domestic security threats posed by the IS group and its ideology, the Russian Supreme Court in December designated the IS group and the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to be terrorist organizations in late December.
Following the announcement of the court's decision, Russia's Foreign Ministry tweeted that the move was a "step toward Russia's fulfillment of UN Security Council Resolutions 2170 and 2178." Resolution 2170 calls on UN member states to prevent militants traveling from their soil to join groups in Syria, while Resolution 2178 is more generic and urges member states to prevent recruitment of individuals to terrorist activity.
However, as the Russian news reports about the almost 60 cases of Russians being prosecuted for allegedly fighting with IS shows, the move to designate IS a terror group is more for domestic antiterror purposes than for international efforts to prevent citizens traveling to Syria to fight.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk