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Russia: Slavic Converts To Radical Islam Pose New Threat

Victims of the February 2004 Moscow subway blast, which authorities believe was organized by Slavic converts to radical Islam (official site) PRAGUE, August 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russian investigators probing terrorism cases in the North Caucasus have noted a growing number of ethnic Slavs among the perpetrators of such acts.

The pro-Kremlin daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" published on August 16-19 an investigative report claiming that more than half the members of a recently liquidated terrorist group in Karachayevo-Cherkessia were Russians or Ukrainians.

Terrrorist Attacks Across Russia

Based on the testimony of three surviving members of the group, called Karachai Jamaat, the investigation believes the network was responsible for three explosions in Krasnodar in August 2003, in which three people were killed and 30 wounded; an explosion in the Moscow metro in February 2004, in which 40 were killed and 134 wounded; and an explosion in the Moscow metro in August 2004, in which 10 were killed and 51 wounded.

"We underestimate the danger and know we are losing," the special-forces hero of the hit Russian television broadcast "Anti-Killer" told a colleague in a recent episode. "We are losing because we are at work -- and they are at war."

The investigation also credited the Karachai Jamaat with three explosions at bus stops in Voronezh and with planting bombs on passenger trains in Mineralnye Vody in 2004 and 2005, as a result of which several hundred people were killed or injured.

Not Your Stereotypical Terrorists

Neither the Slavic nor the non-Slavic members of the jamaat fit the stereotypical image of Islamic fundamentalists. Most were well-educated and well-off, enjoying high social and professional status. They did not seem the type of men who would put their lives and position at risk for mere money.

One of the arrested members of jamaat, Lieutenant Colonel Murat Shateyev, was an ethnic Daghestani who served in Russia's Justice Ministry. Shateyev, who had two degrees, allegedly carried an explosive in his car and used his authority to help protect members of his ring from arrest. His brother, Azret, allegedly also an active member of the group, was a leading tuberculosis specialist at a Moscow hospital and co-owner of a pharmacy.

The Slavic members of the group were devoted Muslims who chose to enter the ranks of militant Islam. As sign of their dedication to the cause, they reportedly destroyed their identification documents and adopted Muslim names.

Among them were ethnic Ukrainian Vitaly Zagorulko, an officer in Russia's Interior Ministry and a graduate of the Rostov High Militia School, and police colleagues Viktor Semchenko, a Russian, and David Fotov. Another alleged Karachai Jamaat member was a former Russian paratrooper, Yury Menovshchikov, and Russian Army veteran Ivan Manarin, an ethnic Russian. All but Manarin, who is now under arrest, were killed in fighting with federal special forces.

Ukrainian Nikolai Kipkeyev, who rose to the rank of amir, is believed to have been the leader of the Slavic members of the group.

Officials investigating an explosion at a Voronezh bus stop on January 26, 2005 (TASS)

Kipkeyev allegedly organized the August 2004 bombing of the Rizhskaya metro station in Moscow, which was carried out by a female suicide bomber. Kipkeyev, who was on site to monitor his subordinate's work, was killed in the blast.

All members of the group allegedly fought with the resistance in Chechnya, and were tied to Chechen militants via Syrian Arab Akhmed Sambiyev, one of the leaders of the Wahhabi underground in Chechnya. Sambiyev blew himself up in 2005 when FSB agents surrounded him.

According to "Komsomolskaya pravda," the ethnic Russian members of the Karachai Jamaat were inspired by a radical Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran that is banned in Russia on the grounds that it promotes intolerance toward "infidels."

Ali (Vyacheslav) Polosin, a former Russian Orthodox priest who converted to Islam, told "Komsomolskaya pravda": "Islam is a religion of revolutionaries. [But] revolutionary ideas can be easily transformed into terrorist ideas. It is enough to slightly change the interpretation, and in the name of their ideals people will commit not crimes, but feats."

Looking For A New Ideology

Russia is now home to about 20 million Muslims, and some researchers believe the "revolutionary factor of Islam" will play a decisive role in Russia's evolution toward democracy.

Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute of Globalization and a former adviser to Russian prime ministers Mikhail Kasyanov and Yevgeny Primakov, wrote in his best-selling book "Russia After Putin" that fundamentalist Islam will seriously challenge Russia's ruling political class and bureaucracy in the future.

In the Muslim regions of the Soviet Union, Islam was more of a cultural phenomenon. The ideological vacuum formed after the collapse of the USSR resulted in Islam being the best tool available to elites in those regions for forging a new national identity, according to Delyagin.

Islam, as a result, was often transformed from a cultural factor into a political tool.

Youths often do not follow the interpretation of Islam professed by official Islamic clerics, who like their Russian Orthodox counterparts call for cooperation with the Kremlin. Younger adherents often choose a more extremist paths, many of which have no relation to real Wahhabism.

The often-brutal tactics of federal troops during the Chechen wars have also served to aid the expansion of radical Islam throughout North Caucasus.

"The enduring war in Chechnya not only qualitatively changed Chechnya and the North Caucasus, but all of Russian Islam, " Delyagin wrote.

Islam -- The New Marxism

Delyagin offered two explanations for why Slavic nationals might be attracted to radical Islam. Islam, he says, now plays the role that Marxism did during the Soviet era. Marxism once offered young people a sense that they were contributing to a universal ideal, and in many ways Islam is playing that role now. Also, Delyagin argues that Islam provides a feeling of transcendence over everyday life -- filling another void left by the collapse of Marxism.

In short, militant Islam may provide Slavic converts a feeling of purpose they find lacking in modern society or in the teachings of traditional Christianity.

The expansion of radical Islam poses a serious challenge for Russian security agencies, and this problem is compounded by the activities of Slavic converts as terrorist activity spreads increasingly from Chechnya and the North Caucasus to Moscow and other Russian cities.

And the Kremlin does no know how to confront this threat.

"We underestimate the danger and know we are losing," the special-forces hero of the hit Russian television broadcast "Anti-Killer" told a colleague in a recent episode. "We are losing because we are at work -- and they are at war."

Russia's Changing Face

Russia's Changing Face
A mosque in Baksan, in the Russian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (RFE/RL)

THE COMING MUSLIM MAJORITY: On February 28, Russia expert PAUL GOBLE, vice dean of social sciences and humanities at Concordia-Audentes University in Tallinn, Estonia, gave a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office. Goble said ethographers predict Russia will have a Muslim majority "within our lifetime." Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40 percent, Goble said, rising to some 25 million self-declared Muslims. He said 2.5 million to 3.5 million Muslims now live in Moscow, gving Moscow the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe. Russia today has more than 8,000 mosques, up from just 300 in 1991. By 2010, experts predict, some 40 percent of Russian military conscripts will be Muslims.
Goble noted that these changes have been accompanied by a "rising tide" of anti-Muslim prejudice. Public-opinion surveys reveal that up to "70 percent of ethnic Russians" express sympathy with xenophobic slogans. Goble warned that heavy-handed state efforts to "contain Islam" could backfire and cause groups to move underground, "radicalizing people who are not yet radicalized."


Listen to the entire briefing (about 85 minutes):
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See also:

Muslims Oppose Bill To Add Chaplains To Army

Russia: Muslims Upset By State Symbols

Russia's Muslims Move Toward Greater Unity

Rights Groups Say Muslims Are Unfairly Targeted In Fight Against Terrorism

Fact Box: Muslims In Russia

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: To view an archive of all of RFE/RL's coverage of Russia's North Caucasus, click here.

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