The Islamic State (IS) militant group is recruiting students at state universities in the North Caucasus, the Kremlin's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District has claimed.
Sergei Melikov urged university rectors and authorities to "keep an eye on" young people studying at their institutions.
"We have obtained information about the activities of recruiters for the Islamic State terrorist organization in our universities. Their representatives are recruiting students of North Caucasus state universities," Melikov told a March 21 council meeting of the heads of the seven federal subjects that comprise the North Caucasus Federal District: Daghestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Stavropol Krai, and North Ossetia-Alania.
Melikov called on universities in the North Caucasus to take more notice of students' "extracurricular activities."
According to Melikov, the level of education among illegal armed groups is rising because group members are increasingly students and graduates of regional universities.
Melikov did not specify which universities were affected, however, according to local news reports.
While there has been a handful of reports about Russian nationals attending university or college before being radicalized, and one report of a Kazakh national allegedly associated with IS and who attempted to recruit students at a Russian university, there have been no reports of the systematic targeting by IS recruiters at further education institutions in the North Caucasus.
Melikov's call for increased vigilance by North Caucasian universities comes amid heightened concerns in Russia about the threat posed by IS, including in the volatile North Caucasus.
In recent months, a number of militant factions mostly in Daghestan pledged allegiance to IS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Though Baghdadi has appeared not to have noticed or mentioned the pledges, the move by militants formerly associated with the North Caucasus militant group the Caucasus Emirate has exacerbated growing fears in Russia.
Those fears were reflected in comments made earlier this month by the head of the Kremlin's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, who said that the authorities were "confirming information about the establishment of contacts between [the IS group] and the terrorist underground in the North Caucasus."
The information would be used to inform "future decisions to strengthen Russian security," Patrushev added.
Rights defenders and experts on the North Caucasus said that recent counterterrorism operations in Daghestan were a result of Patrushev's comments about the threat posed by IS to the region.
Russian security authorities conducted counterterrorism operations in five districts and three towns in Daghestan on March 15-16, according to Russian media reports.
The March 15 operations were carried out in the Buynaksky district and in Buynaksk town, and on March 16 spread to the Kizilyurtovsky, Khasavyurtovsky, Novolaksky, and Kazbekovsky districts and the towns of Kizilyurt and Khavasyurt.
Aleksei Malashenko, the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Religion, Society and Security Program, told the Caucasian Knot website that the Daghestan special operations were a consequence of Patrushev's warning of the threat posed by militants returning from the Middle East to the North Caucasus.
Rights defenders in the North Caucasus warned that the security forces must not alienate the local population during counterterrorism operations, but admitted that the operations were necessary because of the very real threat posed by IS in Daghestan.
"The threat of the presence of IS militants in the North Caucasus exists and it is serious. Under such circumstances, law enforcement officers need to put things in order so as to reduce the existing base of support for the militants," Oleg Orlov of the rights group Memorial told the Caucasian Knot.
According to Aleksandr Perendzhiyev, of the Association of Military Political Analysts, the counterterrorism operations were intended to prevent the militants from becoming more active, a threat that increases as spring approaches and it becomes easier for the extremists to live in their forest hideouts.
"The security services understand that they most not only stop the activation [of the pro-IS militants] but also deliver a powerful blow to [them]," Perendzhiyev told the Caucasian Knot.
The seasonal weather conditions in the North Caucasus may have been one of the motivating factors that led groups in Daghestan to pledge allegiance to IS. That the groups switched from the Caucasus Emirate to IS during the hard winter months could have been due to hopes that by doing so, they might receive some sort of material support. There is no evidence that any such material support has been forthcoming from IS, however.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk