Over the past days, there have been a number of signs that Moscow is increasingly concerned about the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
On October 28, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) made a series of arrests in Moscow of men suspected of collaborating with IS.
According to Russian media reports, dozens of suspects were taken into custody. Among them were six Azerbaijani men suspected of being the accomplices of IS militants. The six men were all employed in an auto service station in central Moscow, the reports said.
The FSB said in a press statement that some of the earnings from the auto service station could be going to Syria and that the six Azerbaijani suspects “had begun to spread their ideas and proposed going to fight in Syria” among other Azerbaijani migrants.
The reaction to the arrests has been one of great concern over the domestic threat posed by IS and similar extremist ideologies.
In an October 29 interview with Radio Vesti, Semyon Bagdasarov, the director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Volga-Urals, warned that Russia needs to take steps to combat IS.
“The fact that they are already starting to make arrests in Moscow of those who not only sympathize with IS but who are also trying to support them financially, and also recruit mercenaries to send to the war in Syria and Iraq, says that we should long ago have started to consider concrete measures to prevent the spread not only of IS but the activities of such people in general,” Bagdarasov said.
The Moscow arrests came after Russia’s Prosecutor- General's Office announced on October 27 that a number of pro-IS accounts on the Russian social networking site VKontakte had been closed, another sign of increased concern about IS and of an increased desire to be seen publicly combatting IS domestic propaganda.
Are these fears that IS poses a domestic threat to Russia justified, and why are they surfacing now?
There have been reports that Russian citizens, mostly from the North Caucasus, as well as Russian-speakers from former Soviet republics, have been fighting in Syria since late 2012, and it has been open knowledge for some months that North Caucasian militants are fighting with IS in Syria.
Yet the “IS domestic threat” debate is a recent phenomenon in Russia.
Russian fears about Islamic extremism and domestic terrorism are not new, however.
Since well before the advent of IS, Russia has feared the radicalization of its Muslim citizens, including those from its Islamic regions, particularly the North Caucasus, as well as ethnic Russian converts to Islam. Two of the most recent suicide bombings in Russia -- the December 2013 Volgograd train-station bombing and a bus bombing in the same city two days later -- are believed to have been carried out by the Caucasus Emirate, the militant jihadist group active in Russia.
So what has prompted the recent rise in concern over IS?
One reason is hinted at by Bagdasarov in his Radio Vesti interview. He suggested that the flow of migrant workers into Moscow was behind the growing domestic threat posed by IS.
The growing number of Muslim migrant workers, particularly to Moscow, from former Soviet republics such as Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, has raised fears that this population could be targeted by Islamic extremists. Last year, the rising migrant population also sparked nationalist riots in Moscow.
Bagdasarov proposed tightening visa requirements for migrant workers from former Soviet republics in Central Asia, saying that nationals from these countries were behind the IS threat.
“In the first place, there are the Central Asian states -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus," he said. "Here are four states whose citizens are involved in the war as part of IS and who its realistic [to suppose] could go back home and then to the Russian Federation, where they will engage in such activities."
In taking steps such as arrests and banning IS Internet propaganda, the Russian authorities are also demonstrating to the public that they are actively combating the threat of IS.
In part, this likely stems from a willingness to show that Russia is able to fight terror at home. However, by emphasizing IS as the source of the threat, Moscow is able to suggest that this threat is external and therefore outside of the North Caucasus issue, and also that it is the fault of the United States and other Western countries. Russia has accused the United States of helping to create IS in the first place.
However, outside of the concerns of the Russian government and security services, it is indisputable that IS is a concern for ordinary Russians.
Reports this week, for example, claim that a Russian citizen, Sergei Gorbunov, was executed by IS earlier this year. Gorbunov was revealed to be a hostage in Syria in October 2013, when a video emerged on YouTube in which he asked for a ransom to be paid for his release. Gorbunov was captured by Russian-speaking militants from the faction Jaish Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar, which at the time was led by Umar Shishani, the ethnic Chechen who since became an IS commander. When Umar Shishani left Jaish Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar for IS, Gorbunov was reportedly transferred as well.
Another Russian citizen, a tourist named as Konstantin Zhuravlev, is also being held hostage in Syria, by the Liwa Al-Tawheed faction.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk