Although the security threat posed by radical Islamist groups is hardly a new concern in Russia, which has for years battled with a low-level insurgency in the North Caucasus, Russian officials in recent weeks have intensified rhetoric specifically around the domestic security dangers of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
Russian officials have cited the "IS threat" in relation to two main areas: the recruitment and radicalization of Russian nations, particularly young people and especially in the restive North Caucasus; and the threat of "blowback" from Russian citizens who have fought alongside IS in Syria and returned home, again, with particular reference to the North Caucasus.
Coinciding with the intensification of the "IS threat" rhetoric, Russia has stepped up measures to crack down on radicals and militants, following a decision by the Supreme Court to designate IS and Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra as terrorist groups.
On March 30, a Russian Interior Ministry official announced that out of more than 1,500 Russian nationals who are participating in overseas armed conflicts, over 300 criminal cases have been opened against those suspected of involvement in "international terrorist organizations" like IS.
Vladimir Makarov, the deputy head of the Interior Ministry's antiextremism department, made his comments at a special meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, according to reports in the Russian media.
Russian government daily Rossiskaya Gazeta (RG) quoted Makarov as saying that the country's law enforcement agencies had performed checks on over 1,500 citizens of the Russian Federation for possible involvement in armed conflicts abroad.
Echoing comments made last week by Sergei Melikov, the Kremlin's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Makarov said that IS recruiters were targeting Russian youth.
These individuals then posed a threat when they returned home from Syria, Makarov said.
"When they come back with combat experience, they join the ranks of radical organizations and illegal armed groups," Makarov said.
Makarov's comments reflect Moscow's primary fear -- that the conflict in Syria will impact on domestic security, particularly in the restive North Caucasus, either by a spread of ideology from Russian nationals fighting in the Middle East, or through returnees with combat and other experience.
The head of the Kremlin's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said this month that Moscow was "confirming information about the establishment of contacts between [the IS group] and the terrorist underground in the North Caucasus," a reflection of increased security concerns after North Caucasus militants, mostly in Daghestan, pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The militants who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi had been formerly aligned with the North Caucasus's homegrown militant Islamist group, the Caucasus Emirate, prompting concerns that the shift to IS could fracture the Islamist insurgency in an already volatile region.
Russia's security authorities will also be worried by the emergence in Syria of a militant named Akhmed Chatayev, or One-Armed Akhmed. Chatayev, who was involved in the 2012 Lopota Gorge incident and who was thought to be a representative of former Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, appeared in a video alongside a notorious IS militant Abu Jihad (Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev) who is close to the IS military commander in Syria, Umar Shishani. It is not clear why Chatayev switched allegiance from the Caucasus Emirate to IS, but Moscow will almost certainly be concerned that he could influence militants in the North Caucasus.
This month, amid the increasing emphasis by Russian security officials on the domestic threat posed by IS, Moscow has conducted a series of counterterrorism operations in Daghestan. One of the most recent of these, conducted on March 23 in the Tsumadinsky district bordering on Chechnya and Georgia, involved a hunt for militants.
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.
In the Chechen capital, Grozny, local residents reported that, on March 23, security forces carried out mass checks of cellphones carried by young people apparently to check for extremist propaganda.
One social activist told the Caucasian Knot website that such operations are carried out on a regular basis.
"The security forces confiscate the cell phones of young people and then check [them]. If there is something about the war in Syria or videos of Caucasian militants, then serious trouble awaits the phone's owner," the activist said.
Possible Diversion Tactic
In its recent efforts to emphasize the "IS threat," however, Moscow is effectively diverting public and media attention away from the causes of unrest in the North Caucasus by painting any instability as the result of radicalization by external, foreign groups and ideologies.
While Moscow has focused primarily on IS (and to some extent Jabhat Al-Nusra and Hizb Ut-Tahrir), it has largely avoided mentioning the fact that there are Russian nationals in Syria fighting not with IS but with what have effectively become the Syrian affiliates of the Caucasus Emirate, Russia's home-grown Islamist militant group.
While they may not mention it, Russian security officials are almost certainly deeply concerned about the threat posed by Russian nationals who are fighting alongside groups like Jaish Al-Muhajireen Wal-Ansar (JMA), which styles itself as the Caucasus Emirate in Syria. JMA has become increasingly integrated into the ideological stream formed by Syria's Islamist "axis," which is formed from groups like the local Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra.
A new North Caucasus group, Ajnad Kavkaz, emerged this week fighting alongside Jabhat Al-Nusra in Idlib and consisting of militants aligned with the veteran Chechen fighter Abdul Hakim Shishani as well as a handful of militants loyal to Tarkhan Ismailovich Gaziyev.
While the leaders of these groups cannot easily return to the North Caucasus because they are on Russian wanted lists, the groups themselves, particularly JMA, maintain links with militants in the North Caucasus. Should those of their ranks who can return home end up coming back, they could pose a threat to the region.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk