Upward of 1,500 militants from the North Caucasus are fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, the Kremlin's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District has claimed.
Sergei Melikov told reporters in Pyatigorsk on March 26 that there was a danger that IS ideology could spread through the North Caucasus, and that preventative efforts should be taken to prevent this.
Melikov said it would be difficult for North Caucasian militants fighting in Syria and Iraq to return home.
However, Melikov claimed that "at least five" militants who returned to the North Caucasus after fighting in Syria had been killed during counterterrorism operations in 2014. Melikov did not elaborate or provide the names of the militants he claimed had been killed.
According to Melikov, the "bandit underground" -- the term used by the Russian government and security services to refer to the Islamist insurgency -- is not currently active.
"In order that [the insurgency's activity] does not resume, it is necessary to prevent the inflow of young people into the ranks of illegal armed groups," Melikov said.
To oppose the extremists, or as Melikov put it, to "pull our fellow citizens and young people out of this feeding trough [of foreign extremist groups]," ideological and educational programs should be implemented in the region, the Kremlin envoy to the North Caucasus said, according to Interfax.
Melikov singled out Daghestan as being the most vulnerable of the North Caucasus republics, because of its many remote and hard to reach settlements, the Caucasus Knot news website reported.
The Kremlin envoy added that the ideology of the "previously active" group the Caucasus Emirate could serve as a breeding ground for the spreading of IS ideology in the North Caucasus.
Melikov's comments are the latest evidence of a significant shift in the rhetoric and narratives that have come out of the North Caucasus with regard to the issue of radicalization and the outflow of North Caucasians to fight alongside militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
Previously, that issue was played down, particularly by the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who initially denied that Chechens were fighting in Syria at all.
Kadyrov later claimed that most ethnic Chechens in Syria came not from the Chechen Republic, but from Europe.
In recent weeks, however, Russian security and government officials have begun to admit not only that Russian nationals are fighting alongside militant groups in Syria, but that hundreds of them are doing so.
In a surprising move in February, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, told reporters in Washington, D.C., that as many as 1,700 Russian nationals could be fighting alongside militant groups in Iraq. (It is not clear why Bortnikov did not say that Russian nationals are also fighting in Syria.)
Bortnikov also said that, in light of this situation, intelligence sharing between Russia and the United States regarding IS was "quite possible."
Following Bortnikov's admission, Melikov also warned of the dangers posed by IS to the North Caucasus, warning that IS was recruiting North Caucasian students at universities in the region. http://www.rferl.org/content/isis-recruiting-caucasus-students-russia-moscow-kremlin/26915795.html Meanwhile, Kremlin Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev said this month that Moscow was concerned about links between IS and militants in the North Caucasus.
There are several likely reasons for this change in rhetoric.
The first reason is the pledges of allegiance made in recent months by several North Caucasian militant groups formerly aligned with the Caucasus Emirate to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
While there has been no sign that Baghdadi has taken any interest in the pledges by the mostly Daghestani militants, the move has exacerbated fears in Russia of attacks by the groups.
Another reason is likely the continued outflow of Russian nationals, including from the North Caucasus, to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
A number of pieces of evidence suggesting this continued outflow have emerged recently. These include the naming this week of nine Chechens who are allegedly fighting in Syria. The Interior Ministry said that eight of the nine went to Syria in the summer and fall of 2014.
There is also evidence of a concerted campaign by Russian-speaking militants in IS to recruit new fighters from the North Caucasus.
Yet another reason for Russia's admitting that IS is a threat to the North Caucasus is likely the continued threat from the existing militant networks in the region, specifically the Caucasus Emirate. While Melikov insisted that the Caucasus Emirate was no longer active in the North Caucasus, this is not the case; moreover, the Caucasus Emirate's Syrian affiliate, the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), is growing in influence in Syria and -- although Russian officials only refer to IS as the group with which Russian nationals are fighting -- appears to be still recruiting Russian-speaking militants.
The JMA militants could pose a "blowback" threat to the North Caucasus particularly as they remain loyal to the Caucasus Emirate and its cause of establishing an Islamic state in the region.
It is noticeable -- particularly in the light of FSB chief Bortnikov's remarks about possible intelligence sharing with the United States -- that the U.S. Department of State issued a notice on March 26 saying that it had designated the Caucasus Emirate leader, Aliaskhab Kebekov, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, even while noting that Kebekov's "violent activities...are concentrated in the North Caucasus region of Russia."
One likely outcome of Melikov's warning that North Caucasus militants fighting in Syria could pose a threat to the region, particularly Daghestan, is more counterterrorism operations in the area.
Regional experts and rights defenders said that counterterrorism operations conducted in Daghestan on March 15-16 were a result of comments by Security Council chief Patrushev about the threat posed by IS to the region.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk