Russian media reports of the arrests of the notoriously bloodthirsty Moscow "Grand Theft Auto" Gang on November 6 have taken a strange turn, with unconfirmed reports and rumors that the criminals might be closely connected to the Islamic State (IS) group via Central Asia.
The rumors reflect the extent to which Russian concerns over the domestic threat posed by IS -- whose ubiquitous social media presence and violent ideology could, some in Russia believe, lead to radicalization of the country's Muslim residents, particularly Moscow's large migrant worker population -- have percolated into the popular consciousness.
The reports concerned the so-called Grand Theft Auto (GTA) Gang had terrorized Moscow for the past couple of years. Named after the popular video game that involves motor-vehicle theft and shooting, the gang is thought to be responsible for the murders of at least 14 people on highways around the city.
The reports of the arrests are sketchy and appear to have originated in LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin media outlet, which said that 14 alleged members of the gang, eight men and six women, were arrested on November 6 in a series of arrests by the "spetznaz" (special forces) Special Rapid Response Unit. Another alleged gang member was killed when he threw a hand grenade at the police.
LifeNews quoted anonymous law-enforcement officials as saying that the gang leaders were also involved in recruiting supporters for IS and training them, in order to send them to Syria as fighters.
"The investigators have not ruled out that the murders [committed by the gang] on Moscow suburb roads could have been a kind of rite of passage for future fighters," LifeNews speculated.
While LifeNews did not give details about the arrested men and women, the "Komsomolskaya Pravda" website offered more information, suggesting they were migrant workers from former Soviet Central Asian republics. While the outlet noted that "official information is scarce," it quoted "unofficial sources" and local residents, who offered more details about the unnamed detainees -- apparently migrant workers from former Soviet Central Asian republics.
"They came from Kyrgyzstan over 10 years ago," one local resident said. "The landlady is named Barakat.... She always wears a Muslim dress, and was constantly reading prayers. Her son is religious. He was always turning up with his bearded friends."
"Komsomolskaya Pravda" was more cautious in repeating the rumor that the men were linked to IS. "There is another version. It's possible that the gang trained young fighters-Islamists for sending to Syria to the Islamic State group (one of the most radical extremist groups)," it concluded.
A third outlet, "Moskovskiy Komsomolets," went into more details, also via unofficial sources. "Moskovskiy Komsomolets" names the suspect who died after throwing a grenade at police as R. Usmanov, a 33-year-old Uzbek national, who the outlet said has "close links to IS."
"And here's another interesting fact. Several months ago, a video made by Islamic State's 'Internet propagandists' was published, called Clash of Swords, with Russian subtitles...the terrorists in the video overtook another car on the road and shot everyone in it with a Kalashnikov. All of the victims in the video were defiantly killed. Does that not remind you of anything? After all, we already noted that most of the [GTA] gang's murderers were not contracted but were training [killings]," "Moskovskiy Komsomolets" wrote.
These rumors are the latest in a series of stories about the threat posed by radical Islamists and IS militants to Russia, via the country's Muslim population and particularly migrant workers from Central Asia.
A poll conducted by Russian polling organization FOM in October showed that about one-quarter of Russians thought IS posed a threat to Russia.
Meanwhile, as Chechen analyst Mairbek Vatchagaev noted in September, Russian observers reacted strongly to an Internet clip of an Arabic-speaking IS militant who said that the group planned to fly back to Russia to liberate Chechnya.
As Vatchagaev argued, IS militants in Syria do not pose a threat to Russian interests -- but the ideology that is behind them does. "Russia remains on the edge of an Islamic time bomb; it is only a question of time before it explodes," he concluded.
It is this extremist ideology and the propaganda that has helped it to spread via the Internet that is Russia's main concern, and is the reason why the country's security authorities have moved to shut down pro-IS accounts on the social-media site VKontakte.
While we have yet to learn (and may never do so) whether the Grand Theft Auto Gang really did have any connection at all to IS, some in Russia are warning that increasing dissatisfaction within Moscow's growing Muslim population could push young people to extremist groups like IS.
Journalist Grigory Tumanov of Russia's "Kommersant" newspaper warned recently that Moscow's Muslim population is a time bomb, saying that tension between the capital's Muslims and xenophobia is pushing young Muslims increasingly to show an interest in extremist movements. One Moscow resident, Umar Said from Daghestan, said that tension with the police had caused him to be full of resentment to Russia and to study "every media reference to IS with great interest, seeing something good in its aims if not its methods."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk