At a Glance
The Caucasus: ISIS on Europe's Doorstep
13 Jul 2015
ISIS recently accepted pledges of allegiance from jihadis in the Russian Caucasus, declaring the creation of 'Caucasus Province.' Mubaraz Ahmed looks at what this means for Russia and the rest of Europe.
ISIS' announcement of a new 'province' in the Caucasus, Wilayat Qawqaz, in June 2015 highlights the group's ambitions and objectives. Al-Qaeda has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with groups from the region, particularly the so-called Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, but it has been muscled out with the emergence of this new 'province.' With this move ISIS has a base on the borders of Europe from which it can operate.
Given the history of jihadi groups in the region, why should Russia and the rest of Europe be concerned by ISIS expansion?
ISIS views Russia as being part of a 'Shia-Zionist-Crusader' conspiracy that it says is determined to oppress Sunni Islam. ISIS' binary narrative of inevitable warfare between Muslims and non-Muslims means that this expansion may presage an increase in attacks against the country. The Russian government has been supporting Iraqi security forces in their battle against ISIS by supplying weapons and military equipment; with ISIS now operating inside Russian territory it is an easy target. The group's targeting of Russia can be seen in its new Russian-language propaganda arm, Furat Media, the launch of which accompanied its declaration of the new 'province.'
ISIS' emergence in the Caucasus means it is now right on Europe's doorstep. With its 'Wilayat Qawqaz' covering the Russian Republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay (KBK), it operates in a substantial stretch of land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. This means that the newly formed province sits across the water from EU member states Romania and Bulgaria, providing a viable base to launch operations into Europe.
ISIS' ambitions are expansionist, in contrast to al-Qaeda's franchise-based model. While al-Qaeda and its affiliates are seeking to prepare for a caliphate, ISIS claims that it is one, and believes that all Muslims everywhere owe it allegiance. This means that the group aims to subject every Muslim community in the world to its rule, and so militants in the newly formed Wilayat Qawqaz are likely to be seeking opportunities to expand their area of operations, and if possible control territory. Neighbouring regions, especially those with a significant Muslim population, are very much at risk from further ISIS expansion.
The Islamist militants who form the new 'province' have traditionally been very well funded. The groups have benefitted from support from domestic politicians and bureaucrats, the networks that they built through their previous collaboration with al-Qaeda, and wealthy donors from the Arab world. Now that these republics have affiliated themselves with ISIS, the finances, military equipment, and infrastructure that have been established over time can be used to carry out operations for their new leadership.
Neighbouring regions are very much at risk from further ISIS expansion.
ISIS' mobility and organisational prowess has seen it outmanoeuvre al-Qaeda in the region despite the established presence of the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus. The jihadis in the Caucasus region are used to operating within a fixed hierarchy. Since ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced the acceptance of the pledges of allegiance to the group in June, Abu Muhammad al-Qadari has been appointed as its leader in the region.
Such organisational strength can be channelled into operational strength. With a hierarchal structure spread across the four Russian republics, ISIS is capable of mobilising and conducting well-orchestrated operations, utilising the experienced fighters and commanders from the region who have flocked to its banner.
Islamist groups from the Caucasus have demonstrated their propensity for committing major atrocities in highly sophisticated assaults. The Moscow Theatre hostage crisis, the Beslan siege, attacks on metro stations in Moscow, and a number of other suicide attacks on targets across the region have been linked to jihadi groups from the Caucasus. This suggests that there is a credible threat in which such violent and well-orchestrated attacks could re-emerge under the name and leadership of ISIS on targets in Eastern Europe and beyond.
The ISIS narrative depends on victories; if it is doing the work of God, then ultimately it must be victorious. This means that the group is very careful about where it accepts pledges of allegiance. While pledges of allegiance have been made by jihadis in the Caucasus since since November 2014, it wasn't until June 2015 that ISIS officially declared its acceptance. This delay in acceptance may mean that ISIS was conducting 'due diligence' on its prospective new recruits, to determine their capacity, ability, and potential. The fact that ISIS eventually accepted the pledges of allegiance demonstrates its belief that it is dealing with a credible group in the Caucasus, which has the potential for future success.
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