Jihadis Inch Towards the South Caucasus

Opinion

Jihadis Inch Towards the South Caucasus

Rafael Ibrahimov

25 Apr 2016

Recent attacks in Dagestan point to an increased Salafi-jihadi presence near the Azerbaijan border.

The political and economic climate in the Caucasus region is arguably the most unstable it has been in the last two decades. The region has faltered under weakening local currencies and a slump in the value of oil exports. Renewed hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, tensions between Russia and Turkey, and a spate of recent attacks in Dagestan have destabilised the area. It is against the backdrop of these shifting dynamics that the threat of Islamist extremist violence has grown – and edged further south.

Since January, there have been at least three major attacks in Dagestan, along with a number of other violent incidents. The most recent ISIS attack on 30 March killed ten policemen. The rate of assaults against Russian security forces has been such that authorities launched four anti-terrorist operations since the start of 2016. Moscow has mostly concentrated counter-extremism efforts in this area. No sooner had the Russian Federation begun its operation in Syria, than security forces stepped up harsh measures against 'presumed supporters of the extremist organisations' in that area.

Dagestan has suffered at least three major attacks this year.

Experts view the North Caucasus as a hotbed of Salafi-jihadism. After the Chechen war in the early 2000s, the Chechen national movement morphed into an Islamist extremist one known as 'Caucasus Emirate.' The group, founded in 2007, did not launch a notable insurgency, but it has sent fighters to Syria and Iraq. Caucasus Emirate was one of several local Salafi-jihadi groups to swear allegiance to ISIS. In 2015, ISIS accepted a pledge of allegiance issued by four 'commanders of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and KBK (Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay).' The Northern Caucasus was declared one of ISIS' wilayets, or governates.

But recent reports indicate that the region's religious extremists are moving towards Azerbaijan. In the wake of the latest Dagestan attack, Russian security forces launched yet another 'anti-terrorist operation' in five districts of southern Dagestan, according to the local media. This crackdown has pushed operatives back from northern and central Dagestan. Currently, groups of radical Islamists, most of whom identify themselves as ISIS despite a lack of formal links, but also including Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Caucasus Emirate's 'southern sector,' and others, are gathered in Makhachkala and Derbend in southern Dagestan, regions bordering Azerbaijan.

This area is a meeting point of Sunni and Shia Islam as well as a place of rich ethnic diversity. It is therefore not immune to ethnic and religious tensions. According to the 2009 census, ethnic Lezgi and Avar populations, which are densely concentrated on the Azerbaijani side, are 178,020 and 50,087-strong respectively. The total number of ethnic North Caucasians is allegedly over 250,000. The most conspicuous of radical Islamist organisations active with intermittent success both in southern Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan are 'Forest Brothers' and Jeyshulla. Sadval, a Lezgi nationalist organization, strives to unite the Lezgi-populated areas of Azerbaijan with Russian Dagestan. It has a track record of terrorist attacks. The most violent assault was an explosion in the Baku underground in the mid-90s. But more recently, ISIS has served as a potent ideology drawing hundreds of Azeri nationals to join its ranks in Syria.

There is a risk of extremism spilling over the southern border.

An unnamed military official cited in local Russian media this month said that a few dozen ethnic Azeri ISIS combatants had returned from Syria to join the fight in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh. To date, the most intransigent Azerbaijani jihadists had preferred to join the battle in Syria and Iraq. However, any serious full-fledged military actions in this contested area could trigger an increased flow of Azerbaijani ISIS fighters. This is fraught with the dangers of a political, or nationalist confrontation evolving into a religious one.

Russia's operation in Syria does not seem to have completely achieved one of the main objectives that President Vladimir Putin declared at the outset: crushing the spread of ISIS in Russia's peripheries. Dagestan itself is witnessing tensions between local Shia Azeris and Sunni Lezgins primarily on religious and ethnic grounds. Ethnically Turkic, the overwhelming majority of Azeris in Dagestan are Shia. Lezgins, on the other hand, belong to a different ethnicity and are predominantly Sunni Muslims who follow the Shafi tradition. Along with a number of other groups, they identify as the Samurian branch of the local indigenous population.

Islamist extremists in the North Caucasus are broadly independent military factions that have franchised ISIS' core ethos. The heads of those organisations have varying levels of contact with ISIS commanders in Iraq and Syria. In reality, analysts say they are completely decentralised from ISIS control at the operational level. Orhan Jemal, a prominent Russian expert, claims ISIS factions in Dagestan and the North Caucasus are rarely in contact with ISIS and receive little, if any, financial or expert assistance from the group.

North Caucasus Islamist extremists have franchised ISIS' ethos.

The current concentration of extremist groups along the 300km border between Russia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus presents obvious risks of extremism spilling over what is a porous and populous frontier. Azerbaijan, a secular-minded but mostly Shia state, has witnessed a surge of Islamist activities in the past year. In November 2015, for instance, law enforcement operations in the Baku suburbs targeting an extremist Shia group resulted a large number of deaths, as law enforcement clashed with religious activists. Dozens of protesters were arrested in the aftermath of the clashes on charges of trying to destabilise the country.

Analysts say that for the last two decades, Azerbaijani authorities have endeavoured to resist a strong Shia influence from neighbouring Iran. As such, they inadvertently turned a blind eye to Salafis establishing a stronghold in the country. The Azerbaijani government is aware that the number of Salafi-jihadis in the country is on the rise, particularly in the north. Radicals in Azerbaijan maintain strong relations with extremists in the North Caucasus across the Russian border. Allegedly they possess broadly ramified networks in Baku, Sumgait, Ganja and other cities and towns of Azerbaijan.

These factors, coupled with economic and political deterioration in the Caucasus could lead to the radicals' moving and bolstering their influence in new territories. The energy transport corridors that help keep energy supplies from Azerbaijan to southern Europe make the stability of Transcaucasia that much more important.