Al-Qaeda's New Hunting Ground

Al-Qaeda charges on in the wake of Bin Laden's death. Destination: Russia.

Russia is becoming a target for al-Qaeda’s new “marketing” campaign. Since Osama bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous of all al-Qaeda terrorist franchises, is bent on expanding its global reach. AQAP recently translated into Russian al-Qaeda’s online journal Inspire to attract jihadis from the embattled North Caucasus and other Muslim-populated areas of Russia.

North Caucasus terrorists have been using radical Salafi Islam to recruit disgruntled youth who grew up on the battlefields of the two Chechen wars (1994–1996 and 1999–2004) and amidst almost two decades of anti-Russian guerilla warfare.

One of the first Chechen leaders to link with al-Qaeda was Shamil Basayev, the murderous mastermind of the Dubrovka Theater and Beslan school hostage takings in 2002 and 2004. His successor, Doku Umarov, managed to strengthen ties with local Islamic communities and claimed the establishment of the “Caucasus Emirate,” a pan-Caucasus Islamist terrorist movement waging “jihad against the infidels.” Their goal is to establish an Islamic emirate consisting of all the North Caucasus, from the Black Sea to the Caspian.

If successful, such a geopolitical project would severely disrupt oil routes from the Caspian to Europe and threaten Russia, the states of South Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), and Europe itself. It would become what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, what Somalia is today or what Yemen may be tomorrow—a vast, ungovernable terror base.

Umarov has launched a terror campaign of his own. He is allegedly behind this January’s suicide bombing at the Domodedovo Airport, two suicide bombings in Moscow in March 2010 and the Nevsky Express bombing in November 2009. The Caucasus Emirate remains one of the world’s most active terrorist battlefronts. Umarov’s organization launches daily attacks on innocent civilians, police stations, and government offices throughout the region.

The North Caucasus has been on al-Qaeda’s radar screen for a decade and a half. Ayman al- Zawahiri visited the area in the mid-1990s and was arrested by the Russians. (He was subsequently released, for reasons which are still unclear.) Zawahiri identified the Caucasus as one of the primary fronts in the war against Russia and the West.

Furthermore, Umarov has made clear that Russia and the Caucasus are an integral part of the global “jihad,” saying that “after the expulsion of infidels we must take back all of the historical lands of the Muslims, and these borders are beyond the boundaries of the Caucasus” and that “everyone who attacked Muslims, wherever they are, are our enemies!” As Russia conquered vast swaths of its empire from Muslims in Europe and Asia from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, this means the al-Qaeda affiliate has its sights trained on Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Russian lands along the Volga River, the Urals region, and vast parts of Siberia.

Umarov has received much support from al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations, including funding from Middle Eastern and central Asian sources. Some of his closest comrades-in-arms were emissaries of al-Qaeda—Moganned, for example, who arrived in Chechnya in 1999, and Abdulla Kurd, the international coordinator of his terror cells. Russian security forces killed both of them in counterterrorist operations in this spring.

Umarov recently reaffirmed his commitment to the global jihad in an interview and rejected the notion that terrorists in the North Caucasus have been weakened by bin Laden’s death. The battlefield, he said, is not just the Caucasus but “also the whole [of] Russia.” Furthermore, he stated, the death of jihad leaders (such as bin Laden) cannot stop “the revival of Islam.”

Clearly, the war on terror is not over. Zawahiri, once al-Qaeda’s number two, may take over as bin Laden’s heir, unless the interim operations leader Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian commando with Iranian ties, gets the job. After bin Laden, al-Qaeda remains committed to expanding its theaters of operations and reaching out to affiliates, including those in Russia. This is hardly surprising, as Chechen terrorists fight in Afghanistan alongside al-Qaeda. Some, after being detained in Guantanamo, have been repatriated to Russia.

It is time for the Kremlin to recognize this threat. As for the United States, we should continue our commitment to the war on terror and push to prevent al-Qaeda affiliates from finding a new safe haven and new allies, including those in the poorly governed North Caucasus.

Image by Mikhail Evstafiev