Russia's Homegrown Terror Threat

Ethnic Russians have conducted several recent Islamist terror attacks, an alarming new phenomenon.

Since at least the autumn of 1999, when the second Chechen war began, Russia has been mired in terrorist-related violence linked to the North Caucasus. What makes the recent suicide bombings in Volgograd, in October and December 2013, stand out—and what has been overlooked in much of the reporting of the events—is the prominence of ethnic Russian converts to Islam amongst the individuals who planned and carried out the attacks. For a long time the sole preserve of Chechens and other individuals from the North Caucasus, increasing numbers of ethnic Russians are joining the insurgency. Converted and radicalised by the situation in the North Caucasus, these ethnic Russian jihadists are looking beyond the region for their next cause célèbre.

While it is true that a Dagestani, Naida Asiyalova, was responsible for the suicide bombing in Volgograd on 21 October 2013, she was helped in preparing the attack by her husband, Dmitry Sokolov, an ethnic Russian who had converted to Islam and fought in the North Caucasus insurgency (under the name ‘Abdul Jabbar’). The bombing in Volgograd on 29 December was carried out by an ethnic Russian, Pavel Pechyonkin, who had converted to Islam in January 2012. It remains unclear who carried out the attack on 30 December, but it would not be surprising if ethnic Russians were involved.

The involvement of ethnic Russian converts to Islam in the North Caucasian insurgency is a recent development. The first known examples are Vitaly Zagorudko and David Fotov, who were killed, in 2004, in Stavropol Krai after planning a terrorist attack in the region. The following year, in 2005, Viktor Semchenko and Yuri Menovshchikov were killed after carrying out four bombings in Voronezh, in which one person was killed. These cases, however, were the exception rather than the rule.

The situation changed after Alexander Tikhomirov (better known as ‘Said Buryatsky’), an ethnic Russian, went to the North Caucasus, in late 2007 or early 2008. Buryatsky quickly began to recruit ethnic Russians into the insurgency, chiefly through his online presence. His message was convincing, if simple: Russia is dying, and only through Islam is your future assured. These recruits carried out a number of high-profile attacks, including that on the Nevsky Express train in 2009, which killed 25 people, and were suspected of being involved in others, including the suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, in 2011, in which 37 people were killed.

So successful was Buryatsky that he became one of the insurgents’ main ideologues. His experience set an example to which other ethnic Russian jihadists would aspire. In 2012, it was reported that Alexei Pashintsev (‘Emir Abdul-Malik’), an ethnic Russian, had assumed the leadership of the ‘Riyad-us Saliheen Suicide Bomber Battalion’ in Dagestan. The Battalion is part of the broader ‘Dagestan Vilaiyat’ group, which Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston marathon bombers, had sought to join when he travelled to the republic in 2012.

The emergence of ethnic Russian jihadists poses a threat to not only the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, but also to Russia as a whole. The jihadist movement spread from the borders of the North Caucasus republics and expanded into Russia proper long ago. Unlike the North Caucasian insurgents, who, by and large, see their struggle in regional terms and have concentrated their attacks in their own region, ethnic Russian jihadists have a far wider outlook.

For Russia, the emergence of ethnic Russian jihadists might provide an opportunity to engage with the West. After all, Western countries have much experience of dealing with so-called ‘homegrown’ terrorists.

Also, the West has a vested interest in how Russia deals with this issue. For these jihadists are seeking theatres of war not only in the North Caucasus, but also across the Middle East and Central Asia. Today, they can be found in Afghanistan and Syria. Tomorrow, they could be anywhere.

Andrew Foxall is Director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.

Image: RIA Novosti archive, image #846846 / Andrey Stenin / CC-BY-SA 3.0.