A New Terrorist Battleground

August 1, 2012 Topic: Terrorism Region: RussiaSouth Caucasus

A New Terrorist Battleground

Will the breed of Islamist violence long associated with the Caucasus branch out to a new region?


A nineteenth-century map of Kazan. For the past two decades, Russian and Western experts, human-rights activists and journalists have become accustomed to the political violence of the North Caucasus. No matter how sad it is to receive news of new terrorist bombings or sabotage acts from Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya, these acts are perceived as somehow inherent to the region. But a recent tragedy in the Volga region suggests that this sort of violence—and the Islamist terrorists that practice it—may not be confined to the Caucasus.

For the first time, official Islamic religious leaders from outside the North Caucasus became victims of its breed of terrorism. Thus, the problem of inter-Islamic tensions in the Volga region suddenly became real, with some experts drawing attention to a historical parallel: religious and political violence in Dagestan, the largest North Caucasus republic, began with the symbolic murder of the Mufti Sayyid Muhammad Hadji Abubakarov in 1998.


The Kazan tragedy raises a question: How likely is a repetition of the North Caucasus scenario in the Volga region, where the Karzan attacks took place? The territory of the Volga Federal District (PFD) is about 6 percent of all Russian territory, but its population is more than 30 million, or 21.3 percent of Russia's total (much higher than in the republics of the Russian Caucasus). Just this region provides about 24 percent of industrial production in the Russian economy; in terms of investment, the Volga region provides 15.3 percent of the nationwide figure. It also is home to about 40 percent of all Russian Muslims.

We cannot assume the automatic transfer of the challenges of one Russian region to another. The respective histories of the Volga region and the North Caucasus under Russian auspices are very different. Both regions have diverse ethnic compositions and Islamic traditions as well as a relationship with other religions, primarily with Orthodox Christianity. However, both the Volga region and the North Caucasus, since perestroika and especially after the Soviet dissolution, have seen processes of Islamic Revival.

After the Kazan tragedy, numerous media outlets found terrorist attacks in Tatarstan a shocking surprise. For many years, experts and journalists discussing the Islamic Revival compared the Volga and North Caucasus. Invariably, the "peaceful" nature of the first opposed the "militancy" of the second. In the Volga region, there was not any experience comparable to the creation of a de facto independent Chechen state. Moreover, the Volga region produced such potentially attractive conceptions as “Euro-Islam,” which aimed to develop the religion in accordance with contemporary realities and interreligious dialogue. But the first alarm bells rang here long before 2012.

As recently as 1999, there were terrorist attacks on the border of the Republic of Tatarstan and the Kirov area. Some attempts of Salafis to create a “Special Islamic Territory,” following the example of 1998 in Dagestan, were undertaken in Tatarstan as well as Mordovia. Among so-called “Russian Talibs” detained in 2002 in the U.S. camp at Guantanamo Bay, it was reported that some were from Tatarstan and Bashkiria. The trial of the Islamist group the Islamic Jamaat occurred in the Tatarstan territory as well, and in 2001–2004 neighboring regions experienced a similar resonance of religious fundamentalism.

For the last two years, the Volga region increasingly has been the site of law-enforcement and intelligence operations designed to curb the threat of Islamic terrorism. Probably the most impressive incidents took place in 2010, in the Arkhangelsk district of Bashkortostan and the Nurlat district of Tatarstan (by the way, one of the largest oil reserves in the country) where special-operations forces fought terrorists. This March, an underground Salafi network was revealed in a jail of the Ulyanovsk region. And there is particular interest among the North Caucasian Islamists in expanding their anti-Russian struggle in other parts of the country. Thus, in the spring of 2010, leader of the "Caucasus Emirate" Doku Umarov announced his readiness to "liberate" the Astrakhan and the Volga lands from the “occupation of the Russian kaafirs.”

The conditions that led to the rise of this tangle of religious and political problems are complex and not reducible to external factors. To some extent, the Volga region is repeating the experience of the North Caucasus and Central Asia. Previously attractive nationalist doctrines (both progovernment and opposition) are losing their popularity, and the conversion of many of yesterday's nationalists to the ranks of Islamic radicals provides clear evidence. Radical Islamism, which uses the rhetoric of social justice, is beginning to gain popularity due to the nationalists’ poor management, corruption and many other social vices. Representatives of the Spiritual Boards of Muslims, considered loyal to the government, do not appear to be on top of the situation; this is in part a result of internal schisms and intrigues but also is due to an inability to engage in polemics with well-trained foreign missionaries or those who have received religious education abroad.

In contrast to the Northern Caucasus, the nonofficial and radical Islam in the Volga region exhibits a different character. In addition to the Salafi movement, the Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami party—almost unknown in the Caucasus—also is active there. There are various additional movements of local origin, not related to the popular international Islamic organizations. And there are many more ethnic Russians among the activists of the Volga Federal District.

Containing the Caucasus Violence

What are the ways of minimizing the risks to the Volga region? How is it possible to prevent “Dagestanization” of this crucially important area?

First, this problem cannot be controlled by means of military or police operations. Of course, radicals who overstep the law must be held accountable. Still, the work to minimize the Islamist threat will not be effective if it cannot incorporate an understanding of social and ideological issues. The hard use of police power could help to bring down the temperature—but it is insufficient to treat the disease itself. In the Caucasus, there are many examples in which special services and authorities managed to minimize the underground groups’ activity. But while the social preconditions for radicalism still exist, it appears again and again.

Secondly, we must consider strengthening traditional Russian Islam, which is linked to the history and culture of the country as a whole and the Volga region in particular. However, this policy should not be conflated with the straightforward support of loyal Muslim structures like spiritual boards of the republican and territorial levels or the narrowly focused sectarian lobbyists. Following such an approach is potentially dangerous because the religious policy of the state could be replaced by certain sectarian interests.

Thus, the focus should be on large-scale public, cultural projects in which the state does not subcontract its responsibilities to anyone and would remain the initiator of all key decisions affecting not only the religious but also the secular sphere; this should include education, especially the teaching of history and other humanities. It also must include active and consistent promotion of a pan-Russian, supra-ethnic political identity, as has been repeatedly proclaimed by all of Russia’s presidents. Otherwise, any attempt to compete with promoters of sectarian loyalties will look like a ticket on a flight without wings.

Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.