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Islamic State Expands to Russia

Map of the Caucasus

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John Burger - published on 06/29/15

ISIS plants a flag in heavily Muslim North Caucasus, think tank reports

The Islamic State group is planting its flag in Russia.

The jihadist organization, which has terrorized populations of religious minorities throughout the Middle East, declared a governorate in Russia’sNorth Caucasus, according to a Washington think tank that monitors conflicts around the globe.

The governorate, called Wilayat Qawqaz (Caucasus), was declared June 23 after several senior militants in the heavily Muslim area pledged allegiance to ISIS, says the Institute for the Study of War. The ISW reported:

The announcement pits ISIS against the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, an official al-Qaeda affiliate that has operated in the mountainous region of southwestern Russia since 2007. ISIS has been setting conditions to establish this governorate in support of its regional expansion campaign since at least January 2015. ISIS’s statements and actions over the next few weeks will indicate whether the organization intends to launch operations through its new Caucasus affiliate, or whether it simply intends to use the pledge as an opportunity to assert its global vitality and reach. …

ISW said that ISIS’s claim of a new wilayatopens a new front in the battle between ISIS and al-Qaeda for the leadership of global jihadism and likely will encourage Russia to increase its counterterrorism operations in the North Caucasus:

The Russian government accelerated its domestic security efforts in the region following a gun battle that Islamic militants initiated against government forces in the Chechen capital of Grozny in December 2014. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov subsequently claimed on April 22 that ISIS is Russia’s “greatest enemy,” ranked above China or NATO. The Russian government will likely use the announcement of Wilayat Qawqaz as a justification to vigorously stamp out separatist sentiment in southern Russia. This may counterproductively fuel popular discontent and militant recruitment within the region. Russia also may use the development as a pretext to increase its involvement in Syria and Iraq, where it has recently equipped the Iraqi Security Forces with new supplies of Russian anti-tank rockets. This foreign intensification by Russia may complicate relations between the United States and its European partners as they attempt to balance Russian participation in the anti-ISIS effort with resistance to Russian actions in Ukraine. It also may overstretch the Russian government, which is balancing engagement in Ukraine and the Middle East with domestic counterterrorism operations and an economic crisis.

ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, in declaring the governorate named “Abu Mohammad al-Qadari” the leader of the group, and congratulated “the soldiers of the Islamic State” in the Caucasus.

ISW said that ISIS has repeatedly voiced its interest in the Caucasus over the past year. The organization maintains a large base of Chechen fighters within Iraq and Syria, and frequently releases Russian-language propaganda encouraging individuals to pledge allegiance to ISIS. 

ISIS may thus attempt to reinvigorate the Chechen insurgency in support of its Near Abroad campaign to accelerate regional conflicts. Alternately, it may seek to provoke the Russian state by launching attacks in prominent cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg. Statements from ISIS over the coming weeks recommending specific targets or operations will likely clarify how ISIS intends to fold Wilayat Qawqaz into its global expansion strategy. Regardless of the ultimate decision, both the pledge of allegiance and the declaration of Wilayat Qawqaz will enable ISIS to assert its continued expansion and vitality at the expense of al-Qaeda, the Russian state, and the international anti-ISIS coalition.

The International Business Timesnoted that ISIS has now declared it has provinces in nine countries outside Iraq and Syria:

In the past, the Islamic State group has been cautious when announcing its new wilayats, choosing areas where affiliated organizations were certain to succeed. Target countries are usually those with pre-existing sectarian tensions, a marginalized Sunni population and a large number of fighters who had already joined the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Wilayat Qawqaz fulfilled those requirements. Chechens make up a large proportion of the foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, where they are reputed to be the so-called caliphate’s toughest combatants. 

Islamist MilitantsRussia
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