ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — The Kremlin’s control over the North Caucasus region has come under scrutiny as a massive counterterrorism operation in the area got underway.
The latest counterterrorism operation took place in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria and in some parts of Dagestan, Russian media reported Sunday. The National Anti-Terrorism Committee said that 49 militants were killed. The special forces arrested 30 members of extremist groups and seized 30 improvised explosive devices, about 100 kilograms of explosives, and 19,000 munitions items. Among the killed were terrorist leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria and some district leaders of Dagestan.
Eighteen years after the start of the First Chechen War, the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus is threatening to turn the region into one of the most ungovernable regions in the world. As we wrote in a Heritage report earlier this year, neither the excessive use of force nor the continuing economic assistance to the region has helped the situation.
Russia’s North Caucasus is becoming one of the most unstable regions in the world. Russian citizens are afraid to visit. In fact, there has been a shift to the underground activities of the militants (also known as the mujahedeen) in many Muslim regions of Russia since a new rebel leader, Doku Umarov, has strengthened local radical Salafist communities (jamaats) and established the Caucasus Emirate, a pan-Caucasian terrorist group, in 2006. Umarov called for establishing an Islamic emirate between the Black and the Caspian Seas, which would consist of the North Caucasian republics within the Russian Federation.
The violence also crept into the historically peaceful and tolerant Muslim Tatarstan 1,000 miles to the north. In July, unknown gunmen shot and killed Waliullah Yakupov, deputy mufti of the republic, and wounded the head mufti, Ildus Fayzov. Both men have been known in the country as outspoken opponents of extremism.
This week, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the leading Sunni scholars in the world and a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, spoke on Qatar TV, saying that Russia “has become the number one enemy of the Muslims, because of its standing against the Syrian people. Over 30,000 [Sunni] Syrians have been killed” using Russian weapons.
His words are likely to have spoiled long-term Russian–Muslim and Russian–Arab relations and provided further impetus for the strengthening of radical forces in the North Caucasus.
The Islamist destabilization of the North Caucasus threatens the entire region, including the neighboring countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as well as the security of oil and gas pipelines linking the Caspian Sea to Western Europe. The threat of attacks also calls into question the safety of large public events in Russia.
The Caucasus Emirate mujahedeen have already conducted attacks on energy infrastructure, trains, planes, concerts, theaters, and hospitals. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the World Soccer Cup could become targets as well.
While Russia is facing unprecedented security challenges, Moscow would not consider aligning itself closely with the West and the U.S. against common threats. Anti-Americanism is promoted from above, and as a result, Russian counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. and its allies has fallen hostage to misguided anti-Western, anti-U.S., hard-line policies and propaganda.