Resurgence of the Islamic State and Kremlin’s helplessness

21 April 2024, 09:50

Following the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall on March 22, 2024, discrimination against Muslims in the Russian Federation is on the rise, exacerbating internal tensions within the state. The group claiming responsibility for the attack, known as Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), is an affiliate of ISIS based in Afghanistan. Their operations have significantly impacted the Taliban regime and civilian populations, often employing tactics like suicide bombings targeting civilians in the markets. Notably, the group has increasingly targeted Persian-speaking and Tajik communities, utilizing numerous Telegram channels for propaganda dissemination.

Despite Putin’s outright denial of the Islamic State’s involvement and Patrushev’s open accusations against Ukraine, Islamophobic sentiments are gaining traction in Russian society, particularly among the warmongering “Z-supporters”. In response, local authorities are turning a blind eye, attempting to conceal the presence of a significant Muslim population in the capital and major cities. A notable instance is the bold action taken by Moscow city authorities, who have issued ‘recommendations’ for Muslims in Russia to observe Eid al-Fitr – the festival marking the end of Ramadan – at home instead of gathering for traditional mass prayers. This directive was issued by Ivan Petrov, the head of Moscow City’s Department of National Policy.

This blatant step against Islamic teachings, which encouraged celebrating holidays openly among fellow believers, constituted a clear case of religious discrimination. However, authorities are wary of the sight of thousands gathering for prayers, as the construction of new mosques in Moscow is deliberately restricted. Interestingly, the idea of replacing collective holiday prayers in mosques with home rituals has been circulating since 2021.

In the Republic of Mordovia, a significant incident unfolded with the detention of Marat Ashimov, a prominent lawyer specialising in Muslim affairs, on charges of fraud. Marat has passionately advocated for the defence of Islamic literature against bans, the allowance of hijabs in schools, and the rights of closed religious centres, among other causes. His efforts even earned him an award from Tatarstan’s president, Minnikhanov, but unfortunately, this recognition no longer shields him.

Amidst this backdrop, we witness yet another significant response from Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, who positions himself as the defender of all Muslims in Russia and seeks to extend his influence abroad, particularly in the Islamic world. Just as in October 2023, when the focus in the Caucasus was on resistance against new history textbooks justifying the Stalinist deportations of 1944, Kadyrov is once again openly challenging Moscow’s authority. According to him, “Russia has always been a diverse and multi-religious country, but ‘false patriots’ are trying to manipulate people’s emotions and advocate for fascist methods.”

On the other hand, Kadyrov’s initiatives appear to be forward-looking, aiming to garner more support among Russian Muslims. However, the reality is far from ideal; even in traditionally Islamic republics, we witness harsh arrests and mistreatment of suspects. Some anti-Russian activities are wrongly attributed to the Islamic State – for instance, in Dagestan, where a supposed “counter-terrorism operation” took place on March 30 in Makhachkala and Kaspiysk. During the operation, the FSB cordoned off a neighbourhood on Ahmet-Khan Sultan Street. Three individuals were apprehended, allegedly plotting an explosion along the waterfront or in Victory Park in Kaspiysk (according to the FSB, one of the detainees confessed to this). The search of the detention sites led to the discovery of automatic weapons, ammunition, and a fully functional sniper rifle.

According to the National Antiterrorism Committee of the Russian Federation, the terrorist attack wasn’t aimed at a specific target; rather, the primary objective was to cause an explosion in a densely populated area. One of the detainees purportedly confessed to transporting weapons used by the terrorists who attacked “Crocus.” Allegedly, he transported these weapons from Makhachkala to the suburban town of Mytishchi. The increased activity of the FSB in Dagestan suggests the regime’s intention to demonstrate effective measures following the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall.

Concurrently, Russian law enforcement agencies have launched crackdowns on illegal migrant workers from Central Asian countries. These operations commenced in urban centres and extended to remote regions – reaching as far as the Far East. For instance, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, police conducted raids, resulting in the discovery of 168 foreign citizens staying illegally. However, we perceive these actions as merely a response to the terrorist attack aimed at reassuring the public. In reality, the Russian economy has long relied heavily on cheap labour from Central Asian states. These states were formerly part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Their importance increased notably from 2022 onwards, as the economy faced a labour shortage due to significant casualties on the front lines and emigration, especially among young males. Moreover, there have been numerous instances of recruiting migrant workers directly into the Russian army.

Therefore, closing the southern borders would only hasten the decline of the Russian economy. Conversely, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with their high birth rates, maintain political stability largely by exporting labour migrants who contribute currency and ease social tensions. If the northern borders were to close, there would be increased risks of chaos spreading and the proliferation of Islamist movements, echoing the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan. Currently, the Kremlin lacks effective measures to counter radical propaganda among Tajiks and other migrants who feel marginalised in Russian society. Consequently, one can anticipate repeated attempts to orchestrate mass terrorist attacks, with Russian security services grappling with the dilemma of prioritising the conflict with Ukraine or suppressing dissent within Russia.

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