Beyond Sochi — Putin, Russia losing battle with radical Islam

07 February 2014

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games are underway in Russia’s resort city of Sochi. In the days before the games began terror experts issued security threat warnings.

To ensure safety, the Russian authorities set up a massive electronic surveillance system, a security zone 60 miles long and 25 miles deep—the so-called “Ring of Steel,” and deployed a 40,000 security force.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s reputation is tied to success during the Sochi Olympics and he does not want to fail.

Yet the more security elements the Russian authorities put in place, the more they highlight that Russia is losing its broader battle with radical Islam—beyond Sochi.

Despite Putin’s pledge to “crush” the terrorists, they persist in Russia. In late December 2013, twin bombings shook the city of Volgograd, 400 miles from Sochi, leaving 34 dead. Prior to that, suicide attacks in Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011, and the Metro in 2010, left dozens dead and more wounded.

According to the International Crisis Group, the North Caucasus remains Europe’s deadliest conflicts region. Yet in recent years, radicalization in Russia spread even further, to the Volga region, where the hitherto quiet Tatarstan has recently seen a rise of extremist Islamist activity.  As Tatarstan grew and prospered, it attracted immigrants from the North Caucasus and Central Asian republics. Some among these immigrants brought extremist ideology with them.

In May 2012, one of Tatarstan’s most prominent Muslim clerics, mufti Ildus Faizov observed, “There is a movement to impose an alien ideology on Tatarstan’s Muslims” by “thousands of missionaries.”

He added, “As a result, in Russia, there even emerged groups of radical Muslims who were willing to slaughter the civilian population in order to achieve their aims.”

Following his comments, Faizov and another prominent cleric Valiulla Yakupov were attacked in July 2012. Faizov survived but Yakupov died. More recently, in 2013, seven Orthodox Christian churches were torched in Tatarstan. The authorities are still searching for those responsible.

The jihadi struggle in Russia is not only spreading beyond the Caucasus, but also evolving.

Reportedly, radical fighters increasingly rely on ethnic Russian converts, as was the case in the Volgograd bombings in 2013. The fighters’ reach is broad, as they reportedly gain recruits from far as Canada. Russian security forces do not appear to be adapting to the new realities on the ground as they continue to rely on their old techniques.

In 2000, Putin ran for president on a campaign slogan “mochit v sortire [wipe them out in the outhouse],” in reference to terrorists. Yet since then, he has done little to address the fundamental reasons behind the rise of terrorism in his country.

In no small part, the problem stems from Russia’s own policies that tend to rely on crude “crushing” rather than a more sophisticated approach.

As Brookings scholar Fiona Hill wrote in 2002, “Russia is not so much being targeted by terrorism as inadvertently spawning it. State failure, not success, is the root of Russia's terrorist threat.”

More recently, the Economist noted in April 2013, “Over the past decade, the more moderate, secular figures in the original Chechen resistance were purposefully ignored by Moscow and pushed aside by more extremist fighters.”

Regardless of the outcome of the Sochi Olympics, the Kremlin’s inability to deal with radical Islam will continue to further hamper its domestic and foreign policy.

Western policy makers would do well to watch Russia after the Olympics, for Russia’s failure to address Islamist extremism at home, unfortunately, could reverberate abroad.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. .