The Caliphate Comes Home
Spring/Summer 2011 - Number 20

The Caliphate Comes Home

Ilan Berman

t he suicide bombing which killed thirty-five travelers and injured over a hundred more at Moscow’s bustling Domodedovo Airport in late January did more than temporarily bring air traffic in Russia to a standstill. The attack, the second major terror incident to hit the Russian capital in less than a year, laid bare the dirty little secret the Kremlin has worked diligently to hide from the world.

Nearly two decades into Russia’s own version of the “war on terror,” it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that the country is in the throes of a rising Islamist insurgency—or that the Russian government, which once promised a swift, decisive victory over “Wahhabism,” increasingly seems to have little idea what to do about it.

Chaos in the Caucasus

It was not always this way. Two decades ago, the threat posed by Islamic radicalism was still distant and ephemeral for most Russians. True, the collapse of the U.S.SR had unleashed a wave of ethnic separatism on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Over the span of thirteen months, fifteen new countries, six of them majority-Muslim, emerged from the wreckage of the “evil empire.” As a result, the aggregate number of Muslims within Russia proper actually decreased.1 And, after more than seven decades of officially-atheist Soviet rule, those Muslims that remained within the Russian Federation lacked a clear religious direction or sense of spiritual identity.

But if the growth of Islamic radicalism wasn’t an immediate concern, a further fragmentation of the Russian state was. The corrosive example of independence on the part of the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia ignited dreams of the same in many corners of the Russian Federation. This was particularly true in Russia’s Caucasus republics—the majority-Muslim regions which abutted the newly-independent nations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. These stirrings were given concrete voice by the November 1991 declaration of independence by Chechnya’s nationalist leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev.

Notably, Dudayev did not initially embrace Islam as the foundation for an independent Chechnya.2 Slowly but surely, however, the Chechen self-determination struggle metamorphosed into an Islamist jihad. This was due in large part to the influx of “Afghan alumni”—foreign (mostly Arab) mujahideen who previously had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan—into the breakaway republic in the early 1990s.3 These forces helped bolster the ranks of the Chechen resistance against Russian forces, which had been dispatched to pacify the republic in 1994. But they also served to progressively alter its character. Experts estimate that, by the following year, some 300 “Afghan” Arabs were active in Chechnya and engaged in hostilities there.4 So were an array of other Islamist forces, from Saudi charities to al-Qaeda, all of whom had an interest in promoting a religious alternative to the Russian state.5 By the time of the signing of the Khasavyurt agreement formally ending the first Chechen war in August 1996, Chechen politics had become both thoroughly Islamized and internationalized—laying the groundwork for future conflict.

Instability followed. Subsequent years saw the deterioration of the republic into rampant criminality and lawlessness. They also saw the rise of local warlords, such as Shamil Basayev, who strengthened the Chechen Islamist movement’s ties to international terror and engaged in increasingly brazen acts of domestic terrorism against Russian interests.6 And as the situation in Chechnya deteriorated, the domestic conditions in neighboring Russian republics followed suit.7

Two events propelled Russia back into open conflict with its unruly hinterlands. The first was the August 1999 invasion of Dagestan by an Islamist militia led by Basayev and Jordanian-born rebel commander Omar Ibn ul-Khattab. The second was the September 1999 bombing of four apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Moscow, Buynansk and Volgodonsk, allegedly by Chechen rebels. (Notably, considerable controversy surrounds the terrorist attacks, with some claiming that the blasts were orchestrated by Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, to provide a pretext for renewed war in the Caucasus.)8

By then, however, the nature of the conflict had changed fundamentally. Whereas the first Chechen war, at least in its opening stages, was still mostly a struggle for self-determination, the war’s second iteration had an overtly Islamist, missionary character. Instead of being localized to Chechnya, it also increasingly implicated the republic’s Caucasian neighbors (most directly Dagestan and Ingushetia). And while the first Chechen war took on the form of a fast-moving asymmetric conflict, the second assumed the character of a war of attrition. A grinding, bloody campaign inevitably followed.

In this effort, the Kremlin was not without its victories. In April of 2002, Russia’s security services successfully assassinated Khattab, the Jordanian-born jihadist rumored to be Bin Laden’s man in the Caucasus.9 Four years later, in July 2006, warlord Shamil Basayev, the mastermind behind the 1999 Dagestan raid, was similarly eliminated.10

On the surface, these successes appeared to shift the momentum of the conflict in Moscow’s favor, and the Kremlin was quick to declare victory. In April of 2009, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in a Russian throwback to President Bush’s ill-fated May 2003 “mission accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, proudly declared victory in Russia’s counterterrorism campaign.11

That sense of triumph, however, turned out to be anything but lasting. By the summer of 2009, extreme violence returned to the region. Over the span of three months (June through August), 436 people were killed in Chechnya alone, more than triple the number of casualties during the same time period a year earlier. And the number of terrorist attacks in the republic, which stood at 265 for the summer of 2008, nearly doubled, jumping to 452.12

So the situation remains. Today, despite regular public pronouncements to the contrary from officials in Moscow, what fleeting stability could be found in the aftermath of the Russian military’s onslaught has long since dissipated. The Caucasus remains a political quagmire for the Kremlin—and a locus of resilient Islamic radicalism. Indeed, in recent months, Chechnya’s Islamic militants have staged a savage comeback. Back in August 2010, guerrilla commandos carried out a brazen raid on the native village of regional president Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-approved strongman who rules the republic with an iron grip.13 Just two months later, three Chechen commandos launched a suicide raid on the regional parliament, killing six people and wounding 17.14

As violence has surged, Russian optimism has withered. A July 2010 exposé by Germany’s influential Der Spiegel magazine found that some high-ranking Russian officials have become convinced that it will take years to defeat extremist groups in the restive region—if such a feat can be accomplished at all.15 Indeed, although Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has vowed that the area will be safe for the nearby 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, local security has deteriorated to an unprecedented degree. Armored vehicles and helicopters are now de rigeur for all visiting Kremlin officials, and traffic policemen in the republic require the protection of Interior Ministry units. “It will take years to change the situation here,” one Russian general told the German newsweekly. “For every dead terrorist, two new ones rise up to take his place.”

The reason for Islamism’s resilience—indeed, its growing appeal—has a great deal to do with a hardening of local attitudes. Take, for example, the poll conducted in early 2011 among Dagestani youth by the regional journal Nations of Dagestan, which produced a worrying picture of public sentiment regarding the ongoing conflict in the restive Russian republic, and the role religion should play in society there. Thirty percent of the study’s participants, who included members of Dagestan’s universities and police schools, said they would choose to live under a Muslim-run religious regime. Similarly, more than a third of those polled indicated they would not turn in a friend or family member responsible for terrorism to authorities.16 These findings track closely with those of human rights groups and NGOs active in the Caucasus, which have documented an upsurge in support for Islamic extremism and adherence to radical religious ideas there.17

In other words, despite official claims that the region has been pacified, the North Caucasus is more and more a place where the Kremlin’s authority is ignored or challenged, and where religious identity trumps nationalist sentiment.

A spreading contagion

Nor is the problem localized to the Caucasus. Even in Russia’s Volga region, where the tolerant Tatar strain of Islam has historically coexisted peacefully with both federal authorities and the Orthodox Church, there are now telltale signs of extremist activity—and of a growing challenge to the established status quo. In late November, a bloody skirmish between Islamic militants and local law enforcement in the Nurlatsky district of the republic of Tatarstan left three dead and local calm shattered. In its aftermath, regional officials were quick to paint the episode as an anomaly.18

For local experts, however, the writing is increasingly on the wall. The incident, wrote Yana Amelina of Kazan State University, one of the republic’s leading observers of Islamist activity, was a telling reflection of “the growing influence of Wahhabis in the region.”19 Indeed, Amelina points out, Doku Umarov, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Chechnya’s main Islamist grouping, has talked publicly about the eventual expansion of jihadist activity along the Volga, and the subject of radical Islam’s growth in Russia’s heartland has become a topic of discussion among Islamists now active in Russia. As a result, she warns, the recent clashes in Tatarstan “should serve as a warning bell.” It is clear, she writes, that this incident “will not be the last.”

Even neighboring Bashkortostan, whose capital city, Ufa, serves as the spiritual seat of Muslims in Russia, has not proven immune. The past year-and-a-half has seen a marked growth in grassroots Islamist militancy in the region, and widespread banditry by these elements.20 This instability contributed in part to the ouster of the region’s long-serving president, Murtaza Rakhimov, last summer, and his subsequent replacement with a new, Kremlin-selected strongman, Rustem Khamitov. A new offensive against Islamic militants and ethnic separatists alike has followed, unearthing some troubling linkages with the Caucasus in the process. (Most recently, in February, Bashkir security forces arrested four suspected Islamists from the western town of Oktyabarsky. At least one of the suspects is believed to be the leader of the “Oktyabarsky Jamaat,” a local affiliate of Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate.)21

The rising appeal of Islamism in Russia’s heartland is in part a function of the flagging ideological allure of traditional, Tatar Islam. To be sure, this moderate, assimilationist interpretation of the religion still has its proponents,22 and it remains the brand of Islam officially endorsed and embraced by the Russian state. But as conversations with regional religious experts quickly make painfully clear, the movement as a whole today lacks a compelling overarching narrative that appeals to the region’s Muslim youth.

Islamists, by contrast, do—a fact evidenced by the growth of “Wahhabi” grassroots activism in the form of social organizations, spiritual retreats and informal youth gatherings.23 But the growing currency of extremist religious ideas isn’t just confined to social life; they are increasingly evident among the regional spiritual leadership as well. This was hammered home by the resignation of Tatarstan’s chief mufti, Gusman Iskhakov, in early January.

Officially, Iskhakov’s departure was chalked up to “health reasons,” but regional religious officials say that the real cause was his failure to comply with the traditional, moderate Tatar brand of Islam—and his affinity for a more extreme variant of it.24 Moreover, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Regional officials have cautioned that Iskhakov’s replacement will face a growing challenge: the need to replace a number of local imams espousing to an extreme Salafi interpretation of Islam who assumed their posts on the former mufti’s watch.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this shifting momentum can be found on Gazovaya Ulitsa, a busy thoroughfare in Tatarstan’s capital city of Kazan. There, the Russian Islamic University—the region’s premier religious university, dedicated to promulgating moderate Tatar Islam—sits opposite an imposing mosque, the largest Wahhabi place of worship in the republic. The juxtaposition serves as a telling reminder to all who visit that the established religious order in the region is being challenged, and that, while Tatar Islam is increasingly seen as stagnant, its radical counterpart is on the march.

Hard power, not smart power

More than anything else, this proliferation of Islamic radicalism in Russia underscores the bankruptcy of the Kremlin’s approach to counterterrorism. For years, Russia’s leaders have banked on a hard-power campaign against Islamic radicalism in their hinterlands, hoping that overwhelming force would pacify the country’s restive republics. In doing so, they also have gambled that their policies, however bloody, would remain popular so long as ordinary Russians believed the Islamist threat to be both marginal and distant. Yet a steady stream of terrorist incidents in recent years—most prominent among them the 2002 hostage taking at Moscow’s Nord-Ost theater, the 2004 Beslan school massacre, and the 2009 bombing of the Moscow metro—have put the lie to that claim. The January 24th attack at Domodedovo was but the latest in this bloody chain of events.

Why have Russian efforts to combat Islamic radicalism so far failed? Much of the problem lies in the way Moscow conceptualizes its struggle with Islamic forces. Indeed, while some in Russia recognize the need for an “intellectual war” against Islamic extremism,25 the Kremlin’s approach to the issue remains overwhelmingly kinetic in nature. The Russian military’s engagement in the Caucasus over the past two decades can best be described as a scorched earth policy that has left more than a hundred thousand dead. (In 2005, an unofficial Chechen estimate placed the death toll from the two Chechen wars at 160,000.26 Official tallies offered by Moscow, however, are more modest.) Over time, these security operations—and a corresponding lack of serious, sustained investment in grassroots prosperity and civil society in the Caucasus—have led to widespread disaffection with Moscow. The feeling, moreover, is increasingly mutual; as the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexei Malashenko has put it, most Russians have come to see the Caucasus as their “internal abroad”—an area qualitatively different from the rest of Russia, which must be pacified rather than engaged.27

Runaway regional corruption plays a large role in this disaffection. Over time, the Russian government has come to rely on a succession of Kremlin-approved strongmen to maintain local order in its majority-Muslim republics—and to preserve their allegiance to Moscow. It has also subsidized the lion’s share of their expenses; estimates suggest the Kremlin currently provides between sixty and eighty percent of the operating budgets of regional republics such as Chechnya.28 But accountability and transparency have lagged far behind. Not surprisingly, corruption and graft have proliferated, and the Caucasus has gained global notoriety for its criminality and lawlessness.

While hard numbers are difficult to come by, President Medvedev himself has identified regional corruption as so pervasive and destabilizing as to be “a major threat for national security.”29 In response, Russian officials have proposed an array of remedial measures intended to make regional governments more transparent and accountable.30 But these steps remain mostly notional; substantive changes to entrenched cronyism, experts say, are exceedingly hard to find.

What is clear, however, is that this status quo is unsustainable. One reason is demographics. Russia’s population is declining precipitously. Even under optimistic predictions, it is estimated that the country’s overall population will constrict by more than 20 million people over the next four decades, potentially bottoming out at just 116 million by 2050.31 Pessimistic forecasts peg that figure much lower: at 100 million souls by the middle of this century. But this decline isn’t uniform. Negative demographic trends have hit Russia’s Slavs the hardest. Russia’s Muslim population, by comparison, is thriving. According to official estimates, Russia’s Muslims, who currently account for some fifteen to twenty percent of the country, will swell to a third or more in twenty years. By the middle of the century, officials in Moscow predict, they will make up the majority of all Russians.32

Time, in other words, is not working in Moscow’s favor. Russia’s already-unpopular counterterrorism strategies are likely to become all the more so in the years ahead, as the community most directly affected by them becomes increasingly large and vocal. At the same time, Russia’s swelling Muslim cohort represents an inviting audience for Islamist groups and foreign radicals—particularly given the Kremlin’s systematic failure to meaningfully engage its Muslim minority on a societal and economic level.

All of which should matter a great deal to the United States. Russia’s inability to contain the radical Islamist forces now active within its borders could lead to an acceleration of its drift away from democratic values—and toward totalitarianism. As scholars Charles King and Rajan Menon pointed out in Foreign Affairs not long ago, a further deterioration of Russia’s internal security situation “may invoke public safety to justify the further restriction of civil liberties and concentration of power inside the Kremlin.”33 Russia’s success or failure vis-à-vis radical Islam, in other words, is likely to serve as a barometer for the character of the state writ large. By extension, it will dictate what kind of Kremlin Washington will be forced to deal with in the years ahead.

Needed: a reset on radical Islam

For the United States, Russia’s Islamist crisis represents a distinct opportunity. Since taking office, the Obama administration has made a “reset” of relations with the Kremlin a central part of its foreign policy. But the hook upon which it has chosen to hang this new relationship—strategic arms control—does not address what is the most pressing concern for the Russian leadership. These days, officials in Moscow are preoccupied above all else with stabilizing their turbulent periphery, and preventing the incursion of radical Islamic forces into the Russian heartland.

Counterterrorism, moreover, represents one of the very few areas where Moscow and Washington see eye to eye. Although there is considerable evidence that significant differences remain in Russian and American attitudes toward arms reductions, nuclear modernization and missile defense—the three topics that cumulatively make up the crux of the current bilateral dialogue between the two countries—commonality on the threat posed by Islamic extremism is a good deal easier to find. While some divergences exist (most notably in the case of Iran, which the United States sees as a global threat and Russia continues to support as a strategic partner), the overall characterization of Islamism as a national security challenge in Washington and Moscow is strikingly similar.

This synergy has already provided a limited basis for cooperation. Fears of the potential destabilizing regional effects of a Taliban resurgence have led the Russian government to adopt a supportive attitude toward Coalition operations in Afghanistan, for example. But a broader, sustained dialogue regarding the threats posed by radical Islam—and how Washington can help Moscow better address its Islamist challenge through economic, social and political initiatives—is still mostly notional.

It shouldn’t be. How Russia responds to the growing challenge to its security and stability posed by radical Islam today will determine a great many things, from the character of the Russian government itself to whether the country’s swelling Muslim minority emerges as a threat to it—and to the region. The United States has a vested interest in influencing these decisions, and in helping the Russian government plot a constructive course that engages—rather than alienates—its Muslim population, even as it reduces the appeal of Islamist ideologies within the Russian Federation.

In other words, if America wants a real reset in relations with Russia, one that truly brings Moscow and Washington closer together, it would do well to focus on the shared struggle against radical Islam. There it is likely to find far more fertile soil for lasting cooperation with the Kremlin than that which is currently being tilled by the White House.


Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, and Editor of The Journal of International Security Affairs.

  1. Authoritative statistics are difficult to come by, but some tentative metrics are available. As of 1989, scholars estimate, Muslims made up some 19.2 percent of the overall Soviet population of nearly 287 million. See Daniel Pipes, “The Problem of Soviet Muslims,” Asian Outlook (Taipei), March-April 1991, The breakup of the U.S.SR, however, constricted that number precipitously, and only around 10 million remained in post-Soviet Russia (accounting for less than six percent of the country’s 148-million-person population). See Jonah Hull, “Russia Sees Muslim Population Boom,” Al-Jazeera (Doha), January 13, 2007,
  2. Gordon M. Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 31.
  3. For an in-depth account of this trend, see Paul Murphy, The Wolves of Islam: Russia and the Faces of Chechen Terror (London: Brassey’s, 2004).
  4. Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat, 36.
  5. Ibid., 36-37.
  6. Ibidem, 38-29.
  7. Jim Nichol, Stability in Russia’s Chechnya and Other Regions of the North Caucasus: Recent Developments (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, January 27, 2010), 10-11,
  8. See, for example, Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky, Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror (New York: Encounter Books, 2007).
  9. “Obituary: Chechen Rebel Khattab,” BBC, April 26, 2002,
  10. “Chechen Rebel Chief Basayev Dies,” BBC, July 10, 2006,
  11. Tony Halpin, “Chechen Rebellion Has Been Crushed, Says Kremlin,” Sunday Times (London), April 17, 2009,
  12. Statistics compiled by the Center for Strategic & International Studies, as cited in “Chechnya,” New York Times, October 19, 2010,
  13. Luke Harding, “Islamist Rebels Launch Deadly Attack on Chechen President’s Village,” Guardian (London), August 29, 2010,
  14. Simon Shuster, “Chechen Terrorists, Despite a Schism, Come Back Ferociously,” TIME, October 21, 2010,,8599,2026737,00.html.
  15. Matthias Schepp, “Anarchy in Dagestan: Islamists Gain Upper Hand in Russian Republic,” Der Spiegel (Hamburg), July 30, 2010,,1518,709176,00.html.
  16. “Sotseologi: 30 percent Molodezhi Dagestana Khotyat Zhite v Religioznom Gosudarstve [Sociologists: 30 percent of Dagestan’s Youth Wants to Live under a Religious Government],” Regnum, January 11, 2011,
  17. Nichol, Stability in Russia’s Chechnya and Other Regions of the North Caucasus, 13.
  18. Author’s interviews, Kazan, Russia, December 20-21, 2010.
  19. Yana Amelina, “Djihad v Tatarstane [Jihad in Tatarstan],” Zvezda Povolzhya (Kazan), December 2, 2010.
  20. Ranis Islamov, “Ufa Zamedlennogo Deistviya [Ufa in Slow Motion],” Russkiy Reportyor (Moscow), July 26, 2010,
  21. “Alleged Islamic Extremists Detained in Bashkortostan,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 8, 2011,
  22. Of these, perhaps the most well-known (albeit not the most mainstream) is Raphael Khakimov of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences. Khakimov’s views on the compatibility of Islam and modernity, and his ideas about “Euro-Islam,” are detailed in Raphael Khakim, Ternistuy Put k Svobode [The Thorny Path to Freedom] (Kazan: Tatarstan Book Press, 2007).
  23. Author’s interview with regional expert on radical Islam, Kazan, Russia, December 20, 2010.
  24. “Prichinoy Otstavki Muftia Tatarstana Nazuyvaiut ‘Kompromisi i Pokrovitelstvo Salafitam’ [‘Compromise and Deference to Salafists’ Identified as the Reasons for the Resignation of Tatarstan’s Mufti], Regnum, January 14, 2011,
  25. See, for example, “Pamfilova: Kremlin Enables ‘Endemic Corruption’ in North Caucasus,” The Other Russia, April 23, 2010,
  26. “Chechen Official Puts Death Toll for 2 Wars at up to 160,000,” New York Times, August 16, 2005,
  27. Alexei Malashenko, as cited in “U Nikh Tut Portreti Putina, Medvedeva, No Oni za Shariat [Here they have portraits of Putin and Medvedev, but believe in Sharia],”, December 3, 2009,
  28. Charles King and Rajan Menon, “Prisoners of the Caucasus,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010, 31.
  29. “Russia’s Medvedev: Caucasus Corruption Threatens State,” Reuters, May 19, 2010,; “Medvedev Advocates Tough Corruption Measures for North Caucasus,” Russia Today, May 19, 2010,
  30. “Russia’s Medvedev: Caucasus Corruption Threatens State,” Reuters, May 19, 2010,; “Medvedev Advocates Tough Corruption Measures for North Caucasus,” Russia Today, May 19, 2010,
  31. “Aging Population Worry for Russia,” New Zealand Herald, February 13, 2011,
  32. “Cherez polveka Musulmani v Rossii Mogut Stat Bolshenstvom – Posol MID RF [In Half a Century, Muslims in Russia Could Become the Majority – Russia’s OIC Ambassador],” Interfax (Moscow), October 10, 2007,
  33. King and Menon, “Prisoners of the Caucasus,” 23.