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After St Petersburg: Russia and the Threat from Central Asian Terror Networks

Mark Youngman and Cerwyn Moore
Commentary, 20 April 2017
Europe, Russia, Terrorism
The investigation into the 3 April terrorist attack on the St Petersburg metro has focused on a man of Central Asian origin with possible ties to Syrian rebel groups. The attack raises concerns about the threat posed both by Daesh and extremists within Russia’s sizeable Central Asian community.

Investigators have identified Akhbarzhon Dzhalilov as the prime suspect in the 3 April attack on the St Petersburg metro that left 14 people dead and 49 injured. Dzhalilov is an ethnic Uzbek from the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh who obtained Russian citizenship in 2011.

A further eight people, mostly from Kyrgyzstan, were detained in St Petersburg and Moscow on suspicion of assisting Dzhalilov.

Russia’s official response has also been relatively low-key. While previous major attacks, such as the January 2011 suicide attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, were followed by public threats of retribution, official statements on the 3 April attack have been restrained.

President Vladimir Putin, for example, did not explicitly mention it in either a statement issued after a meeting on the day with his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, or in a lengthy interview later. This suggests a desire to avoid drawing attention to the issue.

Yet it remains unlikely the attacker operated alone: most attackers engage with other extremists to some degree. Moreover, there is no shortage of potential candidates who are hostile to Russia. Suspicion has invariably fallen on rebel groups in Syria and Iraq, principally Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS).

Daesh Activity in Russia

As its strongholds in its core territory have come under pressure, Daesh has sought to inspire attacks globally. It has also targeted Russian interests abroad – most notably downing a Russian passenger jet over Egypt in October 2015.

To date, Daesh has claimed thirteen attacks in Russia: ten in the North Caucasus, two in Moscow Oblast, and – a day after the St Petersburg attack – one in Astrakhan Oblast.

Its eight attacks in Dagestan are difficult to distinguish from the insurgent activity that has plagued Russia since long before Daesh became the dominant rebel group. And one of those claimed almost certainly did not take place.

Attacks elsewhere, however, have been largely unsophisticated. An August 2016 attack in Moscow Oblast and the December 2016 attack on the Chechen capital Grozny both appear to have involved attacking police officers to grab their firearms.

A March 2017 attack on a military unit in Chechnya and the one in Astrakhan appear to have followed a similar pattern. The other ‘attack’ in Moscow Oblast involved arson at a furniture factory and initially did not even appear to be suspicious.

If Daesh was indeed responsible for the St Petersburg attack, it can certainly be regarded as its biggest ‘success’ to date.

Central Asian Transnational Militancy

The Central Asian origins of the attacker and his alleged accomplices have led to a renewed focus on the threat posed by the transnational activities of radical groups linked to the region.

Such activities have a long history. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), for example, established a presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s, seeking sanctuary and support from the Taliban and tribal communities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in response to intense pressure at home.

However, factionalism and infighting throughout the 2000s, coupled with targeted pressure from Afghan, Pakistani and US forces, hampered these groups’ capacity to build on their presence in the region.

Nevertheless, an offshoot of the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), sought to mobilise support from Turkic-speaking communities in Europe and Russia, as well as Central Asia and China.

The IJU established paramilitary training camps in Waziristan and was affiliated to the Taliban and supported informally by Al-Qa’ida. Notably, it was linked to a thwarted plot in 2007 against the American air base in Ramstein, in Germany.

Numerous arrests followed not only in Germany, but also elsewhere in Europe, including Scandinavia and Turkey.

Syria and the Renewed Interest in Central Asian Militancy

The impact of such activity was limited and the numbers involved small, but efforts to draw on informal networks linking ethnic and sub-ethnic communities offered advantages.

A multitude of Turkic communities with deep-rooted linguistic and cultural links enabled Uighur and Azeri volunteers, and even German converts and German Turks, to travel to and fight in Afghanistan.

Such networks could draw on broader diaspora and migrant communities stretching into Europe. The aim was to mobilise recruits and circumvent Western counterterrorism measures by piggybacking on extensive transnational ties.

Events in Syria and Iraq have drawn in a new generation of volunteers from across the Soviet space. Official statements on how many people from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are fighting in Syria and Iraq have lacked consistency and transparency and are impossible to independently verify.

However, Putin recently offered figures of 4,000 from Russia and up to 5,000 from former Soviet countries. Russian recruits have been drawn mainly from the North Caucasus region, but also from across Russia. Those from Central Asia have often come from migrant communities in Russia, particularly Moscow and St Petersburg.

The groups who have attracted Central Asians have benefited from the long-standing clandestine networks and informal links between communities in parts of the region and Russia.

Some recruits have joined independent jama’ats (groups), while others – such as the Uzbek Imam Bukhari Jama’at and Katibat Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad – established training facilities and released statements in support of various factions aligned to Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham and Daesh.

The IJU has released video footage of training camps in Syria – and reportedly underscored a desire to attack Russia, while another group with Uzbek, Uighur and Turkish members, Ansar Jihad, has also recently distributed video footage following the fall of Aleppo.

Over the past two years, in a major crackdown, authorities across the CIS have also arrested numerous Central Asians on charges related to the conflict in the Middle East.

In recent months, Kyrgyz authorities have launched a crackdown in the Osh region, detaining recruiters and former fighters. Some were from migrant communities, including Uzbeks, while others were Kyrgyz nationals. Some had fought alongside Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, while others were aligned to Daesh.

It is unclear whether others were affiliated to groups such as the IJU. The Russian authorities, meanwhile, have frequently arrested large groups of migrant workers on suspicion of ties to Syrian rebels.

Unconfirmed reports have claimed that militant circles in Kyrgyzstan, coupled with other Russian militant groups, may have supported Dzhalilov in carrying out the 3 April attack – or even duped him into carrying the bomb on to the underground.

The attack suggests that Central Asian militant groups have both the capacity and intent to target Russian civilians.

However, an accurate threat assessment should not focus exclusively on recent developments and Daesh, but instead consider these events in a broader context and look at the range of groups with which Central Asian radicals are involved.

Mark Youngman is a PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

Cerwyn Moore is a Senior lecturer in International Relations and Programme Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, University of Birmingham.

Banner image: Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a memorial to the 14 people killed at Tekhnologichesky Institut metro station in St Petersburg. Courtesy of the President of Russia.

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