Nearly two years after Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev terrorized Boston with a pair of homemade bombs, Dzhokhar has been sentenced to death. Much of the trial focused on his brother’s connections to the Caucasus Emirate (IK), a jihadist organization based in the North Caucasus – a historically tumultuous and Muslim-dominated region in southern Russia.
Today, members of the IK, along with disaffected citizens from the Caucasus and Central Asia, have abandoned the fight at home to join ISIS, resulting in a notable decline in terrorist violence in the North Caucasus. However, these emboldened militants could soon return from the Middle East, rekindling the threat of terrorism in the post-Soviet world.
Regional authorities speculate that ISIS might soon attempt to establish a “Northern front” in the North Caucasian republic of Dagestan. Eurasian Muslims (particularly migrant workers from Central Asia), disgruntled by political, religious, and economic disenfranchisement at home and abroad, are heeding ISIS’s call to arms in increasingly large numbers.
In a widely cited January report, the International Crisis Group estimated that between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asians have left their home countries to fight for ISIS. The following month, Russian officials announced that 1,700 Russian nationals, mostly Chechens, have joined the group as well.
The exodus of militants from the post-Soviet region to the Middle East (along with Russia’s heavy-handed counterterrorism tactics ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi) has severely weakened the Caucasus Emirate’s ability to inflict damage on the Russian state.
Let the numbers speak for themselves: In 2010, 1,705 people were killed or wounded due to terrorism in the North Caucasus, compared to 1,225 in 2012, 986 in 2013, and 525 in 2014. Furthermore, Russian security forces recently killed IK Emir Aliaskhab Kebekov. Kebekov had tried to steer IK militants away from ISIS, condemning defectors as traitors. With him gone, some analysts predict that the IK will lose even more fighters to ISIS in the coming months.
Although the North Caucasus has restabilized over the past year and a half due to the IK’s weakened state, we are witnessing only the eye of the storm. In the long term, ISIS poses a very real security threat to the post-Soviet region. Some of the Eurasian militants fighting with the Islamist group will eventually return home, battle-hardened and more resolved than ever.
Regional governments have responded by attacking moderate Islam and political opposition in the name of counterterrorism, as has been seen in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Russian-annexed Crimea. These repressive policies are backfiring and pushing otherwise non-radical Muslims to engage in Islamist violence.
Extremism is not a self-containing phenomenon – it spreads like a disease. The Boston Marathon bombings demonstrated all too painfully the threat that Eurasia-based Islamism poses not just to the Caucasus and Central Asia, but also to the United States. If and when Eurasian ISIS militants return home from the frontlines in the Middle East, international attention will need to be paid to the post-Soviet world – a tinderbox just waiting for a match.(AEI)