MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Islamist insurgency in Russia’s North Caucasus region appears to be mutating from a grassroots separatist movement toward global jihad or holy war, whose goals, propaganda and patronage point abroad.
In February Russia’s most wanted guerrilla, Chechen-born Doku Umarov, vowed on Islamist websites to spread his attacks from the Muslim-dominated North Caucasus into the nation’s heartland, wreaking havoc through jihad.
His pledge follows escalating violence in the form of shootings and suicide bombs targeting authorities over the last year in the mountainous North Caucasus — particularly Chechnya, site of two separatist wars since the mid-1990s, and the provinces flanking it, Ingushetia and Dagestan.
Regional Muslim leaders and rebels revile each other as blasphemous and criminal. But after years of the Soviet Union suppressing religion, both welcome a Muslim revival that has brought elaborate new mosques, government-sponsored hajj trips to Mecca and a bubbling interest in Arabic.
Alexander Cherkasov, who has closely followed the North Caucasus for 15 years for rights group Memorial, said whereas in the past rebels wanted freedom from Russia, a struggle that dates back over 200 years, now they are influenced by jihadism, a global fight against alleged enemies of Islam.
“Part of it is homegrown. Corruption leads many to seek out what they call true Islam, but political Islam, by way of foreign financing and insurgents, is certainly playing a role,” he told Reuters.
In early February, Russia said its forces had killed the al Qaeda operative and Egyptian militant Makhmoud Mokhammed Shaaban in Dagestan, who the FSB security service said had masterminded several bombings.
A myriad of web sites that have come to characterize the insurgency show videos of “martyrs,” something unheard of in the region five years ago. They feature mostly local men, framed by Caucasus flags, chanting in Arabic ahead of suicide missions.
Over the last year, public statements of support for Doku Umarov and other Caucasus rebel leaders have come from a leading al Qaeda mentor, Jordanian Sheikh Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi.
U.S. intelligence officials say Maqdisi is a major jihadi mentor who wields more influence over Islamist ideology than leading militants such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
In an open letter to Umarov last year, which was posted on unofficial Islamist websites, Maqdisi said “it is my great pleasure to express my alignment with, patronage for, and support to the Mujahideen of the Caucasus.”
Rebel leader Alexander Tikhomirov, an accomplished cleric who renamed himself Said Buryatsky after his native East Siberian Buryatia region, trained for jihad in Egypt for many years, where he learned fluent Arabic, political analysts say.
Buryatsky took responsibility for the deadliest attack in the North Caucasus in four years last August when a suicide bomber killed at least 20 and injured 138 at a police headquarters in Ingushetia.
Christopher Langton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London told Reuters that “jihadism” in the North Caucasus is “energized” partly by links to Afghanistan and the Middle East composed of a mixture of smuggling, trade, Islamic non-governmental organizations and charities.
The FSB, successor to the KGB, has long said the insurgency has links to al Qaeda although regional leaders reject that.
“We have identified enormous financial influence from Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Sergei Goncharov, head of a group of veterans of an elite KGB force.
But Kremlin critics say the government blames al Qaeda to cover up its share of responsibility for the region’s poverty and endemic corruption, which also inspires youths to turn to extremism.
“Moscow wants to conceptualize the North Caucasus, they are interested in isolating it from the rest of Russia,” Glen Howard, President of the Washington-based think tank Jamestown Foundation, told Reuters.
Regional leaders often play down the insurgency as a whole.
Moscow-backed hardline Chechen boss Ramzan Kadyrov says there are fewer than 30 insurgents left in his republic. He has also accused the West of financing the Islamist insurgency, as well as plotting to seize the entire Caucasus region.
Ingushetia’s leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov maintains that deep poverty alone fuels discontent.
Over the last two years, deaths due to violent incidents have shot up dramatically in the North Caucasus, from just over 40 in January 2008 to 140 in August 2009, according to a study by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
There is now alarm that Islamist extremism could spread to other parts of Russia, home to around 20 million Muslims, more than half of whom live outside the North Caucasus.
Paul Quinn-Judge, from the International Crisis Group, warned that the violence could indeed spread: “The guerrillas are trying to extend the war to Russia proper.”