GIMRY, Russia (Reuters) - Little girls in hijabs peek out of tin-roof houses and boys play at “cops and insurgents” in the narrow dirt streets.
At one end of the village of Gimry men are building a new, red-brick madrassa, one of many religious schools springing up across Dagestan, a region in the high Caucasus mountains on Russia’s southern fringe, in the throes of an Islamic revival.
More than a dozen young men from the village have “gone to the forest” - the local euphemism for joining insurgents in their hideouts, says village administrator Aliaskhab Magomedov.
“It’s a full-fledged jihad,” he said. “They don’t recognize my authority. Islam does not separate the state from religion.”
Throughout the 12 years since Vladimir Putin rose to power and crushed a Chechen separatist revolt, Russia has battled a simmering insurgency across its mainly Muslim Caucasus mountain lands: Chechyna and its neighbors Ingushetia and Dagestan.
With Putin back in the Kremlin after a four year hiatus as prime minister, he has tried to end the violence by emphasizing the unity of Russia, providing backing for mainstream clerics and cracking down hard on religious radicalism.
But the formula seems to be failing here, driving communities further into the embrace of radical religion, and sending more young men into the mountains to take up arms.
In the first half of 2012 alone, the Caucasian Knot website recorded 185 insurgency-related deaths and 168 wounded, making Dagestan one of the deadliest places in Europe. The number of men seized by security forces as suspected militants so far this year, tracked by Russia’s leading rights group Memorial, has already exceeded last year’s total.
And the violence has begun spreading beyond the Caucasus to other parts of the country, like Tatarstan, long a peaceful area on the Volga river in Russia’s European heartland.
Fighting the insurgency is dirty business. In an empty office down in the provincial capital Makhachkala, police lieutenant colonel Magomed Gusseinov, 58, says his officers take out their anger and fear on petty criminals and other prisoners.
“If you’re sitting on the second floor above the holding room, you can hear the screams. They beat them, rape them with bottles, torture them. They do such things here every day.”
“Our boys have zero emotion at work. They have to stand there for eight hours in uniform and they know they can be shot at any moment,” he said. “If my colleague is shot before my eyes, of course something burns in me, I want revenge. That’s how war works. It’s a crooked balance sheet.”
In the streets of the sun-drenched Caspian Sea city, government banners proclaim: “We are against terror”. Residents say they have become desensitized to near daily sniper and bomb attack on police.
“Not a day goes by without the killing of either a terrorist or a policeman. We’re so used to it, we think that’s the way things ought to be,” said taxi driver Nabib Abdulvagabov, 35.
In one sleepy seaside neighborhood, a stray rocket-propelled grenade shell tore through the walls of family home in July, several blocs away from where security forces had laid siege to what they said was a rebel hideout.
Standing amid the charred and plaster-strewn shambles of his children’s room, Magomedgusein Vagidov seethed: “Why with all their radars and satellite today can they still not find a bunch of guys hiding in the woods?” he said.
“They either don’t know how or don’t want to end this war.”
Aisha, a former Russian-language teacher, said that most people in Dagestan were not caught up in new religious conservatism, but were sick of official corruption and wanted change like that seen in last year’s Egyptian revolution.
“People have reached a breaking point. Bribes start at the maternity ward and end at the grave,” she said. “Clearly it will be religious here, though most people dislike these religious people. I think 80 percent of people don’t want Sharia law.”
In Gimry, weathered tombstones pointing toward Mecca bear witness to the village’s ancient Muslim roots. But the Islam practiced here today bears increasingly little resemblance to the village customs of old.
For centuries, the Muslim communities of Russia’s Caucasus mountains practiced Sufism, a mystical form of Islam whose practitioners chant prayers in circles. There was little of the formal Islamic legal scholarship that prevails across much of the Sunni Muslim world.
In the two decades since the fall of the officially atheist Soviet Union, many Caucasus Muslims studied abroad in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or other parts of the Middle East. When they returned, they clashed with the religious establishment, demanding a “purer” Islam uncorrupted by local Sufi customs.
Government figures show 8,872 people are now studying Islam in institutions of higher education.
Dozens of madrassas, funded in part by zakat, a charitable contribution required by the Koran, have sprung up in villages across the region. The messages being taught are often from the Salafi school of Islam which seeks to recreate the 7th century practices of the Prophet Mohammed and his successors.
“You can’t live by Sharia law where the Russian constitution rules,” said Abdurakhim Magomedov, a charismatic Salafi preacher whose video sermons are popular on the Internet and whose schools in the village of Novosasitli teach 200-300 pupils.
The sprightly, white bearded 70-year-old who first translated the Koran into the local Avar language, says that while Dagestan is not yet ready for jihad, its Muslim population must not live under secular law and Russian rule.
“It’s written that if a man steals something, his hand must be chopped off. But you can’t do that today so we are not living by Sharia, and this isn’t right.”
Today in Gimry, along the single, potholed road to the remote scattering of houses, green signs proclaim “Allah is Great”. Disputes here are ruled on by the local imam, alcohol is scarce, polygamy is common and people say there has been no theft in years - virtues they attribute to Sharia law.
Despite decades of Communist rule, most children know only the local Avar tongue and people speak of Russia as if it were another country, or an occupying force.
Federal forces recently encircled the village in a more than year-long counter-terrorism operation - squeezing its trade in apricots and other produce.
“They are kafirs (infidels) who are fighting against Islam,” a 22-year-old gym teacher who gave his name as Gadzhimurat said of the federal troops. He and other young men loitering outside the mosque said they condoned near-daily attacks on police.
The influence of religious conservatism can be seen not only in remote villages but also on the streets of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s Caspian Sea coastal capital. The Salafi community has its own media outlets, charities and even a football league.
A sex-segregated school that opened this year already has more than 250 students.
“Five years ago, there were no Islamic clothing shops. Now every other girl wears a hijab,” said Fatima Ramzanova, 19, feet curled under her on the sand of a new women-only beach in a full, black Islamic dress she wears against her mother’s wishes.
As the influence of Salafism has grown, insurgents have increasingly targeted state-backed Sufi religious leaders they accuse of assisting the government’s crackdown on true Islam.
On Tuesday, a woman posing as a pilgrim entered a Sufi Muslim cleric’s home in Dagestan and detonated an explosive belt packed with nails and ball bearings, killing him, herself and six others, including an 11-year-old boy visiting with his parents.
Earlier this month, masked gunmen opened fire in a mosque where Muslims were celebrating the end of Ramadan. In June, militants burned down another Dagestani mosque after killing the imam and a worshipper.
The Kremlin is particularly alarmed by the spread of the violence to other regions, including Russia’s heartland. Last month a leading cleric was shot dead and another wounded by a bomb in the central province of Tatarstan.
Today, the ranks of fighters are filled by youths disillusioned by police brutality, joblessness, corruption and the perceived persecution of religious conservatives.
Some are said to fund their activities by running protection rackets. At least two local entrepreneurs, speaking on condition of anonymity, described receiving USB memory sticks with video-taped threats to bomb their businesses if they refused to pay large sums of cash. One left. The other paid.
On a most-wanted board in Dagestan’s capital, snapshots of smooth-cheeked teenagers and twenty year olds in army fatigues outnumber black-and-white mugs of bearded veteran fighters.
The insurgency is romanticized in online videos and chat forums. Locals refer to militants, sometimes with irony, as “Robin Hoods”.
In recent months the relatively privileged sons of local officials have been among those who joined the rebels. The deputy mayor of the city of Khasavyurt on Dagestan’s border with Chechnya was fired this month after his son was killed by security forces at an alleged rebel safe house.
In a survey, as many as 13 percent of Dagestanis under 30 said “yes” or “maybe” they could see themselves ending up as rebel fighters, sociologist Zaid Abdulagatov said. Some 95 percent view themselves as religious, he added.
The government’s response is to round up young men, who disappear and are brutally treated in captivity. Zhanna Ismailova says three of her four sons were taken this year by masked members of the security forces.
One of them, Arslan, was freed after two days and went into hiding. Her cell phone holds pictures of bruises and burns on his body she says are signs of beatings and electric shocks, used to force him to admit to involvement in two suicide bombings on a police checkpoint that killed 12 people in May.
Another of her sons, Ruslan, is in detention, and her youngest is still missing: “It’s been four months since my son was kidnapped and no one can tell me where he is,” she said in the house outside Makhachkala. “If my son is guilty, why don’t they charge him and try him?”
Kamil Sultanahmedov, a popular young Islamic scholar who has himself been detained several times, says the crackdown by the security forces is only driving more recruits to the insurgency.
“The security forces are making a lot of money off getting promotions in this conflict. We are just pieces of meat. Victims of our beliefs,” he said. “I don’t know what to say anymore to people who decide to join the insurgency. It’s their choice. I can’t judge it. At first, it is a form of self-defense.”
Russia’s attitudes towards Islamic militancy were largely shaped in the two brutal post-Soviet Chechen wars that ended with the defeat of separatists a decade ago after Russian forces killed tens of thousands of people to halt an independence bid.
As those wars wore on, rebel rhetoric turned from a nationalist message to an explicitly Islamist one. Defeated in Chechnya, rebels launched attacks in other parts of Russia.
Thirty-nine attackers and at least 129 hostages were killed after a two-day siege at a Moscow theatre in 2002. More than 380 people, mainly school children, were killed in the siege of a primary school in Beslan in 2004. Bombs in the past two years killed dozens in a Moscow airport and subway.
Today, the Chechen rebel leader, Doku Umarov, leads an underground movement to create an Emirate across the Caucasus region. He has called on Muslims across Russia to rise up.
Since the autumn of 1999, when an incursion of Chechen rebel leaders into Dagestan sparked what became the second Chechen war, Dagestan has outlawed Wahhabism - the austere form of Islam that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and has become a derogatory term for Islamic radicalism in Russia.
In the eyes of Dagestan’s authorities, beards, veils and other outward signs of religion were synonymous with terrorism.
“Many people are afraid to even look our way,” said Akhmad Mogamedkamilov, who helps run a “Salafi football league” where “halal” rules are observed: No swearing, no tackling or arguing with the referee. Players break for prayer on the field.
Two years ago, the local government launched a policy of liberalization in an attempt to ease some of the tension. While Putin was serving as prime minister and his protégé Dmitry Medvedev was president, the local authorities relaxed the rules to decriminalize practicing Salafism. Salafi charity and social groups sprang up across Dagestan.
In November 2010, the government set up a commission to give rebels a path back to civilian life. The move was hailed by doves, who blamed the crackdown for driving youths to militancy.
“Medvedev put things the right way. He said we must extend a hand to those who will take it and eliminate those who won‘t,” said the commission’s head, Rizvan Kurbanov, formerly Dagestan’s deputy prime minister and now a Russian parliamentarian.
But since Putin’s return to the Kremlin, the commission’s work has all but halted. Rights activists view this one of a number of signals that hawks have retaken the policy lead.
They fear the Kremlin is planning to impose a model in Dagestan and elsewhere similar to the severe authoritarianism it put in place in post-war Chechnya, where Moscow’s cash has funded extensive rebuilding but rights groups accuse pro-Kremlin strongman Ramzan Kadyrov of crushing all dissent.
“I criticized the commission myself until I realized it could cease to exist,” the International Crisis Group think tank’s North Caucasus director Yekaterina Sokirianskaya said.
“It is a very dangerous situation because there are many signs of a rollback to the Chechen model being realized under Putin. It is Putin’s model.”
Gulnara Rustamova, a Salafi Muslim and human rights activist, said the rise of Salafism is in part a form of political protest against corruption and oppression.
“With Putin’s return, the situation has gotten worse, and more and more people understand that if they don’t change things for themselves, no one will change it for them,” she said.
“This is a protest; only, here in the Caucasus, it’s religious in nature... We can only trust in Allah, who else can we trust in if the state itself is carrying out crimes?”
Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Peter Graff