An increasing number of recent terrorist attacks in Russia’s North Caucasus have attracted the attention of analysts who point to a growing role of Arab fighters and even preachers in the region. “North Caucasus jihadis’ linkage to the global jihad is now at a level in which clerics have become influential and are sought out for fatwas and advice,” writes Murad Batal al-Shishani, a political analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based political think tank, noting what appears to be the spreading influence of Arab Salafist ideologues.
Among the recent examples of an Arab presence is the highly publicized but not unique death of 24-year-old Jordanian Anas Khalil Khadir, who was killed in Chechnya in June after joining jihadist groups there. And in August, Jordanian Salafist ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Syrian cleric Abu Basir al-Tartusi condemned the fracturing of jihadist groups in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, advocating they unite under the militant Chechen Islamic leader Doku Umarov.
That’s not to say that Arab terrorists are overrunning the region. Paul Crego, a specialist on the Caucasus and cataloguer at the U.S. Library of Congress, says that the “Arab fighter,” though a real threat, doesn’t mean there’s a unified Caucasus jihad movement. And Arabs ultimately act as individual players, aligning themselves with different militant Islamic factions within the region.
Crego acknowledges that “there has been some radicalization of the Islamic movement in the North Caucasus, and outside influence from Islamic militants.” But, he notes, “if you took away all jihad, whether global or local in the North Caucasus, you would still have the issue of people who have been treated very badly by imperial Russia for the past two centuries.” And for that, he says, “I don’t see an easy resolution.”