Radicalization and Countering Violent Extremism in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkariya and Dagestan
Armed conflict in the North Caucasus, which has seen ebbs and flows of violence since the mid-90s, has now significantly quieted. The armed insurgency first emerged as the militant wing of a post-Soviet separatist movement in Chechnya, it gradually transformed into a regional jihadist project that was consolidated by Imarat Kavkaz (IK) in 2007, and in June 2015 experienced its third reincarnation. In the third wave, the remaining militant groups overwhelmingly swore allegiance to the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Levent (ISIL or ISIS)¹ and by 2016, roughly 3,000 radicals from the region joined jihadists in Syria and Iraq, precipitating a steady decrease in the number of victims and violent incidents in the North Caucasus. However, most experts and community leaders in the North Caucasus share concerns that the reprieve in violence could only be temporary. The risk of re-escalation is real, therefore the Russian federal and regional authorities should increase the effectiveness of their efforts that are aimed at preventing new waves of radicalization into jihadist violence.
Effective prevention should adequately address the drivers, triggers and processes of radicalization. In the North Caucasus, radicalization factors include individual socio-psychological problems – including war traumas, which are especially prevalent in Chechnya – dysfunctional relations in the family or with peers, extended periods of stress, a quest for significance, and a desire to exact revenge. Some individuals joined non-ISIS jihadist groups out of compassion towards the Syrian civilians who were suffering a horrendous humanitarian disaster, or in response to misguided feelings of religious obligation. ISIS has been exceptionally successful at manipulating feelings as different as anger, the desire to exact revenge, compassion, a fear of God, and the allure of romance.
Group dynamics have also played a crucial role in radicalization. In the North Caucasus, peer groups, family members, neighborhood friends, as well as detention and prison inmates are the most common networks through which people become exposed to violent ideologies. Finally, the North Caucasus insurgency has been feeding on the numerous macro-social problems that plague the region. Unresolved ethnic conflicts, an acute deficit of democratic procedure and accountability, bad governance, and the prevalence of systematic and grave human rights violations have been highly conducive to radicalization. The federal and regional governments must address these factors in order for prevention work in the North Caucasus to be successful.
Countering violent extremism (CVE) policies in the North Caucasus share many common traits, but also have strong regional specificities. Counter-narratives are central to ideological prevention efforts in all of the republics and are promoted during face-to-face meetings, in the local media, on the Internet, and in leaflets and brochures. As an alternative engagement, regional authorities have placed much emphasis on the development of a social volunteer movement and have been promoting various patriotic engagements. They organize regional and republican youth fora and distribute small grants to support state-sanctioned youth activism.
The largest scale of preventive work has unfolded in Chechnya; however, it is highly politicized, very direct, and is largely criticized for being uncreative, and sometimes threatening. Much emphasis is placed on praising Ramzan Kadyrov and on trying to deter and control the youth.
Official counter-narratives are much softer, more nuanced, and less politicized in the other republics. Dagestan’s Ministry for Youth Policy has developed the training course called “Peaceful Dagestan” which travels around Dagestan’s towns and villages and reaches thousands of people annually. The authorities often promote counter-narratives in cooperation with republican patriotic organizations, military-patriotic clubs, and the “search movement”, which invites young people to join expeditions to excavate the relics of the Second World War.
The intensity of the ideological work is lower in Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkariya, which is probably due to the lower intensity of conflict there. In 2018, Ingushetia’s Committee for Youth implemented a training program called “DISlike Extremism” and held weekly capacity building trainings that helped young people apply for various federal youth fora and grants. This initiative has allowed Ingushetia to receive the largest amount of grants during the 2018 Mashuk forum. Several critical imams, including moderate Salafis, can speak in Ingushetia’s mosques and thereby produce counter-narratives from their ideological positions that are much more convincing for the radicalizing youth.
Kabardino-Balkariya (KBR) is the only republic, which has created a ministerial position for extremism prevention. Although the methods for CVE in KBR are, as elsewhere, often similar to the Soviet-type didactic meetings held at schools, universities, and in municipalities, some of its CVE officials have reportedly started recognizing the limitations of direct and confrontational counter-narratives and are now trying to engage indirectly and offer alternatives, for example, via sporting events.
Overall, the extensive CVE efforts in the region have led to the successful internalization by the youth that militant jihadism is strongly condemned by the society and state, and is strictly punishable by law. In recent years, the CVE community in the region has become quite vibrant, enjoying solid financial support from the state.
Nonetheless, challenges remain. The authorities primarily trust pro-government, patriotic organizations and the traditional clergy affiliated with the Spiritual Boards as their CVE actors; however, these messengers miss a large portion of the youth who do not find them credible. In most of the republics, the CVE practitioners avoid discussing difficult socio-political problems, religious issues, and the war in Syria – sometimes because they lack sophisticated arguments, other times because they are fearful of the security services’ reactions.
CAPC respondents have noted that the majority of CVE efforts are still extremely formal, tedious, and low quality enterprises. Creative and fresh approaches are usually generated by independent NGOs or when CVE work is implemented by enthusiasts or committed officials. The personalized nature of this success and the lack of sustainable platforms to share experience often prevent the institutionalization of best practices. Fatigue with the subject is another challenge: there has been so much ideological CVE work already that the youth is tired of even some of the more creative programs and methodologies.
Broad counter-narratives and too much counter-propaganda may also have adverse effects, as they make the problem of radicalization appear bigger than it actually is and unintentionally promote the heroic perception of terrorist groups with some individuals. Most importantly, the root causes and factors conducive to radicalization are many and diverse, while the appeal of jihadist propaganda is varied and complex. Counter-narratives presuppose a simple causal relationship between ideology and violent actions and do not address numerous other individual, social and political factors, which must be addressed in order for the threat of radicalism to be minimized in the region.
Since political and social development processes are challenging and take time, the governments, education systems and civil society should look for ways to create a personally fulfilling environment for young people, which can partly compensate for the negative impact of structural problems. Supportive families, exciting activities aimed at genuine self-realization, timely management of psychological problems, quality relations with peers, opportunities for adventure, and a sense of purpose are important boons for prevention purposes.
Along with ideological work, CVE measures in the North Caucasus are aimed at controlling radical individuals. Historically, “at risk groups” in the region have been defined very broadly and at certain points included potentially all Salafi believers. In Chechnya, Salafism is banned and security servicemen systematically detain people with visible symbols of Salafi adherence, and subsequently often mistreat them.
In Dagestan the authorities have closed most of the Salafi mosques and in 2016 the republican Ministry of Internal Affairs introduced the so-called profuchet (preventive register) of religious extremists, which at its peak had over 16,000 people reportedly listed. Being on profuchet entails regular detentions, forced appearances at police stations, and de facto restrictions for any state-funded employment. In March 2017, the Minister of the Interior of Dagestan stated that the profuchet was no longer in practice; however, local lawyers say that it still exists informally.
Soft-power approaches have also been tested in Dagestan (2010–2012), and Ingushetia (since 2008), which liberalized the state’s attitude towards Salafi communities and launched efforts at increased dialogue with them. The results were generally positive and should be carefully and independently evaluated and considered for other republics.
In addition to fundamentalists, security services identify the widows and wives of killed or sentenced jihadists as another high risk group. Currently, Chechnya and Dagestan are facing the challenge of reintegrating the women and children brought back from ISIS. Thus far the returned widows and children do not undergo systematic re-integration or de-radicalization programs, and are treated differently by the governments of each of the North Caucasus republics.
In Chechnya, the widows and wives of Imarat Kavkaz fighters often lose their jobs, social payments, and are frequently subject to security services pressure while surprisingly, the returnees from ISIS are treated with the most leniency. In Dagestan, widow-returnees from ISIS receive criminal sentences, while wives and widows of IK fighters are put on profuchet; in contrast to the stern response of the security services, some municipalities are trying to provide ad hoc social support. In Kabardino-Balkariya and Ingushetia, the widows and wives of insurgents are usually not harassed and their children are monitored with caution. Ingushetia is the only republic that has announced its priority to address the vulnerabilities of affected women and children. It created two special councils aimed to coordinate work with the families in early 2017, which, however, have not yet turned into functioning institutions and seem to exist only on paper. Constructive engagement with the widows and children of former insurgents is a welcome development and requires vigorous methodological support and commitment of resources. Returnees from ISIS should be treated with particular attention due to the severity of their traumas, higher degree of initial radicalization, and subsequent indoctrination while in the Middle East.
Most importantly, CVE cannot replace conflict resolution. The federal and regional governments should systematically address the numerous grievances that are fueling the conflict; otherwise, preventive work will only bring cosmetic changes, and subsequent waves of radicalization into violent insurgency will be difficult to prevent.
¹ Both Imarat Kavkaz and ISIS are recognized as terrorist organizations in Russia