Why are ordinary Russians joining the ranks of Islamic State?

According to the FSB, recruiters from religious extremist groups have been able to attract more than 1,700 Russian citizens into their ranks. Source: Reuters

According to the FSB, recruiters from religious extremist groups have been able to attract more than 1,700 Russian citizens into their ranks. Source: Reuters

Like many European countries, Russia is encountering a new threat: Its citizens are being recruited by terrorists and are traveling to the Middle East to join radical Islamist groups such as Islamic State (ISIS). Russian experts believe that various factors are involved, including a misguided approach by law-enforcement agencies and a lack of opportunities for the young.

In the first week of June, Russian media were gripped by the story of Varvara Karaulova, which not only seemed to epitomize the problems the country faces in its fight against Islamic extremism, but also served as an alarming reminder that it is not only Russia’s Muslims that are at risk of falling victim to fundamentalist recruiters.

Karaulova, a 19-year-old philosophy student at Moscow State University, suddenly disappeared and then reappeared on Turkish territory. According to her family, she left Russia to go to Syria and join the ranks of the Islamic State (ISIS) radical militant group. Turkish border guards detained Karaulova when she and a group of people tried to illegally cross the border to Syria.

Karaulova had grown up in a secular Russian family, was fluent in English and French and studied Middle Eastern culture and Arabic at Moscow State University. But then something changed in her behavior. She started wearing the hijab, reading books on radical trends in Islam and on May 27, 2015 she disappeared. A few days later she was spotted in Turkey. She is now awaiting deportation back to Russia.

Karaulova's story is not an isolated case. According to the FSB (Russia’s security service), in the course of the last year recruiters from religious extremist groups have been able to attract more than 1,700 Russian citizens into their ranks. Some experts say the number is much higher.

The majority of Russian citizens who join the ranks of the extremists are people from the country’s Muslim republics but sometimes they are ethnic Russians. This is not a new phenomenon: There have been cases in which Russians fought on the side of Wahhabists even before the appearance of ISIS.

For example, Said Buryatsky, one of the ideological leaders of the Caucasian terrorist underground at the end of the 2000s, was a Russian whose real name was Alexander Tikhomirov. Buryatsky was eliminated in 2010.

And even as far back as the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan during the early 1980s there were documented cases of ethnic Russians converting to Islam and going over to the side of the Mujahideen to fight against their former comrades-in-arms.

 

The lure of extremism

As Georgy Mirsky, an expert on the Arab world and Doctor of Historical Sciences, pointed out to RBTH, Russia is far from the only country whose young citizens are traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.

"In the last month 1,733 people alone left France to join ISIS, and statistically, one fifth of them did not come from Muslim families but were recruited,” said Mirsky, who pointed out that 30 percent of the women joining ISIS were “still not Muslim until recently.”

What is forcing young people, who grew up in secular western families, to change their outlooks so radically and join terrorist groups like ISIS? Russian psychologist Pavel Ponomaryov is convinced that the problem lies in an existential crisis that many young people are experiencing.

"If we speak about Karaulova, we will see that she tried to commit social suicide, that is, she attempted to completely delete herself from the society in which she lived and find a new identity in a different world,” said Ponomaryov.

“Students and other young people are going through a crisis: Society is not giving them a chance to express themselves, [and is] imposing harsh restrictions. The intention to free oneself from this society and obtain everything and immediately in a different system is so great that people are practically ready to give their life for it."

Georgy Mirsky is of the same opinion, comparing the popularity of Islamic extremism to the 1930s, when large swathes of the youth of several European countries followed the radicals of the time – the communists and the fascists.

"There are neither any fascists nor any real communists today, however, against the background of the dullness of everyday life there is a big new movement – radical Islam. Recruiting takes place in two places: on the internet and in the mosque,” he said.

According to Mirsky, the story of Varvara Karaulova indicates that Russia underestimates the threat of Islam: "The most amazing thing is that everyone – her family, her friends – was indifferent; no one noticed anything until she disappeared. It is a complete mess,” he said.

 

The vulnerability of Russian Muslims

Despite the growing popularity of extremism among secular youth, the main audience being targeted by terrorist agents, ISIS in particular, is Muslims. According to an interview with an ISIS preacher published by news website Meduza in May, "no less than 1,500 people, half of them Dagestani and half Chechen, from the North Caucasus are fighting for ISIS (both are Muslim peoples – RBTH).

Varvara Pakhomenko, a specialist on the Caucasus and consultant at the International Crisis Group, told RBTH that there are three main reasons for the popularity of radicalism among Muslims, the first of which is dissatisfaction with the quality of the government.

"If there is unhappiness with the corruption, the stratification of society and people understand that it is very difficult or even impossible to improve their situation, many Muslims begin to think that justice can be obtained only if secular government is replaced by the Caliphate, which functions according to Sharia law," he said.

The second reason is the result of an excessive zeal on the part of Russian law-enforcement bodies, which sometimes fight not the crimes but only some separate trends within Islam.

"When people are persecuted not because they violate a law but because they wear long beards or attend ‘the wrong’ mosque, the result is usually radicalization, even of moderate Muslims," explained Pakhomenko.

The third reason lies in the strong ties between the Caucasus Muslims and the Middle East.

"In the last two and a half decades the ties between the Middle East, Syria in particular, and the Caucasus have greatly strengthened. That is why many people in the North Caucasus take what is happening in the Middle East to heart and are attracted to radical movements," said Pakhomenko.

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