The explainer

🇷🇺 Russia’s Islam problem

22 March 2024

The explainer

Putin during a national day of mourning following the Moscow attack. Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

🇷🇺 Russia’s Islam problem

Last week’s terrorist attack in Moscow killed at least 137 people. It was the deadliest on Russian soil in decades, and the deadliest Islamic State operation in Europe. (The death toll in the 2015 Paris attacks was 130.)

Hasn’t Islamic State been defeated?
No. The group emerged from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2006, and has gone through various splits, mergers and name changes. It declared itself a formal caliphate known as Islamic State in 2014, and at its peak the following year, it controlled about a third of Syria and 40% of Iraq, with a population of 12 million people and an army of 30,000 fighters.

What happened?
Military campaigns waged by America, Iraq and various factions in the Syrian civil war reclaimed all territory from the group by 2019. Since then, it’s reverted to traditional terrorist tactics. The Russia attack seems to have been the work of Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), a regional branch based in Afghanistan and central Asia. Led by Sanaullah Ghafari, a 29-year-old former Afghan soldier who has a $10m US bounty on his head, the group has recently orchestrated a string of bloody, high-profile atrocities across the region.

Why has it targeted Russia?
IS has a grudge against Moscow for its support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who helped crush the group’s aspirations to become a fully-fledged state. Other factors include the Soviet Union’s brutal military operation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the bloody crackdown in the 1990s against the independence struggles of Chechnya, a Muslim region within Russia. The ISIS-K statement about the attack also boasted of “killing Christians”. Though Putin likes to cast Russia as an ally of the Global South against the West, Islamists see it as just another infidel Christian country.

Does Russia have its own Muslim population?
Yes – a huge one. At an estimated 14 million, it’s the largest in Europe, and as a proportion of Russia’s total population (10%) it’s the highest outside the Balkans. Most are part of ethnic groups that have lived in Russia since the days of the tsars, like the Chechens and the Tatars.

Are there tensions with the Christian majority?
Not especially. A 2019 poll found that 76% of Russians had a favourable view of Muslims in their country, a higher proportion than any European nation besides Britain. Putin has called Islam an “outstanding element of Russia’s cultural make-up” and has suggested that Russian Orthodox Christianity is more similar to Islam than to Catholicism. Muslims have also been over-represented among Moscow’s troops in Ukraine, partly because they tend to come from poor regions where a soldier’s salary is attractive. Chechnya, governed by strongman and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, has been permitted to institute de facto sharia law.

So Putin’s regime isn’t as rabidly nationalist as it seems?
The modern Russian state is “more like an empire than a nation”, says Ed West on Substack, and successful empires have always safeguarded the rights of minorities, so long as they remain loyal. Islam has been honoured as an official Russian religion since the reign of Catherine the Great in the late 1700s. In 2022, after the Ukraine invasion, Putin paid tribute to Russia’s minorities in a television speech: “I am Lak,” he said, “I am Dagestani, I am Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jew, Mordvin, Ossetian.”

Has that tolerance stopped Islamist terrorism?
No. Jihadis have claimed nearly all of the 1,300 lives lost to terror attacks in Russia during Putin’s 24-year rule. Chechen separatists used to be main culprits; now it’s ISIS-K who are behind many of the plots, which are generally carried out by central Asians rather than Russian Muslims. Millions of Muslims from central Asia’s former Soviet republics have travelled to Russia for low-wage work. The bombing of the St Petersburg metro in 2017, which killed 15, was carried out by an Uzbek. All four men charged with this month’s attack are citizens of Tajikistan.

Does Russia work with the West against this threat?
It used to. In the aftermath of 9/11, Putin seemed to fully understand America’s need to ramp up military protocols originally designed for nuclear war with the USSR. “Putin was fantastic that day,” George W Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, told Politico in 2016. “America could have had no better ally on September 11th than Russia and Putin.” Things have changed since the Ukraine invasion, says Aris Roussinos in UnHerd. When Washington warned Moscow of an imminent Islamist attack, Putin dismissed it, vaguely, as “blackmail”. What it reveals is that he no longer believes in the old idea that Russia and the West share “civilisational bonds”. To him, “Islamic State, Ukraine and the West are one and the same threat”.

What will Putin’s next move be?
A heavy-handed crackdown on suspected central Asian militants seems inevitable, says Mark Galeotti in The Sunday Times. This strategy is “fraught with peril”: ramped-up weapons production and mass conscription mean Russia is facing a labour crisis. It can ill-afford an exodus of central Asian workers fleeing “thuggish repression”, nor the anger of central Asian governments, whose forbearance is vital for the sanctions-busting “grey market” that lets Russia import vital goods. In truth, the damage has already been done, says Le Monde. Putin’s deal with Russians is that they forfeit political freedoms in exchange for security. The “lesson of March 22” is that he can’t uphold his side of the bargain.