Prevention and Redemption Initiatives Are Key to Countering Terrorism in Russia

The mountains of Chechnya where “going to the forest” is a colloquial term for joining an extremist group. Photo Credit: eTurboNews.

A series of recent incidents validate the Russian Federation’s concerns over the rise of internationally-linked terrorist groups active within its territory. This security matter is heightened by the presence of battle-hardened fighters who returned from fighting in the Middle East and North Africa. The main query that emerges is whether Russian authorities will amend their counterterrorism tactics, or continue to engage in a framework simplified as a nexus of a military-bureaucratic-judicial instruments.

Russia has long contended with the dilemma of homegrown terrorism, especially in the North Caucasus region. Radicalization and the development of terror cells were intrinsically linked to the Chechen independence movement that expanded into neighboring Dagestan. Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al- Qaeda) once called the region ‘a shelter’ for fighters from across the globe. It is little wonder then that Daesh capitalized on homegrown ethnic grievances in Russia’s ‘inner abroad’ for recruitment.

Russian officials estimate that approximately 4000 citizens fought as militants in the armed conflicts in Syria. The state of affairs shifted domestically too. Militants that once operated under the banner of Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) transferred allegiances to Vilayat Kavkaz —  a branch of Daesh in the North Caucasus. Russia identifies the pan-Islamist political movement Hizb ut- Tahrir (Party of Liberation) as a terrorist organization, and deems it culpable in the recruitment of foreign fighters as well. It is undoubtedly a case where international groups seized upon already active movements to franchise ideologies.

As a consequence, recent terror-related events in Russia are linked to the international moniker of Daesh, although the actors are domestic agents. The Federal Security Service (FSB) conducts operations across Russia linked to Daesh through a perpetrator’s affiliation, but few links to the umbrella organization. For instance:

• April 13: two suspected members were killed in a raid in Tyumen; an oil rich town in Siberia.
• June 26: a declared member who created explosives and sought to carry out attacks in the name of Daesh was neutralized in Saratov; a city in the southwest.
• July 1: police in Khanty-Mansi (a region in western Siberia) sent out an alert of a woman suspected of membership in an international terrorist organization being in the area.
• July 12: Moscow District Court sentenced seven members of Daesh to 15-21 years of incarceration for planning to attack the Sapsan train in Saint Petersburg in 2017.

These cases exhibit a Russian reliance on strict legislation and applications of force as primary counterterror tactics. Numerous laws have been passed, including the revocation of citizenship for naturalized citizens, life sentences for some terror-related crimes, and guidelines aimed to counter proliferation of extremist ideology, especially the contentious Yarovaya package.

A preference for the military-bureaucratic-judicial nexus and intelligence collection means psychological rehabilitation and cultural efforts receive less attention. Up until 2013, Russia applied such methods until preparations for the Sochi Olympics required hardline policies. However, emphasis on these two spheres provide Russian authorities with a humanitarian method to prevent radicalization before it takes root, and to counterbalance extremist teachings post-indoctrination, to those willing to relent. This is a key recommendation that needs to be met at many levels.

Those at risk of radicalization must be exposed to civil society organizations that promote tenets of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue. Exposure to educational and employment prospects, tolerant views amongst peers, and wider community solidarity provide numerous opportunities for exchange.

Preservation of cultural traditions that display a wider understanding of ethnicity and religion — that have not been manipulated to advocate extremist or political views — teach at-risk youth they are already part of an important community, rather than a terrorist cell or a linked international organization. Sports provide additional occasions of solidarity, especially those that prioritize strength of character. For example, combat sports widely practiced across the region place the historic mindset of a ‘Caucasian warrior’ in a positive context, at the same time young girls practicing tightrope walking in Dagestan are taught to be ‘fearless’.

Psychological supports and deradicalization initiatives are of vital importance in the current context. These programs are especially beneficial to returnees willing to shun extremist views as they are offered a path towards redemption, as well as chances to inform at-risk peers of the realities of membership in such groups. The Comprehensive Plan of Counteraction of Ideology of Terrorism 2019-2023 reveals provisions covering this matter. As well, a member of the Russian State Duma announced the development of a rehabilitation center focused on individuals influenced by Hizb ut- Tahrir in annexed-Crimea, though it is viewed as politically motivated.

The Russian Federation strongly relies on military-bureaucratic-judicial methods as violent extremism and terrorism are serious infractions under the criminal code, as they should be. It seems easier to manage the localized and decentralized nature of domestic extremism in that framework. However, such hardline measures should be employed concurrently with softer methods aimed at prevention and redemption. They offer broader social advantages in totality.

Réjeanne Lacroix is the Editor-in-Chief at Rise to Peace.

Intra-Afghan Peace Talks in the Absence of Afghan Government

Members of each delegation in Moscow beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Image credit: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters.

Afghanistan has a long history of participating in local and international conferences on peace. The Bonn Conference was the start of a series of other conferences on peace and stability hosted in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has put together or at least sent a delegation to myriad conferences to gain international support for their peace efforts with opposition groups in the country.

Despite this trend, the last Moscow Peace talks were held in Russia without the presence of an Afghan government delegation. Organized by an Afghan-Russian Association, the conference took place six days after successful talks between the US and the Taliban occurred in Doha, according to US Special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. The Taliban refused any direct conversation with the Afghan government, but agreed to sit down with delegations from the United Sates, India, Pakistan, China, and prominent Afghan political figures including Hanif Attmar- a favorite to take over as president in the upcoming presidential elections- to talk peace. In the meantime, the Afghan government, the main absentee of the conference, called them traitors and urgently called for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

After two days of negotiations in Moscow, an agreement was reached. The Taliban, accusing the Kabul government of being an “American puppet”, asked for a withdrawal of American forces from the country, the release of detainees, and the inclusion of the principle of Islamic Religion in the constitution. Former president Hamid Karzai, leading the Afghan delegation, declared the talks a “big achievement” that would bring peace and stability in an “Afghanistan free of foreign forces”. Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared the Afghan delegation in Moscow illegitimate to represent Afghanistan in the conference.

Russia has been a low-key player in Afghan affairs since the beginning of the War on Terror. The Russian government, concerned about  security in the Central Asia, keeps a close eye on Afghanistan. The latest peace talk in Moscow was a step by Russia towards taking a major role in influencing Afghan governmental affairs, and sets precedent for future Russian involvement in Afghanistan.

Seeing the Taliban sitting at the table with decades-old political enemies to talk peace is the long-awaited desire of all Afghans, but it certainly poses risks. The Taliban went to Moscow demanding what seems to be the return of the Taliban regime of the 1990s, the withdrawal of foreign forces, Sharia Law, and no sign of womens’ appearance within the government. The Afghan delegation, on the other hand, was comprised mainly of political figures who fought on the front lines of the fight against the Taliban. Thanks to differences  between these two parties and the disparity in their motivations for negotiating, the fear is that an agreement between them would be more of a political move to grasp power in Kabul than a long-term solution for peace.

FIFA World Cup 2018: Russia taking security measures to prevent terrorist attacks during tournament

© Alexandr Sherbak/TASS

Every four years societies come together to watch and cheer at the largest sporting events on Earth, the FIFA World Cup. Thirty-two teams from across the globe will represent their nations and compete to be the last to lift the winner’s trophy. Russia will have the honor of hosting the World Cup this year. The international soccer tournament runs from June 14th until July 15th.

While the World Cup remains a time of celebration and national pride, the event poses significant terrorist concerns. Russia plans to host sixty-four games in eleven cities scattered across European Russia. Of these locations, three cities remain close to Russia’s North Caucasus region, a hotbed for Chechen separatism and Islamic fundamentalism. Other cities represent high-value targets for their cultural or political significance, most notably St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Image courtesy Human Rights Watch[1]

Russian citizens, like the rest of the world, have become accustomed to the possibility of terrorism in their daily lives. In April 2017, a terrorist detonated an explosive device in the St. Petersburg metro system. In 2014, just before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, two deadly attacks in Volgograd killed 34 people.[2] A review of Russia’s recent history shows concerted terrorist efforts to attack metro systems, passenger planes, and government representations. These targets will remain critical during the World Cup as fans from across the globe travel to attend games and visit Russian tourist attractions.

(Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Russia has had recent success in hosting a major international tournament. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics came off without any terrorist incidents. While their success is laudable, the 2018 World Cup is a much larger event. The Sochi games held a total attendance of three million people including those who attended concerts, theatre performances and exhibitions and more than four hundred thousand in attendance at the Olympic events themselves.[3] In comparison, the 2014 Brazil Cup included a total attendance of roughly three million people at the sixty-four games and more than five million attending local fan events and celebrations.[4] Additionally, while the Sochi games only occurred in one city, the 2018 World Cup will spread the Russian security apparatus across the county. This spreading of the security forces does not guarantee a terrorist attack will occur but does expose the possibilities of greater vulnerabilities for terrorist actors to slip through.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has discussed the required responsibilities in managing World Cup security. Lavrov stated, “Our ultimate priority is to ensure the maximum convenient and safe stay of players and fans in Russia. Russia’s law enforcement agencies are taking all the necessary steps in this direction.”[5]

Fighting terrorism remains a significant priority of the Putin presidency. Since his first term, Putin has sought to strengthen and reaffirm Russian presence on the world stage. By hosting notable international events, Russia hopes to demonstrate that it is a modern, bustling nation that is on equal footing with developed nations. The Russian government will seek to demonstrate that the 2018 World Cup is safe for international visitors and prevent any type of violence or terrorism from occurring. While Russia’s standing and relations with the rest of the world have fluctuated over the years, terrorism remains one front in which cooperation is possible with Europe and the United States to ensure a prosperous event.

Like any tournament, fans want to remember the events that occurred on the field, court, or pitch, not any acts of violence that shattered the spirit of the games. The 2018 Russian World Cup remains five months away. Russia has a significant task before it in assuring the safety of all international visitors. For their own national image as well as the safety of international fans, Russia will seek to rise to the challenge.

No state can guarantee 100% safety from terrorist actors who wish to maximize their message by targeting events that garner massive public awareness and notoriety. Large sporting events serve as appealing targets. Yet, fans of the game cannot let that dampen their spirits. If people start to allow terrorist actions to affect their lives and prevent the enjoyment of activities, then terrorists achieve their goal of creating disruption. So, go if you can, watch if you wish, but remember to enjoy the spectacle of some excellent soccer played out every four years.

Sources:

[1] Human Rights Watch | 350 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10118-3299, USA | “Red Card | Exploitation of Construction Workers on World Cup Sites in Russia.” Human Rights Watch., last modified -06-14T00:00:01-04:00, accessed Jan 20, 2018,

[2] “A Timeline of Deadly Attacks in Russia.”. Los Angeles Times.

[3] International Olympic Committee. 2015. “Factsheet: Sochi 2014 Facts and Figures.”: 1-7.

[4] “2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ in Numbers.” FIFA.com., last modified -09-23 09:36:00, accessed Jan 20, 2018,

[5] “Russia Makes all Efforts to Ensure Security at 2018 FIFA World Cup — Lavrov.” TASS., accessed Jan 20, 2018,

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