In Dagestan, authorities are trying to quash an Islamist insurgency that has sent hundreds of young Russians to Syria. They might be making it worse.
DAGESTAN, Russia — The totemic Eastern Mosque rises from the outskirts of Khasavyurt, a formless market town located 1,000 miles south of Moscow, in the predominantly Muslim republic of Dagestan.
In the weeks leading up to his arrest in early April, Imam Muhammad Nabi Magomedov hardly left its walls. When he did, he traveled in a convoy with armed guards. He was concerned for his safety, his aides say, and he knew an arrest was likely. Shortly before his detention, he had even taken to social media to warn that he was being monitored by security services.
Magomedov had reason enough to be worried, having recently staged — and won — a standoff with the Russian state over the fate of Khasavyurt’s smaller Northern Mosque. The authorities argued the mosque had become a major Islamic State recruiting post in the region. Privately, many local activists did not disagree: Some of the congregants “might” have acted as recruiters, they told Foreign Policy. But when Russian special forces turned up in February to shutter the mosque, it was seen by local activists as a step too far. “If there are criminals, arrest them — don’t close the mosque!” one said.
It did not take long for the region’s security services to find out they’d miscalculated. Within a few hours of the mosque’s closure, Magomedov had assembled more than 5,000 followers from other congregations across the republic, who then marched on the town hall and demanded the local administration reopen the mosque. The standoff lasted a few hours before the authorities caved in. It was an embarrassing about-face and also served as an alarming reminder of the imam’s ability to mobilize.
But the fight over the mosque wouldn’t end there. On April 8, following Friday prayers, government security forces cordoned off the larger Eastern Mosque. Magomedov gave himself up for questioning. In the middle of the interrogation, his associates say, he was taken away by security officers in masks and transferred to a regional counter-extremism center in Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. There, they say, he was beaten. A local court ordered that he be detained until an investigation is completed; he has been in custody since.
The stakes of the fight against extremism in Russia’s southernmost republic are high. In recent years, Dagestan has overtaken neighboring Chechnya as the country’s most deadly region. Ethnic heterogeneity — more than 30 languages are spoken locally — and political infighting have contributed to a power vacuum that has made the republic a fertile ground for the insurgency. Links between the region and Syria are already well-established: Russian is now the third-most spoken language within the caliphate, behind Arabic and English, and a disproportionately large number of Russians make up the Islamic State’s high command.
A series of terrorist attacks this year, claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State, has raised the specter that the group is planning to use Dagestan as a base to come good on its 2015 promise to spill blood in Russia “like an ocean.”
“From what I see every day, [the Islamic State] is stepping up its efforts here — on the Internet and through networks in certain towns and cities,” said activist Sevil Novruzova, who lost her brother to a local insurgency in 2008. (He was killed in a security operation within months of joining up with extremists.) Since then, Novruzova has collaborated with authorities on counter-extremism efforts. “Make no mistake, our youth is being used,” she said. “We might be running out of time.”
But if Russia is stepping up its efforts to tackle the insurgency here, the harshness of its tactics — which target a broad range of anti-Russian forces, not only the Islamic State — could also backfire. In the weeks before his arrest, Imam Magomedov had warned of the dangers of a too-forceful approach to combating terrorism in Dagestan, predicting a coming backlash. “I tell the police they are pushing people away from us,” he said in an interview with FP. “They are men, and if they get hassled every day, they will do things.”
* * *
Magomedov was the fifth Salafi imam to be arrested in Dagestan since the beginning of the year. In comments to FP, a member of the local security establishment, who asked to remain anonymous, said authorities were committed to breaking up the management of the region’s ultra-conservative Salafi mosques, which, they argue, have become terrorism incubators.
In Makachkala, law enforcement officers were certainly keeping close watch on the congregation at the city’s last remaining Salafi mosque on Vengerskikh Boitsov Street. In the space of five minutes on a recent Friday, a group of police officers pulled at least a dozen bearded men from the crowds making their way toward the mosque. To drill in the point, leaflets distributed at the mosque remind attendees of their rights in case of detention. According to the mosque’s press officer, Muhammad Abu Khamza Magomedov, about half the congregation is now on a high-risk police register.
Being on the register means being asked to leave blood, saliva, and even 30-second voice samples. Once registered, the men face a number of restrictions: They are generally limited to local travel; their employers may be contacted to let them know they are on the list; and they are often the first ones to be arrested at the time of any trouble, sometimes on a flimsy pretext.
“More and more, we are being asked to defend young Salafi men who turn to us after arbitrary detention,” said Selim Magomedov, a lawyer in Makhachkala who defends several Salafi clients. “If a fighter has a father or a brother — especially a younger brother — the practice now is that law enforcement will also suddenly find grenades and cannabis on him.” It is, argues the lawyer, “a combination so standard that whenever any Dagestani hears it, he becomes suspicious.”
The threat of closure has hung over the Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque since late 2015. The other main Salafi mosque in the capital, Al-Nadiriya Mosque on Kotrova Street, which was attended by Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev during his time in Dagestan, was closed abruptly in December. A month earlier, authorities had also attempted to impose their own choice of imam at the Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque but were rebuffed by its management.
That Dagestan has a serious problem with disaffected youth turning to radical Islam is clear enough. By the estimates of local security services, between 900 and 3,000 young Dagestanis have joined the Islamic State over the last few years, the vast majority of them Salafi Muslims. One of the clerics from the Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque, Nadir Medetov, swore allegiance to the Islamic State, and he has urged others to join him in Syria since.
But intense scrutiny from security services is putting Salafi moderates in a difficult situation. According to Murad Dibirov, assistant to the now-detained Imam Nabi Magomedov, moderates were being “caught between two very big fires” — the Russian state, ready to crack down at the first signs of radicalism, and the Islamic State, ready to recruit from their congregations should clerics appear too quick to appease. The imam’s attempts to reach a peaceful settlement on the Northern Mosque issue, for example, had provoked a YouTube admonishment from fighters in Syria. “They said we were mistaken to not call people to arms and then said our imam was not worth following,” Dibirov said.
Under close watch, Makhachkala’s Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque seemed to be trying to play it safe. On a recent Friday, much of the service, which took place in front of a packed congregation, was devoted to matters of personal hygiene: “A Muslim has the obligation to be clean at mass. He does not come to Friday mass smelling of garlic. He does not smoke. A good Muslim cleans his teeth, washes himself, and wears his best clothes.”
This time last year, the same preacher was stressing the superiority of sharia over Russian legislation, one follower admitted.
* * *
The main transport artery that leads from the capital of Makhachkala into Dagestan’s mountain villages narrows at the mouth of a small tunnel. On any given day, government counterterrorism operations underway on the other side of the tunnel might force it to close, so travel here is unpredictable. Some days, a journey might take 10 minutes; at other times, several hours.
On a recent day, however, an operation was just finishing, so gray vehicles were pulsing back out of the tunnel. It was a display of modern Russian military prowess, with three dozen modernized Ural trucks, the latest “Tiger” four-wheel-drive vehicles, and perhaps a hundred stony-faced soldiers cooped up inside. Waiting on the other side was a dramatic, rugged, mountainous road leading to the ultra-conservative village of Gimry. Cars shared the path with wandering livestock, and the roadside was peppered with green signs in Arabic and Russian, several containing quotes from Imam Shamil, a local leader who led a guerrilla resistance movement against the Russian Empire in the 19th century. “Heroes do not think about the consequences,” one declared.
Dagestan has always been a reluctant part of Russia, and by nature of their geographical isolation, radical religious views, and general poverty, the mountain villages on the other side of the tunnel have played key roles in the region’s centuries-long on-off war with the Russian state. At several more recent points in history, these villages fell completely under the control of militant Islamists and existed as self-governed enclaves within Russia.
Gimry, with a population of 2,000, emerged during the 1990s as a key stronghold of the anti-Russian insurgency, closely associated with the so-called Caucasus Emirate, a local jihadi organization linked to al Qaeda that has since almost entirely been superseded by the Islamic State.
The police avoid taking chances here. The village of Gimry itself is cordoned off from the outside world, as it has been since 2007. Locals enter via a security checkpoint and have to declare a passcode upon arrival and exit. Practically every resident is on a police register.
Further down the road, Radik, a patrol police officer on loan from Tatarstan who asked to be identified by his first name only, says a pressure-cooker atmosphere has developed inside Gimry. Few of his colleagues believe the isolation policy could hold forever, he says. “You can see the people are tired of us. You go into the village, and you will find lots of angry widows and sons without fathers. It’s a matter of time before the sons grow up into fighters,” Radik said.
Over the last few years, Gimry has seen a steady outflow of jihadi fighters to Syria, though the level of this outflow is fiercely debated. A source within the local security services suggested that perhaps as many as 50 of Gimry’s 2,000 residents are now fighting for the Islamic State in one way or another. Another source, a leading local Islamic publisher who asked to remain anonymous, says that number is vastly inflated, and many of those presumed fighting in Syria are in fact living normal lives in Turkey.
Forty miles or so northwest of Gimry, the village of Novosasetli, with a population of 2,500, has a similar story. Up until a few short years ago, it was known across Russia as a center of Islamic teaching, and many made the pilgrimage there to listen to its famous clerics. Over time, the village has also become a leading exporter of jihadis. Depending on whom you listen to, between 20 and 50 of its residents left to join various jihadi causes. Initially, they left to join the fighters of the Caucasus Emirate in the forests and mountains, but after this group ceased to be a serious military concern in 2014, local commanders almost completely switched their allegiance to the Islamic State. Many fighters now head to Syria.
“We find out what has happened to the ones who went via WhatsApp, which ones are dead, and so on,” said Ahmed Khaibulayev, a deputy of the village council.
According to the security services, a preacher by the name of Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, who was active in Novosasetli until leaving for Turkey in 2013, radicalized many of the village’s young men. According to his followers, Sasitlinsky was no more than a philanthropist, the founder of the Islamic Center for Orphans — an incongruously expensive-looking and now abandoned three-story facility built on the edge of the village. Security sources insist such activities were merely a ruse, and in fact Sasitlinsky was using Bahraini and Saudi funds to recruit for the Islamic State.
At one point, a traffic barrier separated this ultra-conservative village from the outside world. That is gone, but the Russian government remains unwelcome here. The village builds its own roads, installs its own broadband systems, and has its own sharia court. Khaibulayev says the locals do not trust the Russian police. “We don’t let them in unless it’s a very serious issue,” he said. “The security guys realize it’s better to keep their noses out.”
For most of Novosasetli’s residents, indeed, the state remains synonymous with counterterrorism raids. Not so long ago, such raids were frequent, targeted at insurgents who would occasionally stay in houses on the edge of the village during the cooler winter months. Khaibulayev says bored village kids used to follow military trucks as they entered the village. “It was almost a local attraction: First came the trucks, then the armored carriers, then local police, the security guys, and then you had explosions as someone’s house was blown up.”
The insurgents had a certain amount of local support, Khaibulayev admits, “especially among youngsters who thought giving them cash and food was the right thing to do by Islam.” But a turning point came in June 2014, when Russian security forces used grenade launchers to blast their way through a hut housing a known fighter and his girlfriend. Both were killed in the attack. The ferocity of the operation caused those in the village to rethink their policy; following a meeting, village elders decided to ask the insurgents to leave. Since then, a truce of sorts has formed between Novosasetli and security forces, but signs of resentment — and potential trouble to come — still linger.
On the road alongside collapsed concrete rubble, a van swerves past, with a dozen or so children clinging on to the back bumper.
“Allahu akbar,” the children shout, giggling.
By Oliver Carroll