The militant group Islamic State (DAESH) has filled power vacuums from Syria to Iraq. As its advances struggle forward due to increasing external resistance, it is continually searching for new recruits and new territory to push its message and power.
One of the most important new regions for this militant message is the Russian Federation’s North Caucasus, a formerly war-torn region that knows its share of terrorist strife and has seen Russia use drastic force to incorporate a pro-Kremlin government and keep the region from gaining radical Islamic independence on its southern flanks. The youngest Chechen generation has slowly become begrudging Russian supporters as the spiral of war mercifully ended and the region has witnessed the economic benefits of a rebuilt and slowly stabilizing economy. Conversely, older generations and the most devout of local Muslims reject Russian influence and continue to strive for separation from not only the Soviet past but from modern Russian governance. In this space of little autonomy and reliance on Moscow, DAESH has tried to initiate an alternative voice of independence, declaring a new Islamic province, ‘Wilayat Qawqaz,’ spanning the North Caucasus region.
DAESH relies heavily on an innovative and polarizing message to recruit and expand its illusory borders. In the North Caucasus, it has relied on sympathy for the so-called fight for Islamic independence and an ardent rejection of Kremlin influence. With this message, it has aligned itself with al-Qaeda’s Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, with four of the six most powerful divisions formally aligning themselves with DAESH after the announcement. While it’s unclear how the divisions of allegiance with other al-Qaeda affiliates will ultimately affect the region, the declaration of Wilayat Qawqaz and loyalty with some al-Qaeda affiliates clearly demonstrates the brazen and confident nature of DAESH to operate away from its base in Iraq. Interestingly, DAESH did not declare the new Wilayat in any simple or crude way, but advanced the announcement through an impressive technological and media blitz.
The most visual and advanced propaganda tool for this in Russia, released just weeks after declaring Wilayat Qawqaz, is an Android-only app simply titled ‘Caucas,’ (sic) and provides daily news from DAESH offensives in Syria and Iraq. Additionally, it provides Russian translated videos of DAESH leaders, such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It’s not clear who precisely is behind the app, but it clearly shows that DAESH factions are increasingly interested in the future of the North Caucasus. Although a technologically simple app, it marks the first time a Russian-only DAESH app has been created and maintained daily. Another DAESH media outlet in Russia, Furat Media, made its debut just weeks before the announcement of the new province. Furat appears to be a professionally-managed organization that propagates DAESH viewpoints along with traditional news and wartime updates. Along with a website, Furat utilizes Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr accounts and used these platforms to initially announce the establishment of Wilayat Qawqaz. DAESH factions created outlets to not only announce the establishment of the new province, but to unify its Russian base with up-to-date news coverage from the so-called Caliphate’s front lines.
Thus, the release of these two new media platforms weeks from each other and timed with the declaration of the new Caucasian province signals that DAESH clearly wants to expand its influence into the post-Soviet space, where admittedly there are plenty of radical Islamic terrorists waiting for new support. This marks a bold progression in DAESH’s vision. With thousands of Chechen separatists and terrorists potentially filling the ranks of DAESH, it must consider Russian-speaking initiatives of great importance. These apps, videos, and media outlets have allowed the Arabic-speaking leadership to engage Russian-speaking zealots, communicating daily a dangerous unifying mission to all fighters.
Current estimates of the combined DAESH forces of Wilayat Qawqaz stands at 15,000 combatants. With recruitment becoming the primary focus, those numbers could ultimately swell in the coming years. With terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus dwindling drastically from 2010 to 2014, DAESH has deftly stoked dying embers into a real potentiality for renewed insurgency. It’s unclear what the implications for Russia will be in the coming months as DAESH pushes for general population acceptance of the new Wilayat. While the Chechen population has long strived for independence throughout their history, a large majority now accept a somewhat autonomous role under the Russian Federation. For Russia to recreate a heavy-handed security state inside Chechnya in response to the DAESH threat would only recall echoes of the first and second Chechen Wars of the 1990s and 2000s.
In addition to North Caucasus terrorists, Moscow’s Security Council chief in June stated that there was a real problem with containing the flow of Chechen fighters to Syria and Iraq. While estimates vary, there is some consensus that there are at least 2,000 Russian nationals fighting alongside DAESH. However, it is unclear if the goal of the new media platforms is to bolster the North Caucasian causes or for DAESH recruitment efforts for the Levant Caliphate. Either way, Russia may eventually need to address its national security concerns there, but will be hard-pressed to find a solution that honors the relatively effective soft power approaches Moscow has used since the Chechen ceasefire of 2009. More likely, security will once again be tightened, with human rights restricted, and Russian soldiers free to act on their own discretion. This will only bolster DAESH’s cause and degrade the influence Russia has built in the North Caucasus. For the Kremlin, it marks yet another challenge in an atmosphere of lowered Russian morale, declining support for Vladimir Putin in the southern region, and the realities of a fairly severe economic recession because of Western sanctions. Ultimately, it is unclear if DAESH can truly begin a dangerous and more intense offensive in Chechnya and beyond or if the ultimate goal is advancing just recruitment bases. Either way, there is no doubt that Russia will need to address this new threat as DAESH is proving its technological savvy and media-support efforts are highly effective in spilling influential propaganda and deadly terrorism across any borders.