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New Grounds for War: How the Power of Siberia Pipeline Impacts the Arctic

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The Power of Siberia pipeline, a joint Russian and Chinese venture in which Russia has agreed to provide $400 billion of natural gas (LNG) to China over the course of 30 years, presents a complex vector of potential conflict. Arctic ice melt, energy resource shortage, and increasing geopolitical tensions are all implicated. The complex nature of these issues and the uncertainty regarding their eventual manifestation places the pipeline in the realm of emergent conflict.

The Arctic nations, in particular the five littoral Arctic Ocean states – America, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark – are most at risk. China is also a key player, due to both its role as recipient of Russian LNG and its Arctic ambitions. These states are all members of the Arctic Council, the principle body involved in international Arctic governance. While many observers consider Arctic diplomacy via the Arctic Council a success, and point to the generally cooperative nature of international Arctic interaction, this hides the geopolitical divide that exists at the core of the Arctic Council. Most of the five littoral Arctic states belong to Western international and supranational organizations like NATO or the European Union (EU). However, the growing interdependence of Russia and China, and both states’ geostrategic expansionist ambitions, will likely complicate future efforts to prevent Arctic tensions and conflict.

Productive Policy

Arctic diplomacy via the Arctic Council has a long history of cooperative conflict resolution. The most notable instance of successful Arctic diplomacy is the landmark 2010 resolution of a Russian and Norwegian Barents Sea border dispute after decades of negotiation. This is largely a result of the unique application of the rule of international law in the Arctic. The predominant legal framework governing Arctic activities is the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which establishes freedom-of-navigation rights, sets territorial boundaries, sets exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and rules for extending continental shelf rights, and has created several conflict-resolution mechanisms. This has provided the Arctic states with a solid and widely accepted legal framework within which to conduct Arctic activities and provided effective mechanisms to address disputes.

The five littoral states reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful and cooperative action within the framework of UNCLOS in the Arctic with the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration. The Declaration commits its signatories to address sovereignty and jurisdiction issues through the “extensive legal framework” that governs Arctic activity. Signatories also promised to strengthen cooperation multilaterally, through existing organizations such as the Arctic Council and Barents Euro-Arctic Council. This emphasis on cooperation is reflected in the five littoral states’ Arctic strategy documents, which share a number of basic goals and principles. These include: a peaceful, safe, and secure Arctic; sustainable economic and social development; environmental protection; addressing the rights and needs of indigenous Arctic peoples; and the maintenance of sovereignty. Another particularly promising development is the signing of the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. This treaty, signed in 2011 by Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, encompasses previous agreements like the Tromsø Declaration and commits its signatories to expanded cooperation and information sharing in Arctic search and rescue missions. The Arctic Council has historically had a reputation for keeping its dealings separate from other international controversies, and has developed an air of isolation from political turbulence.

This analysis demonstrates that Arctic states have taken great pains to maintain the cooperative, peaceful nature of national and international activity in the Arctic. In particular, the dogged adherence to international law has provided a unique way to manage disputes. In addition, the Arctic Council has proven a valuable forum in which member states can address concerns, pursue cooperation, and effectively manage increased access to the Arctic. Its ability to compartmentalize Arctic policy from other international disputes has proven mostly resilient. Which is what makes the impact of Russia’s strategies concurrent to the Power of Siberia pipeline most intriguing.

Counterproductive Policies

The insulation from international tumult the Arctic cooperation has enjoyed thus far may be eroding. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, linked to the Power of Siberia pipeline by precipitating the international sanctions which served as a catalyst to signing the deal, has become an important enough threat to influence Arctic policy. In protest of Russia’s supposed revanchism, the Canadian Chair of the Arctic Council refused to attend an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow. The Canadian government saw this action as building on other penalties, like sanctions and travel bans, it had already imposed on Russia. While well-intentioned, Canada’s policy of including the Arctic in its attempts to isolate Russia may have unintended consequences, particularly in light of Russia’s ongoing military expansion there.

Russia has been increasing its military capacity in the Arctic for several years now. On December 1, 2015, Russia’s Arctic Command Headquarters became operational, one of the most visible signs of Russia’s “plan to form a combined arms group and construct a unified network of military facilities in the country’s Arctic territories, by hosting troops, advanced warships, and aircraft to strengthen the protection of its northern borders.” This can be seen as a fulfillment of Russia’s 2009 Russian Arctic Strategy until 2020. This strategy emphasized the national security dimensions of Russia’s Arctic policies, with a discussion of the need to militarily protect Russian interests. In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin has explicitly stated that any Russian military buildup in the Arctic is a result of US submarines already present in the Arctic. This has begun to trouble Russia’s Arctic neighbors and is rightfully seen as “a direct challenge to the longstanding consensus that the Arctic should be kept free of military rivalry.”.

Such challenges amid Western fears of Russian expansionism and heightened tensions do not bode well for future efforts to mitigate or avoid crisis in the Arctic. Recent backtracking notwithstanding, Canada’s decision to link Arctic cooperation with its wider foreign policy has set a precedent in which other states may choose to prioritize contentious foreign policy over the previously pristine Arctic cooperation. Likewise, Russia’s military buildup violates one of the fundamental tenets of Arctic engagement, that of keeping it free from military competition. In light of these developments, the potential for conflict over the Power of Siberia pipeline, arising from the geopolitics of climate change, energy scarcity, and divergent strategic positions, should become much more likely.

The Power of Siberia pipeline poses the potential for conflict due to the unique forces shaping its place in world affairs. As such, careful and effective policy is necessary to avoid such an undesirable outcome. International cooperation in the Arctic provides the most appropriate policy issue to explore these potentialities. Arctic policy has a reputation for cooperation even in the face of political adversity. For the majority of its existence the Arctic Council, along with related Arctic bodies, have served as valuable arenas for engagement and conflict resolution. However, recent developments give cause for concern that the Arctic may prove as contentious and competitive as other human endeavors. In total, while Arctic policy offers much in the way of useful means to arbitrate disputes and manage conflicts, there is growing evidence that it will succumb to the tendency toward competition and conflict. Thus, the melting ice may one day reveal new grounds for war.

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UN Security Council: Taliban continues to patronize Central Asian Jihadists

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Taliban militants in training at Mahmud Ghaznavi Military Camp

On February 3, 2021, the UN Security Council published its twenty-seventh report on threats and challenges of global terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda as well as and associated groups around the globe. The report drew a clear picture of proximity between Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups with the Taliban and al Qaeda, although they currently abstain from publicizing their mutually beneficial relationships.

The UN’s monitoring team stated that “the security situation in Central Asia is influenced by developments in Afghanistan” and “success in the peace process (meaning Doha accord) would have a positive impact on five post-Soviet nations”. In part, this is related to the fact that Uzbek Islamist groups have taken shelter in Afghanistan since the late 90s and are participating in the Taliban-led insurgency.

During this time, Central Asian Jihadi groups swore allegiance (bayat) to both the Taliban and alQaeda, joined the global jihad, and in 1999-2000 made several efforts to attack the densely populated Fergana Valley, sandwiched between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, the emir of Taliban

Despite the Doha agreement with the U.S, the report of the UN Security Council monitoring team confirms that the Taliban still maintain close ties to Uzbek and Tajik Salafi-Jihadi movements. It may be recalled that according to the Doha accord, the Taliban was expected to sever ties with al Qaeda and other Muhajireen (foreign fighters) armed groups and ensure Afghan soil is not used for attacks on US interests. While on the other hand, Taliban leaders insist they do not have ties with any foreign armed group.

The UN monitoring group found little evidence of significant changes in relations between al Qaeda and the Taliban, and, accordingly, both maintain close ties to its’ Central Asian subsidiaries. The report further notes that the «alQaeda assesses that its future in Afghanistan depends upon its close ties to the Taliban, as well as the success of Taliban military operations in the country».

The authors of the new UN report predicted that “success in the Afghan peace process would have a positive impact on Central Asia». Further, analysts of the UN monitoring body turned their emphasis on the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), one of the veterans of the Central Asian Salafi-jihad groups created in the Uzbek city of Namangan in the mid-1990s by the famous radical Islamist Tahir Yuldash. The UN Security Council’s monitoring team estimates that the IMU’s Afghan wing “consists of up to 700 people, including family members and approximately 70 Central Asians who left the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and joined IMU.”

The monitoring team’s report also highlighted the long-standing and strong links of two other Uzbek jihadist groups – Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG) – with the Taliban, who plays the role of ideological and military mentor for them. The report also noted that the “KIB has approximately 150 fighters, mostly in Badghis Province,” while “IJG has approximately 100 fighters active in the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz and Faryab under Taliban shelter and control”.

The UN Security Council’s monitoring team revealed some sort of conspiracy in the Taliban’s relations with Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups after the conclusion of the US-Taliban agreement.”The Taliban, which continues to deny the presence of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan, has forbidden these [Uzbek and Tajik] groups from launching independent operations against the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), and this has resulted in a reduction of their income”, the Monitoring team notes.

Uzbek Jihadists of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, the most loyal Taliban supporters from Central Asia

According to the UN monitoring team’s analysts, “the position of these groups has been further complicated by the killing of the IMU leader, Abdulaziz Yuldash, in Ghormach district, Faryab Province.” It should be pointed out that the leader of the Uzbek militant group was killed during a special operation by the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) Special Forces in the northern province of Faryab against the Taliban in November 2020.After neutralizing him, the Afghan Ministry of Defense stated that Abdulaziz Yuldash had been involved in terrorist attacks and killing of Afghans in the northern provinces”. Abdulaziz was the son of IMU founder and fabled Uzbek militant commander Tahir Yuldash who fought alongside the Taliban and had a close relationship with al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden. Tahir Yuldash was killed by a U.S. drone strike on August 27, 2009, in Pakistan’s South Waziristan region, after which his two sons, Mohammad and Abdulaziz, continued their father’s Jihadi legacy.

However, it must be stressed that the relationships between the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have not always been cloudless. The IMU was hit hard by the Taliban in late 2015 as punishment for its “betrayal” of the Taliban and al Qaeda when the then-leader of IMU Usman Ghazi, Tahir Yuldash’s successor and his son-in-law, announced his allegiance (bayat) to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As punishment for this betrayal, in late 2015 the Taliban killed Usman Ghazi and more than 100 IMU members at a base in Zabul Province.

After the physical liquidation of the pro-ISIS “traitors”, most of the Uzbek jihadists of IMU in Badakhshan,Faryab, Jowzjan, Helmand and Zabul returned to the Taliban’s fold.In its eleventh report, dated May 27, 2020, the UN Security Council’s Monitoring Team on Taliban Sanctions stated that “the IMU has not demonstrated any independent operational activity for some years and remains under the command and financial control of the Taliban” (see UN report, para. 85).Abdulaziz Yuldash’s charisma, decisive character and the glorious name of his slain father helped him gather scattered IMU members around him and restore loyalty to the Taliban and al Qaeda again. But amid the rise of other Central Asian militant groups, the IMU is unable to regain its former glory as of the most powerful insurgent movements with a long history of Jihad.

So, the report of the UN Security Council’s Monitoring Team clearly illustrated that the IMU considers Afghanistan as its permanent safe haven, relying on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban leadership. Taliban’s recent ban on Central Asian Islamist groups from conducting independent Jihadi operations against Afghan government forces is intended to disguise their presence in Afghanistan. Following the signing of the Doha Peace Agreement with Washington, the Taliban also banned Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups from posting photos, videos, and other information on social media indicating their close ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

For example, in April 2020, following the Doha deal, the leader of the KIB’s Syrian wing Abu Yusuf Muhajir was forced to delete his poem congratulating the Taliban on its “victory over the US aggressors” in Afghanistan from his Telegram channel. Also in July 2020, after clear discontent and pressure of the Taliban, Abu Yusuf removed his second post on joint successful military operations of Uzbek jihadists with the Taliban against the Afghan army from his Telegram page.

Uzbek jihadists of the KIB have pledged allegiance (bayat) to the Taliban and jealously considered themselves, in comparison with other Central Asian groups, the most loyal allies of the Taliban. Indeed, the coat of arms and the official name of the group “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – Katibat Imam al-Bukhari” were taken over from the Taliban. In its reports, the UN Security Council’s Monitoring team constantly emphasized that KIB, a splinter of the former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, “participates actively in hostilities against Afghan government forces under the leadership of the Taliban.”In that way, KIB portrays itself as part of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, the official name of Afghanistan in 1996-2001 under the Taliban regime.

The UN Security Council’s report also stated that Central Asian groups IMU, KIB and IJG have faced financial difficulties due to the Taliban’s ban on independent attacks and raids on the territory controlled by the Afghan government.”The Taliban, which continues to deny the presence of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan, has forbidden these [Central Asian] groups from launching independent operations against ANDSF, and this has resulted in a reduction of their income” the report reads.

According to the UN’s monitoring team, “financial support from Uzbek groups in the Syrian Arab Republic to their Afghan branches has declined.”This happened “because of the feud between HTS (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and HAD (Hurras al-Din) over the leadership in Idlib Province and control over foreign terrorist fighters, including Central Asians”, the report said.

The UN’s monitoring team also detailed an incident with the former KTJ leader Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki, who suffered because of his staunch loyalty to al Qaeda.We analyzed in detail the causes and consequences of the scandal around him, which alarmed the Salafi circles of the post-Soviet countries leading Jihad in Syria and Afghanistan.”The KTJ founder Abu Saloh, who had initiated online propaganda in favour of HAD, was detained by HTS and accused of stealing money belonging to HTS fighters,” the report reads.The fate of the famous ideologue of global jihad Abu Saloh, who challenged the powerful HTS, is still unknown. But his supporters on social media daily spread his religious audio and video messages inspiring the Fergana Valley’s youth to holly jihad.

Conclusion

Thus, the UN Security Council’s latest report once again refutes the Taliban’s assertion that al Qaeda and its Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi subsidiaries are not present in Afghanistan. Today, the Taliban, which gives the appearance of compliance with the Doha deal, is trying to put “diplomatic pressure” on the US that its military forces to leave the country by May 1.In unison with the Taliban, the Central Asian jihadists on their Telegram pages “threaten” the West that after the expiration of the “peace accord” the whole world will turn upside down for the enemies of Allah in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration is facing an extraordinarily tough challenge, which poses a question of how to achieve a real severing of ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban, as stipulated in the Doha Agreement?

It is common knowledge that bayat (pledge of allegiance) in Islam has a deep sacred Quranic value, the meaning of which boils down to giving an oath of allegiance to Allah Almighty and His prophet Muhammad. Therefore, from an Islamic perspective, it is difficult to achieve the abolition of the al Qaeda’s bayat to the Taliban, and to sever their ties with the help of external pressure from their infidel “common enemies”.

The Taliban signed the Doha Agreement pursuing only two goals: to achieve the withdrawal of the U.S. military troop from the country and to restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with its emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzadaas the leader. Consequently, the Taliban pretend to be extending an olive branch to the US with one hand, while with the other covering and defending al Qaeda and Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, keeping up its offensive all across Afghanistan.

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Hybrid Warfare Against Pakistan: Challenges and Response

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The term ‘hybrid warfare’ entered the strategic lexicon in the early 21st century despite having been practiced in various forms for a long time. It is defined as a blend of both kinetic and non-kinetic options to offset conventional power dynamics.  Hybrid warfare includes extensive use of tools like spreading disinformation, propaganda, economic coercion, backing proxy militia and cyber-attacks to achieve strategic objectives. In modern times, owing to the exponentially high cost of men and material used in traditional warfare, not only the great powers but various middle powers engage in hybrid warfare in order to destabilize, demoralize and disintegrate their core adversaries.

The advancement in technology over the 21st century encourages the blending of the different modes of warfare making hybrid warfare a practical option for meeting political objectives. The aspects of ambiguity and deniability that accompany hybrid warfare, make it an attractive option for states to exercise subtle power – they do not have to fear attribution and retribution. Hybrid warfare has become more popular because of the issue pertaining to major wars. The arrival of nuclear weapons in the 20th century even to India and Pakistan, and the different major wars have made conventional warfare much riskier. The consequences of the major wars have led to a transformation in how these wars are viewed. States that want to exert their influence have found other means to do so. There is an on-going debate in the UN about the serious consequences of the internet that can be constituted as acts of war. Its warfare without any direct violence.

Pakistan’s arch enemy, India, has constantly been waging hybrid warfare against Pakistan since partition but it has been recently expedited with increased funding, training of a separatist militia, through economic subversion by politicizing international bodies such as FATF and carrying out diplomatic sabotage in the form of disinformation campaigns disclosure by EU Disinfo Lab. Though the decision was motivated by the political objective of placing Pakistan on the grey list, India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan jeopardizes South Asia’s stability.

India’s main objective when it comes to hybrid warfare against Pakistan is it to keep Pakistan politically and economically unstable. This helps achieve certain other goals like preventing the rise of Pakistan’s power in Kashmir and pressuring Pakistan to settle on India’s terms in issues like Siachen and Sir Creek. India has tried to employ numerous tools to wage this warfare against Pakistan at the different levels.

India is trying to build a narrative, especially among Indian Muslims and Kashmiris that Pakistan is a failed or failing state and the partition of the Indian sub-continent was huge mistake. They are also generating the idea that the Indian Muslims are far superior to the Pakistanis and even the Bangladeshis. The hybrid warfare against Pakistan also has its internal dynamics, as it is very much part and parcel of India’s domestic politics particularly around elections. Even the Hindutva intoxicated BJP came to power by employing this strategy. India has also given rise to the narrative that she always tried to build good relations but the Pakistani military does not let the relations normalize. Also, it is the Pakistan Army, which is not allowing a solution to the Kashmir dispute because when Pakistan and India were engaged in backchannel diplomacy to work out a solution on the basis of President Musharraf’s four-point formula, it was the Pakistan Army which conducted, supported and funded the Mumbai attack of 2008. Thus, the Pakistan Army is portrayed as a major problem when it comes to Pakistan. It is also being projected that Pakistan’s defense expenditure is illogical as it needs to invest more in its development rather than the armed forces to defend itself against India. India is also exploiting the fault lines of Pakistan – Baluchistan and CPEC. Pakistan is also blamed for not allowing regional peace and integration. India links Pakistan to the Taliban at international level. Certainly, India’s main aim is to weaken the social contract of Pakistan by creating restlessness, divisions and instability within the country.

Pakistan needs a well calibrated strategy in how to counter India’s move at every platform. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to understand the nature of hybrid warfare while concentrating on Pakistan’s social and political harmony. More importantly, we need to realize the potential of CPEC. There must be good governance based on deliverance to overcome the vulnerabilities. There is no denying the fact that this is an era of multilateralism, but multilateral approach works well when there are healthy bilateral relations. While it is good to host conferences and seminars, there is a need for more practical action. We live in world were information spreads quickly. Hence, we need a counternarrative to India’s narrative of ‘talks and terrorism cannot go side by side’ but unfortunately Pakistan always acts in an apologetic manner. The media can potentially be the face of any state but in the case of Pakistan, the media does not care and there is no policy-based discussion between the media and the government. Also, Pakistan does not have enough English news channels to portray the positive image of Pakistan. Furthermore, every part of Pakistani society including the media, the civil society and academia should collectively respond to India’s hybrid warfare against Pakistan. For all of this to be successful, Pakistan’s immune system must be protected through socio-political harmony and improved governance. Last but not the least, India may not be able to sustain its economic lure for long, therefore, India must stop this hybrid warfare against Pakistan, and resume diplomatic activities for stability and prosperity of the region.

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How Putin’s Russia is Exploiting Jihadists Against pro-Navalny Protesters?

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Who is Putin’s terrorist: Navalny or Jihadist?

Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin is considering using old tactics to stem the growing wave of nationwide protests in support of his fiercest critic, popular opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This tactic was developed in the late 90s by the KGB ideologists and successfully applied in order to bring to power Vladimir Putin, who is ruling the country with an iron hand longer than all his Soviet predecessors except Joseph Stalin. The tactical skills of the Putin’s policy architects were aiming to frighten Russian citizens by Islamist terrorism and Chechen separatism and unite patriotic and nationalist forces around a new leader capable of challenging the West.

Thus, when the nationwide protests in support of Navalny from Yakutia to Kaliningrad became the most serious challenge, the Kremlin began to trumpet the threat of Islamist extremists and international terrorists. This time, the Putin regime is intimidating protesters with impending terrorist attacks of Central Asian and Caucasian jihadists and their Syrian parent organization, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

On the eve of the next nationwide protests on February 14, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russia warned of the inadmissibility of calls to participate in an unsanctioned rally. Russian state news agencies RIA Novosti and TASS have disseminated information that the most powerful Sunni militant faction of HTS in northern Syria is preparing a series of lone-wolf attacks during the upcoming mass street protests of Navalny’s supporters in various Russian cities. In doing so, however, the pro-Kremlin media cited its undisclosed law enforcement sources and ultimately spread merely conspiracy theories.

According to anonymous sources of Russian security services, HTS-backed Uzbek Jihadi battalion Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad(KTJ), Chechen militant groups Ajnad al-Kavkaz (AK) and Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar (JMA) are planning to carry out explosions and attack protesters. To achieve these purposes, terrorist groups allegedly recruited Russian citizens and Central Asian migrants, who expect their leaders’ commands.

pro-Navalny protesters

The Putin regime faced the most serious challenge when anti-government protests took place across the Russia in support Navalny in recent weeks. As is known, in mid-January, Navalny returned to the country after recovering from a chemical Novichok poisoning that nearly took his life and was immediately detained and later jailed for alleged parole violations. The robust Putin regime first demonstrated its grave alarm when tens of thousands pro-Navalny protesters demanded his resignation in more than 100 cities and towns, chanting Putin as a ‘thief’. Police detained more than 11,000 people at what they say were unsanctioned protests that the Moscow condemned as illegal and dangerous.

Alexei Navalny’s political creativity and tactical skill inspired Russian liberal youth weary with the corruption-plagued political order presided over by Putin. Fierce clashes between protesters and riot police during the mass rallies indicate that a new generation is not afraid of arrests and the repressive state machine. And to stop the pace of marathon confrontation with the opposition, Putin resorted to his long-standing KGB tactics, intimidating society with possible terrorist attacks and explosions by Islamists.

Will Uzbek and Chechen Jihadists hit pro-Navalny Protesters?

But the fact is, it’s not the first time Putin’s Russia has intimidated society with possible terror attacks by Islamist terrorists and Chechen separatists to achieve political goals. During the transition of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin at the end of the second millennium, Kremlin ideologists successfully tested anti-Islamist tactics to overcome the challenges of the political opposition. The ideologists of Putin’s election campaign created his image as a decisive and strong leader, the one who can defeat Islamist terrorism, Chechen separatism and preserve the integrity of Great Russia. His image as the only savior of the Russian Empire was accompanied by radio and television spots and news about the atrocities of Chechen militants and their beheading of Russian soldiers.

Meanwhile, there is a conspiracy theory in Russian political circles that the powerful FSB orchestrated apartment bombings in the Russian cities of Buinaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999 to boost Putin’s approval rating aiming to ensure his victory in the presidential elections. As a result of these “terrorist attacks”, 307 people were killed, more than 1,700 people were injured. Russian officials concluded that there was a “Chechen trail” in the bombings, but no proof of their involvement was adduced. Many still doubt the results of the investigation and consider Putin to be the culprit of this tragedy.

That’s when Putin uttered his famous phrase: “We will pursue the [Islamist] terrorists everywhere. If they are in an airport, we’ll kill them there. If we catch them in the toilet, we’ll exterminate them in the toilet.” Many still believe that the apartment bombings and the FSB’s tactic against Islamist extremists catapulted Putin into the presidency. Putin soon launched a second war in Chechnya and emerged victorious in the intra-Kremlin struggle. His ratings soared. He met with huge approval in a society weary from the economic collapse, corruption and crime of the Yeltsin era.

Usually people prefer to keep quiet about this tragedy. Russian political figures Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Berezovsky worked to unravel the mystery of apartment bombings. But all of them were brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances. Ultimately, the Kremlin’s tactics to combat Islamist terrorists not only helped to rocket Putin to the political Olympus, but also increased Islamophobia, nationalism and chauvinism in Russian society.

Today, even 22 years after Putin came to power, the Kremlin’s ideologists have begun to intimidate Russia’s liberal society with likely Islamist terrorist attacks again as the nationwide protests seriously threaten his regime. This illustrates the regime exhaustion and the lack of confidence in face of the strategic sophistication of Navalny’s team.

So far, neither HTS, nor Central Asian and North Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups have officially responded to the FSB on the plotting of terrorist attacks in Russian cities during opposition rallies. However, in encrypted Telegram chats, Uzbek and Chechen jihadists actively discussed the “leak information”.

Thus, one of the KTJ’s followers on Telegram under the name Al Hijrat said in Uzbek: “Kafir Putin frightens his people with the just sword of Allah.But the people of the blessed land of Sham know that he himself is the main terrorist. Russian infidels and Putin’s Nusayri puppy (Alawites regime of Bashar al-Assad) bomb Greater Idlib to destroy Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah. Executioners will have to hold a harsh response before the Almighty for their crimes.”

A pro-Jihadi chat “Inspire” in Telegram wrote in Russian: “the information about the impending attacks by Ajnad al-Kavkaz is fake. The authorities are trying to hold Russia’s awakening people from mass protests against Putin’s criminal group. To intimidate civilians, the Russian siloviki (FSB) can and are ready to commit terrorist acts, blaming HTS for this, which are not interested in what is happening there in Russia. The Putinists have a lot of experience in killing their own citizens and blowing up their houses.” In this message, Chechen militants indirectly protect HTS from accusations by pro-Kremlin media on impending terrorist attacks in Russian cities during opposition protests. This is no coincidence, since Ajnad al Kavkaz is known for its close ties with HTS.

On Telegram channel, some Russian-speaking jihadists from the post-Soviet space mocked at the ‘leaked information’, some expressed their anger against the “Russian occupants” in Sham, some advised protesters to be vigilant before the FSB provocation. A pro-Jihadi chat Icharkhoin Telegram recommended Muslims of Caucasus be ready for new repressions of Russian infidels and local Murtad (apostate), because after the bombings of houses in Volgodonsk, Putin started the 2-Chechen war and took away the independence of Ichkeria. The Telegram chat “Muhajireen” says that the Kremlin is preparing for a harsh suppression of the mass protests.

It is not the first time the Russian authorities have accused Central Asian and North Caucasian Jihadi networks of organizing terrorist act. On April 3, 2017, the Russian FSB blamed KTJ for the bombing on a subway train in St. Petersburg that killed 16 people and injured 67 others. On October 15, 2020, the FSB once again accused the Uzbek KTJ militants of preparing subversive and terrorist acts in Russian cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Maikop and Volgograd. In a statement, the intelligence services claimed that during the counter-terrorist operation, they prevented explosions and eliminated two members of KTJ. Then FSB distributed photos and videos of firearms, ammunition, IED’s chemical components, and religious literature seized during the operation.

On October 16, 2020, KTJ in its statement denied the Russian authorities’ accusation in these attacks. The Uzbek militant group stated that “according the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s policy, our activities are limited to the territory of Sham, and we do not conduct jihadi acts outside of it.” Further, KTJ assured via its Telegram channel that it “does not have its cells in Russia and is not involved in organizing terrorist acts there.”

Jihadi factor of Russian democracy

The Russian authorities often make thunderous statements about plotting terrorist attacks by “international terrorist groups” and how siloviki (FSB) successfully prevented its. This time, trumpeting about terrorist plots by HTS and its foreign subsidiaries during mass protests in various Russian cities, Moscow hoped to hit two birds with one stone. First, the Kremlin hopes that alarm on terrorist attacks could become a cold shower for Navalny’s supporters, as a result of which the activity of protesters will subside and the scale of the rallies will decrease. Second, by accusing HTS of plotting terrorist attacks, Russia is trying to justify its bloody bombing in northern Syria before the international community.

However, experts on jihadism and political Islam were skeptical about accusations of HTS for plotting terrorist attacks in Russia.HTS, Syria’s most powerful rebel group, is trying to implement a new strategy to transform itself from a global jihadist outlook into a local “moderate national liberation movement”. Today its new agenda is entirely dedicated to Syria and the Syrian local Sunni community. Within this new strategy, HTS severely restricted external attacks by its subsidiaries – Central Asian and North Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups –KTJ, AK and JMA. Consequently, HTS, which holds the last major rebel bastion in Idlib province and backs the local Salvation Government, is focused only on the internal Syrian jihad than organizing external terrorist attacks.

HTS emir Abu Mohammed al-Julani is well aware that any terrorist attacks in Russia could place his group among the global terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and al Qaeda, from which he decisively disavowed. HTS pursues a pragmatic approach to the political context, and its external attacks outside of Syria could undermine its fragile legacy, which Julani has achieved with great difficulty.

According to the new strategy, HTS has excluded Central Asian and local hardliners from its ranks. Those jihadists who did not want to submit to its new policy, such as former KTJ emir Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki and HTS Shura Council member Abu Malek al-Talli, were arrested or taken out of the Syrian jihad zone. Given the ability of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to pressure Russian-speaking militant groups to abandon its global jihadist ambitions, it can be concluded that the Russian FSB’s accusation against HTS raises many questions.

In conclusion, the Russian authorities alert about Islamists terrorist attacks during pro-Navalny protests is aimed at an internal audience and pursues exclusively domestic political goals. And these goals are clear as plain as the nose on the face. Using these methods, the Kremlin wants to stop the turbulent development of mass protests and divert the attention of people from the Navalny factor. If they succeed, the authorities will take time out to gather strength for the parliamentary elections in the fall of 2021.But if the wave of protests grows ever stronger and threatens Putin’s regime, then a repetition of the 1999 scenario is quite possible. As then, radical Islamism and terrorism can become a starting point for strengthening authoritarianism in Russia.

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While talking to a Cornell college professor, Rahul Gandhi lamented (March 2, 2021) that the RSS was making use of...

Diplomacy6 hours ago

Multilateralism Without the USA

It has already done so for a long time. As I have described earlier: “Nobody waits for Biden” (or the...

Development8 hours ago

Reversing the Impact of the Pandemic on Female Workers in Latin America

Working women in Latin America and the Caribbean were disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic compared to men. This fact...

East Asia10 hours ago

Chinese Diplomacy: Xi’s “Twin” Victory over Biden, Modi?

On China, the US public stands apart and India’s Hindu majority population is described by Beijing as “self-deceptive.” In the...

Eastern Europe12 hours ago

Zangazur corridor will stimulate regional cooperation

The trilateral declaration signed between the Presidents of the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan and the Prime Minister of Armenia on...

Reports14 hours ago

Smarter Food Policy Could Boost Health and Economic Recovery of Asian Cities

Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of reliable food systems that provide healthy and affordable...

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