The main pressures of the various jihadist groups in Syria are now targeted to the North of the Aleppo province. If Aleppo collapses, also the non-jihadist Syria will collapse. Conversely, if the Salafists hold the city under control, no credible reconquest of Syria will be possible.
On April 13, 2016, negotiations No. 3 for “peace” in Syria have resumed in Geneva but, as Machiavelli used to say, “love peace and know how to wage war” is the first rule for the good Prince.
The goal of the US forces and, only partially, of the Turkish forces, as well as of the Coalition, is still to disrupt the Caliphate’s lines of communication between Ar-Raqqa and the Turkish-Syrian border.
Obviously, for Turkey, the aim of the war is to counter the successes of the YPG Kurds, while the United States support the People’s Protection Units (YPG) against Al Baghdadi.
Currently, however, the Kurds are also approaching and coming closer to Russia, and the YPG loyalty to the line of the Coalition, made up of 59 countries, is being called into question.
Hence it is likely that only Russia will be in a position to successfully ask President Assad for the Kurdish autonomy.
President Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) now operates from the Kuweires air base to penetrate the Caliphate’s area of the Aleppo Province, where also the Jabhat Al Nusra Front is gathering for its ultimate defence.
At strategic level, the many jihadist groups (the major ones are over 25) operating in Syria have these aims in mind: a) to make Assad’s SAA and Russian attacks diverge and make them useless; b) to act as a shield for Isis, the major group; c) to finally lay the conditions for a “Vietnamization” of the Syrian war and, hence, of the long defeat of the Russian and Iranian “invaders” and of the Western “infidel”.
Furthermore, the various jihadists directly serve the interest of their sponsors on a zone-by zone basis: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
This is a function of the Syrian oil communication lines and of resources, the mining ones in particular, as we will see later on.
Moreover, the jihadist war fought by the various gangs is meant to delay as much as possible the reunification of the territory under the Syrian Ba’athist regime, thus forcing it in the future to a “cantonization” making it irrelevant to its Russian, Iranian and Chinese allies.
Hence Syria could become pervious to Saudi Arabia’s oil and political actions, in contrast with the Iranian and Russian designs on Assad’ Syria.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), founded in August 2011 by a group of defected Syrian Armed forces officers hosted in Turkey, has about five open fronts: in the North (Aleppo and Idlib), in the East (Raqqa, Deir al Zour and Hassaka), in the Centre (Homs and Rastan) and finally in the South (Damascus, Deraa and Suwaida).
Supported by the now famous and invisible 59 countries of the anti-Isis Coalition, the FSA cooperates, in various areas, with the jihadists and with several subgroups, such as the Northern Storm Brigade, the Ahrar Souria Brigade, the Martyrs of Syria Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham.
All current FSA positions, however, are at the edges of the areas dominated by Assad’s SAA.
A situation of OPFOR, Opposing FORce.
The two opponents mime the same warfare techniques and the same lines of action so as to equalize their potentials with the hybrid war.
Obviously the FSA and the jihadists must force and close the Russians and the Syrians into their initial areas so as to enable the jihadist groups to cover the Isis positions.
The Islamic Front now has about 45,000 militants and results from the merger of seven jihadist groups.
As stated in its official documents, it is alien both to the Al Nusra Front and to ISIS. It operates mainly in Aleppo and its tactical line is intended to prevent Assad’ Syrian forces from entering and stabilizing in the Northern region between Latakia and Aleppo.
Harakat Ahrar Al Sham al-Islamiyya is a Salafi group established near Idlib and, before the Syrian Islamic Front dissolving in November 2013, it collaborated both with the Al-Nusra Front and the groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
It is the jihadist brigade specialized mainly in cyber attacks, that also works as a network of humanitarian and social support for the peoples.
Jaysh Al Islam is a coalition of about 10,000 units resulting from the merger of 50 previous jihadist groups.
It operates mainly in the Ghouta area around Damascus.
The jihadist group Suqour Al Sham is still supposed to count about 10,000 militants and operates in the provinces of Aleppo and Damascus.
It is worth clarifying that all the data and statistics we report do not consider defections, targeted assassinations, passages from one group to another.
Liwa al Tawheed, another group counting between 8,000 and 10,000 units, is also active in the region of Aleppo and has good relations of cooperation with the Al Nusra Front, even though it theorizes a less radical Islamic government that the other Salafi movements.
Finally the Al Nusra Front is a Salafi group (representing Al Qaeda in Syria) counting approximately 7,000 units and operates, in dispersed ranks, in at least 11 of the 14 Syrian provinces.
Currently it controls especially the Northern parts of the Syrian territory.
Despite being the best known jihadist group in Syria, Isis/Daesh only counts approximately 5,000 men in arms.
It operates mainly in the North and East of Syria,
Isis is the junction point between the various Salafi souls of the Syrian jihad, and plays a role of “clearing house” between the various factions of the fundamentalist insurgency. And this is its strength.
Daesh/Isis is a sort of Komintern of the Syrian jihad, which often uses other Salafi groups as cover or bait for the Russian-Syrian actions.
When, at the beginning of hostilities, President Putin said that Russia would make no difference between the various jihadist movements, he hit the very heart of the political-military organization and activity of Daesh/Isis.
The Iranians sent the Saberin Special Forces Brigade, which in Farsi means “patients.”
Founded in 2000, the IRGC special forces brigade operates primarily as a multi-tasking group specialized in deep penetration into enemy’s territory and in sniping actions.
In February 2015, the Pasdaran and the Saberin Brigade were the largest military groups to launch an offensive against Aleppo so as to stop trade between Isis and Turkey. Currently the 2,500 Iranian military units operate mostly as “advisers” to Bashar al-Assad’ Syrian Arab Army.
Sometimes they even operate as pilots of the Sukhoi-24M aircrafts that Moscow assigned to Bashar al-Assad’s military forces.
As already mentioned, the YPG Kurds are in command of approximately 15,000 fighters.
They came to the fore when, in 2012, the Syrian army left the Kurdish areas and the two national parties (the PKK and the Democratic Union Party, namely the PYD) began to independently manage the Kurdish region in North-Western Syria.
They control various border towns between their region and the rest of Syria, as well as part of the city of Aleppo, which is clearly the strategic centre of the whole Syrian war.
The Russians now operate as instructors of Bashar el Assad’s forces and protect their bases of Tartus, Humaymin and Latakia, while there is much talk about a new Russian base under construction at the Turkish border, in Al-Qamishli, whereas the United States are supposed to be building a base in North-Eastern Syria, together with the Kurdish militants.
Russia, however, has maintained in Syria the Pantzir F and S-400 Triumph weapon systems.
The former is an advanced system of surface-to-air missiles with sensors and automatic fire direction.
The latter is also a particularly advanced anti-missile system, which is said to be even better than the traditional US-made Patriot.
Bashar el Assad’ Syrian Arab Army counts about 14,000 military men who today, after the Russian “tonic treatment” and the Iranian cooperation, have a good level of efficiency on the ground.
The SAA recent victory in Al Qaryatain is pivotal: it ensures the safety and security of pipelines in the region and enables Assad’s forces to disrupt the lines of communication between the desert of Al Badyia and al-Qalamoun, which are essential for Daesh- Isis’ supplies.
However, which is the link between the oil and gas transit and the civil war and jihad in Syria?
If we look at the map, we can see how the major currently operating pipelines have evident points of contact with the various Salafi Islamist groups: each oil or gas transport network is controlled in at least two points by the various jihadist groups.
It is precisely for this reason that the local Salafism, including Isis, never covers the whole territory of reference, but only the contours of the regions it conquered militarily, which intersect an existing pipeline in at least two points.
Nevertheless, let us better analyse the oil and gas issue, which is not Marxistically at the origin of the war in Syria, but certainly explains much of it.
In 1989, Iran and Qatar began to develop the largest natural gas deposit in the world, the South Pars-North Dome.
One third of the South Pars reserves are present in Iranian territorial waters and the rest in Qatar’s marine areas.
Nevertheless there are two competing exploitation projects, which regard the current civil war in Syria.
The former is the Qatari-Turkish pipeline: in 2009, the Emirate offered to Turkey the possibility of a pipeline passing through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria up to Turkey, so as to sell gas to European consumers and to the Turks, in particular.
There is also a second route proposed, stretching from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait up to Iraq and Turkey, but the PKK Kurds at the Iraqi border would prevent any arrival of natural gas along the Turkish coast.
This is the only project for the oil and gas transport which would make the operation of the Russian pipelines a factor of secondary importance, with geopolitical effects that can be easily imagined.
In 2001, however, Iran proposed an alternative route to the Qatari-Turkish one, namely the Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian route.
The gas would come from South Pars via Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon.
If Russia regains its hegemony over Syria, this route could overlap with the Iranian and Syrian pipelines, thus avoiding Turkey and making Russia become the natural gas global leader.
The Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian route could also compete with the TANAP-TAP network, the Southern Corridor which, however, is about to be completed.
The TANAP-TAP pipeline, also created in 2011, stretches from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, crossing the whole of Anatolia.
Hence, if the Russian Federation is still dominant in Syria, it will be in a position to thwart both projects, by controlling only the Damascus area.
On the one hand, it is very likely for Moscow to have regarded the Qatari-Turkish pipeline as a threat to Gazprom’s plans for the European market.
But also the Iranian project of the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline could damage the market share of the Russian gas companies, which are still essential for the Russian Federation’s whole economy.
Conversely, Russia could rather sponsor the Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian route only if it reached the ports of Latakia and Tartus – the old and well-known military headquarters of the Soviet Union, at first, and of Russia, later – on the Mediterranean, outside Turkey’s control.
If this happens, the Russian Federation will be the true pivot of the Middle East geopolitics and economy. On the contrary, if tensions in Syria mount or, worse, if the territory of Damascus falls prey to the jihadists and the powers that protect them, there will be no pipeline .
The projects which will by-pass the Syrian territory will be constantly threatened by the sword jihad, that will have no hesitation in hitting also the networks of the countries which so far have supported it in Syria.
UN Security Council: Taliban continues to patronize Central Asian Jihadists
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hybrid Warfare Against Pakistan: Challenges and Response
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.
How Putin’s Russia is Exploiting Jihadists Against pro-Navalny Protesters?
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.
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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