The Syria’s most powerful rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has recently implemented a new strategy to transform itself from global jihadist outlook into a local “moderate national liberation movement”. Its new agenda is entirely dedicated to Syria and the Syrian local Sunni community in particular. Within this new scope of this strategy, HTS began to severely restrict external attacks by Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups fully associated with HTS. Against the background of these changes, Russia recently accused HTS-backed Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) for conducting a terrorist attack, thus preventing to achieve HTS’s goal.
Pressure on Central Asian migrants amid KTJ’s terror attacks
On October 15, 2020, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) made a statement that it has “…suppressed the activities of the interregional cell of the international terrorist organization Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad intending to commit subversive and terrorist acts in the Volgograd city.” During the operation, the security forces killed two members of this Uzbek Salafi-Jihadi group. According to the Russian special services, “…the coordination of the terrorist activities of the jihadist cell was carried out from the territory of Syria.” The Russian FSB also distributed photos and videos of firearms, ammunition, chemical components of Improvised Explosive Device, religious literature, as well as a city’s map of planned explosions seized during the particular operation.
FSB further reported that “…other members of the KTJ’s interregional cell were also detained in the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Maikop and Volgograd”. However, no evidence of the detention of jihadists in other Russian cities and their affiliation with any religious organization was ever provided.
On October 16, KTJ in its Telegram channel responded to FSB’s accusation by highlighting their “…non-involvement in the activities of the Mujahideen cell planning the explosion in Volgograd.” The Uzbek militant group stated that “…their goal is exclusively to help the people of Syria in the fight against the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad.” Furthermore, KTJ declared that “…their activities are limited to the territory of Syria, and the conduct of terrorist acts outside of it is not the group’s policy.” At the end of its statement, the group firmly denied the accusation by the Russian authorities of planning a terrorist attack in Volgograd, calling it an absolute lie.
The Russian authorities often issue thunderous statements about successful special operations against “international Islamist terrorists”. However, these statements often arouse a certain amount of doubt among religious experts researching the activities of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. This mistrustful attitude to the special operations carried out by the FSB security forces is primarily due to the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime, which artificially divides Islam in Russia into what they describe as “traditional Islam” and “radical Islam” over the past 20 years.
According to the tailor-made of Putin’s Russia, ‘traditional Islam’ is assumed as the Muslim Ummah that supports the official policy of the state, that is loyal to Putin’s regime and does not raise any separatist slogans. However, in Russian reality, the concept of ‘radical Islam’ is applied very broadly and vaguely. The authorities usually refer members of the Salafi/Wahhabi jamaats of the North Caucasus, Tablighi Jamaat, Hizbut-Tahrir al-Islami and Nurjular (supporters of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi) and other followers of the Takfiri movements to the category of ‘radical Islam’.
Russian law enforcement agencies believe that mass labor migration from the Central Asian post-Soviet republics contributed to the revival of Hizbut-Tahrir al-Islami’s and Tablighi Jamaat’s activities in Russia. There have been frequent cases of so-called “radical Islamists” who are actually mere migrants from Central Asia. However, the “light hand” of Russia’s law enforcement agencies has unfairly ranked these migrants as “religious extremists”. Furthermore, there have been cases of Central Asian migrants who have been killed during special operations by the Russian FSB because that same FSB egregiously labelled them as “religious terrorists” without any trial or investigation. Unfortunately, there are plenty of such cases in Russian practice.
It is imperative to mention that this is not the first time the Russian authorities have accused the Uzbek jihadist group KTJ 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. According to Russia’s Investigative Committee, Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old Kyrgyz-born ethnic Uzbek man with Russian citizenship, has been identified as the suicide bomber. Investigators concluded that the ideological mastermind and financial organizer of the subway bombing was Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki, the leader of the KTJ group. It’s known that his real name is Sirozhidin Mukhtarov, a faithful follower of al Qaeda who migrated (Hijrat) from southern Kyrgyzstan to Syria to wage jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
As a result, a military court of St. Petersburg found eleven people guilty of organizing a bomb attack. One of the accused individuals was jailed for life while the other ten were given jail terms ranging from 19 to 28 years but all 11 denied the charges and membership in the Uzbek jihadi group KTJ. The detained two Kyrgyz-born brothers, Akram and Abror Azimov claimed they were tortured at a “secret jail” outside Moscow. Both stated that they were subjected to electric shocks, simulated drowning, and beatings at the facility allegedly used by Russia’s powerful FSB. Putin’s Russia arbitrarily deprived the relatives of the accused of Russian citizenship and deported them to Kyrgyzstan. The only woman among the defendants, Shokhista Karimova, declared her innocence, claiming Russia’s FSB had planted a grenade and explosives at her home. Following the trial, human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Russian law enforcement authorities often target Central Asian migrants without grounds accusing them of “religious extremism”.
Clearly, the activities of the Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups are “grist to the mill” of the Putin’s authoritarian regime in dividing Islam into ‘traditional’ and ‘radical’. Could HTS’s new restricting external jihad strategy help to reduce the risk of Central Asian migrants in Russia of being accused for supporting jihad?
Will Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s new strategy appeal to Russian interests?
As is known, KTJ, created in 2013 in Syria, consists of Central Asian militants, mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz from the Ferghana valley. At the beginning of 2015, the KTJ leader Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki and his militants swore allegiance (bayat) to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. After bayat to al Qaeda, KTJ was accused of the Chinese embassy attack in Bishkek in 2016 and the St. Petersburg metro bombing in 2017, although it denied these allegations.
KTJ is also closely affiliated with HTS, Syria’s most potent militant faction, which controls Idlib province and parts of the western Aleppo. After breaking off relations with al Qaeda, HTS pursues a strategy aiming purely at the local-Syrian jihad to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It avoids global jihad outside the country and demands to follow its plan from Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups. With its new strategy, HTS sent a clear message to the international community to declare its transformation into a “moderate” faction, and even a “national liberation movement”.
To achieve international recognition as an acceptable political actor, HTS has excluded Central Asian al Qaeda supporters and local hardliners from its ranks. The dirty image of KTJ, which was accused of serious terrorist crimes in Eurasia, severely hampered HTS’s international ambitions to recognize it as a national liberation movement rather than as a terrorist organization. Therefore, in April 2019, HTS managed to remove Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki from the group’s leadership and instead elected Abdul Aziz Uzbeki (Khikmatov), a native of the Fergana Valley, as the new leader of KTJ.
However, Abu Saloh defied HTS’ strategy of giving up global jihad ambitions and joined al Qaeda-backed Jabhat Ansar al-Din along with 50 other Uzbek jihadists. HTS regarded such a step as a betrayal and on June 16, 2020, arrested Abu Saloh. As a result, KTJ’s military-technical and financial dependence on HTS has grown even more, and now it is focusing only on local jihad in Syria and as a result of the activities of KTJ strictly correspond to the tactics and strategies of its parent organization of HTS. In response to the accusation of Russia’s FSB on the impending terrorist attack in Volgograd, the Uzbek jihadi group stated that “KTJ activities are limited to the territory of Syria, and its actions do not go beyond the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s policy.” Further, KTJ assured via its Telegram channel that it “does not have its cells in Russia and is not involved in organizing terrorist acts abroad.”
In October 2020, HTS sent additional clear messages to the West, announcing through its Sharia Council the disavowal of prominent jihadist ideologue Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who is a strong supporter of al Qaeda’s global jihad. The West has reacted positively to HTS’s new strategy to exclude hardliners from its ranks and its ability to pressure Central Asian Sunni militant groups to abandon global jihadist ambitions. It is noteworthy that in February 2020 the US Representative for Syria James Jeffrey noted that “the HTS has not – we (US) have not seen them planning or carrying out international terrorism attacks. We’ve seen them focusing on basically maintaining their position in Idlib.”
Despite the efforts of HTS, it seems highly unrealistic to achieve international recognition of its legitimacy as a “national liberation movement”. The primary opponent of lifting international sanctions against HTS is Russia, which supports the Syrian government in a decade-long civil war. HTS, which holds the last major anti-government bastion in the northwestern province of Idlib, has become “a bone in the throat” for the high ambitions of Putin and Bashar al-Assad to regain full control over the entire territory of Syria.
In Russia, both HTS and its subsidiary KTJ are recognized as terrorist organizations. It becomes the peculiar of tradition that the Russian authorities automatically include the Salafi-Wahhabi Jamaats of the North Caucasus and Central Asia in the group of so-called “radical Islam”. Any Central Asian Muslim migrant can be easily accused of being an “Islamist extremist” and simulate the scenario of preparing a terror attack within circumstances of lacking civil control over the activities of the powerful FSB and with the tacit consent of the authorities.
In conclusion, Russian counter-terrorism operations against jihadist groups that challenge Russia’s state security and religious stability is justifiable. However, innocent Central Asian migrants in Russia should not face Russian labelling and be stigmatized as “Islamist radicals” simply because of the crimes of Salafi-Jihadi groups in the far away Middle East.