Tracking the Islamic State (ISIS) propaganda activities clearly shows that 2014 and 2015 have become…
Tracking the Islamic State (ISIS) propaganda activities clearly shows that 2014 and 2015 have become turning years in ISIS’ attention towards Russia – both government, officials, as well as potential fighters. Russians fight for ISIS at least since 2011, but it were these 2014 and 2015 years when ISIS propaganda machine has started active spreading both reading, audio, and video materials targeting various audience groups in Russia. Thus, in September 2014 (three month after declaring a new Islamic Caliphate) ISIS have released a message threatening Russian and personally president Putin to conquer (or to “liberate” according the message) Caucasus, and Chechnya in particular in retaliation to Russian military planes supplies to Syrian government army.
This propaganda turn chronologically was followed by intervention of Russian troops in Syria which began on 30 September 2015. Officially this intervention became a response for formal request by the Syrian government for military help against rebel and jihadist groups. According to Sergei Ivanov, a chief of the Presidential Administration of Russia, the intervention is aimed at fighting ISIS among other reasons because of a number of Russians joined ISIS is growing “in leaps and bounds”, and it is better to act proactively on “distant frontiers” rather than wait while these guerillas who fight for ISIS will return to Russia. Shortly before the intervention Russian media have notably switched their attention from Ukrainian news to Syria and started to provide extensive coverage of selected cases of Russians left for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Despite this coverage exact numbers of Russian fighters and followers of ISIS are unknown, because of contradictory statements made by Russian officials on this topic – thus, in June 2015 Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB stated that about 1,700 Russians have joined ISIS in Syria, and few days later, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, has reported about 1,000 fighters.
In the same vein, in September 2015 Vladimir Kolokoltsev, a minister of Internal Affairs, reported about 1,800 Russians who fight for ISIS, while few days before Marianna Kochubey, an expert of Anti-Terrorism Center of CIS, estimated a number of Russian fighters between 800 and 1,500, and next day after Kolokoltsev’s statement, Sergey Smirnov, a deputy director of FSB asserted an approximate number of 2,400 Russian fighters. The last figures – 2,400 fighters – are accepted as official for now by Russian government  and cited by Sufyan Group researchers in recent report on ISIS foreign fighters. It is important to note that Russian Islam is highly diverse and even disunite, so there is no unity in Russian Muslim world.
The vast majority of Russian Muslims are Sunni, but there are a lot of differences among them. First of all, two legal school historically coexist in Russian Islam: the Hanafi (North-West Caucasus and Volga-Ural region) and Shafi’I (Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan). Another criterion of demarcation is ethnic one: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, each republic of North Caucasus have their specifics and historical features of Islam. Besides, there are isolated groups of native Russian Muslims, and growing number of immigrant Muslims from Central Asia who also form on Russian territories close communities and also subjected to radicalization, as well as other communities and groups.