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Russia's rebellious regions: Islamic militancy brews in Dagestan

The Russian state battles a growing Salafi movement in the Caucasus republic.

BALAKHANI, Russia — Patimat Murshidova begins wailing the second visitors enter her home in Balakhani, a quiet village tucked into the towering mountains of Dagestan.

The sobs last for 15 minutes, interspersed with a single repeated cry: “Maryam!”

Authorities say Murshidova’s 28-year-old daughter, Maryam Sharipova, was one of two women who blew themselves up in the Moscow metro on March 29, killing 40 people in an attack that brought terror back to the Russian capital after a six-year respite.

Sharipova’s parents don’t believe she carried out the attack. They had been with her in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, the day before the bombing, and don’t think she could have made it to Moscow in time to carry out the early morning attack. She had ordered dresses and jewelry in the capital. Her father, Rasul Magomedov, takes out his telephone to show a tabloid photograph of his daughter’s decapitated head. “There are bruises on her face, the kind that wouldn’t come from an explosion,” he says.

In the wake of the March Moscow subway bombings, GlobalPost correspondent Miriam Elder traveled to Chechnya and Dagestan to investigate the relationship between these restive republics and the Russian state.
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Islamic militancy brews in Dagestan

Yet Russian security forces and terrorism experts say Sharipova became a convert to militant Islam after her common law husband — whose existence her parents deny — was killed as part of Russia’s war on a growing rebel movement in its south. Her two brothers are in hiding, and one of them, Ilyas, had already spent eight months in prison on suspicion of being a rebel.

The family says they are being targeted simply because they are adherents to Salafism, the fundamentalist brand of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia (followers here forego the more common term “Wahhabism,” decrying its association with militancy). As the Salafis gain a larger and more visible profile, tensions between them and the government of Dagestan, which supports the Sufi Islam followed by most of the ethnically diverse republic's people, are running high.

Gulnara Rustamova, a leading human rights activist and a Salafi, calls it a “civil war.” “The government supports one side and the other side is treated as guests. And it's that side that's being killed,” she said.

That's not how the government sees it. Rizvan Kurbanov is Dagestan’s first deputy prime minister. He was appointed earlier this year and tasked with overseeing the security services. “A war is when two governments clash. It's between peoples, more global. This is not a war.”

Maybe that attitude is part of the reason why the government seems to be losing the ideological battle. In the past year, locals say, Salafis have become more visible in the streets of Makhachkala. Women can be identified by their full hijab, men by their long beards. Dagestan, with rampant unemployment and poor living conditions, is fertile recruiting ground for hardline believers, and for those who believe in violence.