Connect to share and comment

Russia's rebellious regions: Islamic militancy brews in Dagestan

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

The actions of the security services, accused of regular human rights abuses, including kidnappings and illegal detentions, play their part. Even Kurbanov admits that: “We also find that the security system allows for mistakes. And we don’t exclude that these mistakes can raise the feeling of protest among the people and put them on the incorrect path.”

Nadira Isaeva is the bright and energetic 30-year-old editor of Chernovik, Dagestan's most respected weekly, devoted to exposing corruption and human rights abuses, as well as the republic's complicated political process. Even before she started wearing a hijab two months ago, she'd been slapped with a court-ordered psychological examination, charged with inciting ethnic hatred and had her home searched by police.

“There's a polarization of society,” she said during an interview at the newspaper's offices in Makhachkala. “The terrorism comes from the security services. They're incapable of having a dialogue, and now politics has entered religion.”

The government says it is trying. Dagestan prides itself on being one of the first lands to adopt Islam, which parts of it did as early as the 10th century. Despite a ban on religion in Soviet times, many mosques continued to function. The government is rapidly helping to build new ones, and today there are 2,300 mosques in the republic, while 13 of its 16 universities are Islamic, Kurbanov said.

Yet the favored means of battling extremism in the north Caucasus is killing suspected rebels. There are recent signs that strategy might be changing. Last week, special operations forces from the FSB, the federal security service, captured Ali Taziyev, better known as “Magas,” the No. 2 rebel of the Caucasus Emirate, the Islamist group leading the insurgency across the troubled south.

“It might be a sign that authorities have decided to diversify away from ‘seek and destroy’ to add ‘arrest and try,’” said Simon Saradzhyan, a security expert at Harvard University. The move could signal a recognition that, as many Salafi here say, “violence only begets more violence.”

“Any killing in the north Caucasus, or any other closely knit society where vendetta exists, generates the desire to kill in revenge,” Saradzhyan said. "Combating terrorism is not only about hunting terrorists, but also fighting the ideological battle."

Earlier this year, President Dmitry Medvedev appointed an envoy, Alexander Khloponin, in a bid to quell unrest in the troubled Caucasus republics by cracking down on corruption, boosting the economy and bringing a better measure of peace.

The Kremlin blames the unstable situation on the population's economic woes. Inside the region, blame is laid on outsiders. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov blames Western spy agencies for equipping the rebels, and Kurbanov, the Dagestani official, also blamed unspecified “outside forces.” He said rebels with passports from England, Egypt, Georgia, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey and Ukraine had been killed in Dagestan in recent years.

Yet speaking after a trip to Dagestan in the wake of the Moscow bombings, Medvedev was quoted by the Russian media as acknowledging that religion plays a role. “The question is what kind of spiritual education people are getting, what kind of Islam or other religion there is in our country,” he said. “To blame only the social situation for causing terrorism is very short-sighted.”