Terrorism & Extremism

The Cup and the Caliphate: Russia’s Counterterrorism Operations Before Major Sporting Events and the Global Jihadist Movement

Bennett Clifford
Friday, June 22, 2018, 8:00 AM

For any country hosting a major international sporting competition, maintaining security for participants, fans and event locations is paramount.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

For any country hosting a major international sporting competition, maintaining security for participants, fans and event locations is paramount. But for Russia, whose status as the 2018 World Cup host has been extensively criticized and even diplomatically boycotted, ensuring event security is a critical priority.

In the run-up to the World Cup, which started June 14 and runs until July 15, Russian law enforcement signaled that threats of a terrorist attack on the competition loomed large. FIFA designated 12 cities in Russia as sites for matches, with individual teams staying in base camps in a variety of other towns across the country. During the past few weeks, threats to the World Cup by the Islamic State and small-scale attacks by ISIS supporters near World Cup host cities have resulted in an increase in the operational tempo of Federal Security Service (FSB) counterterrorism efforts in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia.

Since October, several unofficial pro-ISIS media channels have posted online threats in English and Russian against the World Cup, including images depicting famous football stars in prison or about to be executed by a masked jihadist. This unofficial, hastily-designed propaganda may not signal a centralized, large-scale plot. However, in an indication that the Islamic State increasingly views Russian targets as priorities, the group’s official media frequently reports on supporters’ recent activities within the country.

ISIS’s Amaq News Agency has officially claimed seven attacks in Russia this year, five of which occurred after May 1. Three of those five recent attacks targeted police and law enforcement. On May 2 and May 6, jihadists targeted police in Neftekumsk (Stavropol Krai) and Nizhniy Novgorod, respectively, killing five police staff in total. This month, Amaq reported that militants detonated an improvised explosive device next to a police vehicle in Urus-Martan, Chechnya.

Militants have also engaged in sectarian and interreligious attacks, striking Sufi Muslim and Christian holy sites. On May 9, Amaq claimed that the men who detonated an explosive device next to the Sufi shrine (ziyarat) of the murdered cleric Said-Afandi al-Chirkawi in his home village of Chirkei, in the Republic of Dagestan, were ISIS affiliates. Ten days later, four gunmen raided the Archangel Michael Orthodox Church in Groznyy, the capital of Chechnya, killing two police officers and one churchgoer.

Russian authorities have drastically increased counterterrorism operations, with a focus on supporters of ISIS. FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, who is also chairman of the National Antiterrorism Committee, said at a committee meeting in early April that during the first few months of 2018 the FSB had prevented six terrorist attacks and arrested more than 189 people for suspected participation in an illegal armed formation. Bortnikov alleged that in 2017, the FSB foiled over 25 terrorist attacks. Since Bortnikov’s remarks in April, the FSB has conducted several more counterterrorism operations, targeting reported ISIS cells in Rostov oblast, the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous okrug, Yaroslavl, Dagestan and, most recently, in Ingushetia. While a Novaya Gazeta investigation found that the FSB, for political purposes, may have dramatically inflated the number of attacks it allegedly foiled, Bortnikov’s assessment reveals that the FSB has prioritized the threat of terrorist attacks as the World Cup approached.

The increase in counterterrorism efforts throughout Russia in recent months bears similarities to the period before Russia hosted its last major international sporting event, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In 2013, jihadists affiliated with Imarat Kavkaz, the regional al-Qaeda affiliate active in the North Caucasus, began actively issuing threats to attack the Games. Dokka Umarov, the group’s leader, who was also known as “Russia’s Bin Laden,” released a four-minute video that effectively reversed a moratorium on conducting attacks outside of the North Caucasus Federal District. He encouraged attacks on the 2014 Winter Olympics and directed jihadists throughout Russia to heed the call. This incitement, and back-to-back suicide bombings in the town of Volgograd in December 2013 prompted a scorched-earth response from Russian counterterrorism authorities ahead of the Games. In many ways, this response was a continuation of Russia’s heavy-handed approach to terrorism and insurgency in the North Caucasus, for which it has been heavily criticized for human rights abuses . The tactics Russia employed before the Sochi Olympics, however, changed not only the dynamics of jihadism in Russia but, arguably, the landscape of the global jihadist movement.

First, the FSB engaged in a quick-tempo leadership decapitation campaign that neutralized many Imarat Kavkaz leaders, coupled with a marked increase in counterterror efforts and zachistki (clean-up operations), including door-to-door searches of individual villages, neighborhoods and towns in the North Caucasus to root out suspected militants. Two months after Umarov called for attacks on the Winter Games, Russian special forces secretly handed him a poison-laced letter, which resulted in his death in September 2013 (though Imarat Kavkaz did not formally announce his death until 2014). His successor, Aliaskhab Kebekov, who was previously responsible for managing Imarat Kavkaz’s sharia court, was killed in a counterterrorism operation in Dagestan approximately one year after taking the reins. Russian special operations forces killed Kebekov’s successor, Magomed Suleimanov, less than two months after he assumed power. During the leadership of Kebekov and Suleimanov, many militants active in the North Caucasus elected to join ISIS and its upstart Caucasus Province, led by Rustam Asilderov, a former deputy of Kebekov.

Second, in conjunction with the decline of Imarat Kavkaz, frequent and lethal counterterrorism efforts, and the growing pull of overseas conflicts, thousands of Russian citizens left the North Caucasus and other areas of Russia to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq. In an unprecedented move, FSB local offices in the North Caucasus systematically assisted radicalized Russians, offering them passports, plane and bus tickets, and in some cases even money to leave Russia and go to Syria and Iraq via Turkey. Even according to the most generous reading of the situation, Russian authorities turned a blind eye to foreign fighter travel to the Middle East, especially in the 12 to 24 months before the 2014 Sochi Olympics. There are few conclusive estimates of Russian fighters in Syria and Iraq, but a December report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that more than 10,000 “radicalized” individuals left the North Caucasus for Turkey before the Winter Olympics and that 6,000 of them continued onward to jihadist-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, the FSB strategy seemed to achieve its desired effect. There were no successful jihadist attacks at the Sochi Olympics.

Russian counterterrorism efforts in the run-up to the 2014 Olympics had reverberating effects on the conflict in Syria and the state of the jihadist movement. The FSB’s combination of “sticks” (counterterrorism efforts, leadership decapitation, mass arrests) and “carrots” (financial and logistical assistance for jihadists seeking to leave the North Caucasus) caused an influx of Russians into Syria- and Iraq-based jihadist groups. The contingent from Russia was among the largest in sheer numbers within jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, and several fighters attained prominent status.

Russia’s drastic counterterrorism efforts in advance of major sporting events in its territory are, in some ways, a reflection of terrorist organizations’ efforts to target the events and the concomitant uptick in terrorist activity. Yet the nature of these measures also belies domestic political concerns. FSB leadership; important regional actors such as the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov; and even Russian President Vladimir Putin have built their mandates of power partially on claims that they subdued the long-standing insurgency in the North Caucasus region. Successful terrorist attacks—like several perpetrated by insurgent groups in the early 2000s in Russia—are a stinging reminder to Russians that the government and its counterterrorism apparatus may not have everything under control. In this light, a jihadist attack on an international sporting event would constitute a domestic political nightmare at many levels of the Russian government.

To prevent such an occurrence, Russia adopted wide-reaching and draconian methods. Many countries would consider the exodus of thousands of its citizens to join overseas terrorist organizations to be an outright counterterrorism failure, even more so if the government had a policy to facilitate their travel (directly or indirectly). Russian counterterrorism officials, however, viewed these tactics and others they employed as largely successful. Regardless of the subsequent, and substantial, effect on the global jihadist movement, a counterterrorism “win” from Russia’s perspective entailed quelling any forms of domestic terrorism, no matter the cost. And if Russia avoids an attack on the 2018 World Cup, the increased frequency of counterterrorism efforts throughout the country will again likely be viewed as a success.

But as it engages in methods similar to those it used before the 2014 Olympics, Russia may find that the threat picture has metastasized beyond its control, dampening the effectiveness of the tactics and potentially causing blowback. For one thing, the FSB’s ability to induce jihadists to leave the country is much diminished. With the depletion of ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq, there are fewer “pull factors” for Russian jihadists to overseas destinations, even if they are provided Russian government support. Meanwhile, the increased frequency of counterterrorism efforts does little to reduce the underlying factors behind jihadist radicalization, and evidence from the past 20 years indicates that many of these operations are among the major factors drawing Russian citizens to jihadist groups. With fewer outlets for external travel and frequent calls by ISIS and other jihadist groups to attack their native country, Russia’s homegrown jihadists may be emboldened to refocus their efforts on large-scale domestic attacks. In other words, by taking extreme measures to eliminate the risk of a major jihadist attack, Russian officials may have inadvertently exacerbated many of the factors that historically lead to these attacks in the first place.

Just two days after the World Cup began, a taxi driver drove into a crowd of revelers in Moscow’s city center. While no terrorist organization has yet claimed credit and authorities insist that the incident was accidental and not terror-related, some analysts and commentators have questioned this assessment. Terrorism analysts will undoubtedly be monitoring events closely as the World Cup continues, both for further indications of terrorist activity and for Russia’s efforts to prevent attacks. If history is any indication, these efforts could dictate the future of homegrown violent extremism in Russia, with potential to reverberate in the region and beyond.

Bennett Clifford is a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He studies violent extremist movements and organizations in the United States, as well as in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans.

Subscribe to Lawfare