DRIVERS OF VIOLENT RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM IN THE CAUCASUS AS A RESULT OF THE CONFLICTS IN SYRIA AND IRAQ: NORTH CAUCASUS, GEORGIA, AND AZERBAIJAN

Bennett Clifford
Intern at Caucasian House

 

ABSTRACT
Religious radicalization, particularly the growing popularity of the Salafi-jihadist movement, has been a major security dynamic for the Caucasus region during the past fifteen to twenty years. From the insurgency in the Russian North Caucasus during the Second Chechen War (1999-2001) to current developments regarding the conflict in Syria and the rise of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the impact of violent religious extremism in the Caucasus countries is evident, but the factors driving it are still not well-understood. Additionally, the incentives for individuals from the various areas within the Caucasus to participate in violent extremist movements can differ depending on local, regional, and national contexts. Due to different political, social, and economic situations between and within the Caucasus countries, the nature of radicalization may be completely different from one area to another.

 

INTRODUCTION
The definitions of terms such as “radicalization” and “violent extremism” are subject to a vigorous debate in the academic literature, as well as in policy documents of multiple states and international organizations.[1] To avoid confusion, this paper isolates one extremist movement, for which there is a clearer picture of the movement’s objectives, goals, and tactics. While “Salafism” refers to an international movement within Islam which stresses adherence to the Islamic faith as practiced by the first Muslims (salaf-al-salih), and views Islam as an all-encompassing system of belief which governs personal life, community life, and the legal and political realm, Salafi-jihadism as defined by Wiktorowicz (2006) refers to a branch of this movement which “supports the use of violence to establish Islamic states”.[2] Included in the Salafi-jihadist movement are a variety of international terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda and ISIS.[3]

The diffusion of the Salafi movement, as well as Salafi-jihadism, from the rest of the Muslim world to the countries of the Caucasus occurred via a two-way interaction. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, young Muslims from the Caucasus had an opportunity to travel abroad (usually to Egypt or Saudi Arabia) to study Islam; some of these students brought back Salafi ideology to their home countries.[4] In addition, during the Chechen Wars in the 1990s, a number of foreign fighters from various Muslim countries arrived in the Caucasus to aid the insurgency in the North Caucasus against the Russian Federation. Many of these foreign fighters had deep connections to budding international Salafi-jihadist organizations, and introduced many people in the region to Salafi-jihadist ideology.[5] Compared to the imams of other Muslim denominations in the Caucasus, who often lacked basic knowledge about principles of Islam due to lack of religious education during the Soviet period, Salafi imams who had been trained in madrassas in the Middle East were perceived as far more credible.[6]

It is essential to understand that not all Salafis necessarily endorse violence as a method of achieving Islamic governance- therefore, they are not all Salafi-jihadists. However, attempts by local governments to paint all Salafis (or, “Wahhabists” according to their terminology) as inherently advocating violence has marginalized political but non-violent Salafi organizations in the Caucasus.[7] As described in the following sections, this creates a situation where Muslims who feel that they are left out the sociopolitical system accept Salafi-jihadist ideology.

NORTH CAUCASUS
Major drivers creating incentives for participation in Salafi-jihadist movements in the North Caucasus include the state security services’ harsh crackdown on all aspects of the Salafi movement, corruption/nepotism and bleak socioeconomic futures for youth, and corroboration between government agencies and “official” religious authorities.

These drivers existed independently of the Syrian and Iraqi civil conflicts and the rise of ISIS, and created networks of Salafi-jihadists in the North Caucasus as early as the Second Chechen War (1999-2001). During the 2000s, the insurgent jamaat diffused from the Chechen Republic to the other republics of the North Caucasus (especially, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria).[8] Under the framework of the organization Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), violent attacks by Salafi-jihadists increased significantly throughout the North Caucasus until 2011, coincidentally around the same time that the conflict in Syria began.[9] Now, Imarat Kavkaz is essentially defunct, and most jihadist activity in the North Caucasus is directed or inspired by ISIS regional affiliates.[10]

The Syrian conflict and the rise of ISIS and other Salafi-jihadist groups attracting foreign fighters caused an outflow of Salafi-jihadist followers from the North Caucasus to participate in the conflict in the Middle East. While precise and methodologically sound calculations are difficult to find, authorities estimate that at least 1,000 individuals from the Russian North Caucasus have left to fight in Syria and Iraq.[11] Moreover, evidence suggests that security services in the North Caucasus republics have even encouraged travel by foreign fighters, allowing them to leave the country freely in the hopes that they will not conduct attacks in Russian territory.[12] Meanwhile, adherents of the Salafi movements who remain in the North Caucasus are persecuted; there are often security raids on Salafi mosques, Salafi political parties cannot participate in republican politics, and oftentimes police will stop and arrest individuals for participating in illegal armed formations based solely on their clothing and appearance.[13]

Because non-violent and violent iterations of Salafism are treated as one category by republican governments, young people in the North Caucasus are especially drawn to Salafi-jihadism, the only iteration of the Salafi movement which can make meaningful political changes through violence. Unable to advance their own careers due to overwhelming corruption and nepotism in the state-dominated economy, they turn towards religious conservativism as a means of personal advancement.[14] From Salafi mosques, which are often driven underground by pressure from security services, individuals are recruited into violent extremist organizations and either travel abroad to participate in conflicts, or stay in the North Caucasus and conduct attacks.

Adding to this state of affairs is the intricate network of relationships between the local republican governments, the local/federal security services, and religious authorities. Republican leaders in the North Caucasus have subsidized and empowered so-called “traditional” (usually Sufi) Islamic leaders; the most prominent examples are Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov’s support of the Qadiri tariqa (Sufi brotherhood) and the Directorate of the Muslims of Dagestan, which has been controlled by ethnic Avar Sufi Muslims since its establishment.[15] State religious agencies have complete control of religious educational institutions, staffing of mosques, and salaries for religious officials, and Salafi adherents are left without options for religious education and a place in politics.[16] Thus, they turn to violence against republican governments, security services, and Sufi institutions to demonstrate their discontent with the status quo.

GEORGIA
Major drivers creating incentives for participation in Salafi-jihadist movements in Georgia include barriers to political and socioeconomic integration for Georgia’s Muslim communities, the lack of autonomous Muslim political institutions, and inter-religious conflict between Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

Unlike the North Caucasus and Azerbaijan, where a majority of the population is Muslim, Georgia’s Muslims are members of a religious minority group (about 10.7% of the total population).[17] Moreover, Georgia’s Muslim communities represent a variety of ethnic groups (including Azeris, ethnic Georgians, Kists, and Avars) and religious denominations (Sunni/Hanafi madhab, Sufi, Shi’a and Salafi).[18] Meanwhile, over 80 percent of the population identifies as Orthodox Christian, and Orthodox Christianity is a dominant political force in Georgia’s politics, particularly in the regions. Muslim settlements are usually compact, but located in close proximity to villages populated by Christians.[19]

Salafi-jihadist ideology arrived in Georgia’s Muslim communities during the mid-2000s, and has become particularly popular in the Pankisi Valley and settlements populated by ethnic Georgian Muslims from the Ajara region.[20] Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, between 50 and 200 citizens of Georgia have travelled to the conflict zone to fight for Salafi-jihadist groups; of their numbers around 30 have been killed in action.[21] Georgia’s foreign fighters in Salafi-jihadist come from several distinct Muslim communities in Georgia; while the majority are Kists from the Pankisi Valley, some fighters have also travelled from “eco-migrant” villages populated by ethnic Georgian Muslims, as well as from ethnic Azeri communities.[22]

In addition to economic problems (unemployment, poverty, lack of infrastructure) that are prevalent throughout rural Georgia, Muslim communities face an additional sociopolitical barrier to integration. Georgia’s Muslim minority is not proportionally represented in government, even in the agencies which are directly responsible for managing affairs related to religious issues.[23] Due to isolation, underdevelopment, and in some cases a language barrier, Muslim communities have developed a healthy doubt that engagement in the political system in Georgia will result in positive changes for their communities.[24] In this environment the Salafi movement, in particular its jihadist wing which rejects political engagement entirely in favor of violence, has gained popularity.

The rise of Salafi Islam has created internal tensions within Muslim communities in Georgia as well. While older Muslims tend to adhere to so-called “traditional” Islam (either Shi’a Islam, Sufism or Sunni Islam under the Hanafi madhab), younger followers are drawn to Salafi Islam. Meanwhile, official Muslim authorities in Georgia directly aid or support these “traditional” variants of Islam to quell Salafism, which in turn creates a general perception that they are biased, and subservient to the government’s security priorities.[25] While there have only been limited incidents of intra-Muslim violence between individual Salafi adherents and other Muslims during the past few years, altercations between Muslims and Orthodox Christians in multi-religious areas of Georgia (particularly in Ajara, Guria and Samtskhe-Javakheti) are increasing in frequency, and add fuel to the fire of Salafi-jihadist movements.[26]

AZERBAIJAN
Major drivers creating incentives for participation in Salafi-jihadist movements in Azerbaijan include the Aliyev government’s harsh treatment of Salafi adherents, ethnic and regional disparities, and backlash to forced secularism policy and the Shi’a majority.

The population of Azerbaijan is at least 95% Muslim, and a majority of that percentage follow Shi’a Islam.[27] While official statistics show the Sunni minority at around 15% of the Muslim population, some analysts suggest that the number is closer to 40%.[28] Some of the disparity in these statistics derives from the historically low levels of religiosity and sectarianism in Azerbaijan: in 2012, 82% of respondents in a poll on Islam in Azerbaijan identified themselves as Muslims without a particular sect (Sunni or Shi’a).[29] In general, Azerbaijani society and the policies of the ruling Aliyev government heavily favor secularism and secularization.[30]

However, Azerbaijan also has a longstanding Salafi movement. Salafism was introduced by visiting scholars as early as 1986; around the same time the first Salafi mosque was established in Baku.[31] Salafi-jihadism, however, was mainly driven by Azerbaijanis who participated in the conflicts in the North Caucasus. In the early 2000s, some Azerbaijani combatants in the North Caucasus, referred to as the “forest brothers”, established bases across the border from the North Caucasus in Azerbaijan for conducting attacks, including a bombing at the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku in 2008.[32]

According to regional analysts, there is a high correlation between the hometowns of Azerbaijanis who have participated in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts after 2011, and the hometowns of individuals who fought in the North Caucasus during the Chechen Wars.[33] Specific areas of high recruitment to Salafi-jihadist movements include towns along the northern borders with Chechnya and Dagestan, particularly areas populated by ethnic minorities (Lezgins, Avars, Dargins and Tsakhurs), and the post-industrial town of Sumqayit.[34] A 2016 estimate by a prominent regional analyst who covers Azerbaijani foreign fighters suggests that over 200 Azerbaijanis have been killed in Syria and Iraq, out of more than 800 who have joined the conflict.[35]

During the 1990s, the Azerbaijani government “tolerated” Salafism, but as a result of the September 11th attacks and in particular the 2008 Abu Bakr mosque bombing, the Aliyev government has attempted to shut down Salafi Islam altogether.[36] Efforts include the closing of Salafi mosques and madrassas, denying registration to Salafi political parties, arresting activists, and in some cases, even shaving the beards of men.[37] The security services are especially focused on areas populated by ethnic minorities and outside of the capital, Baku, especially in the northern border regions and the town of Sumqayit.[38] These efforts are possible due to the close coordination between the state security services and the official religious agencies, particularly the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA).[39] These campaigns do not seem to have eradicated the Salafi movement, but instead have forced it underground and further radicalized Salafi adherents.

CONCLUSION
Despite the differences in the political, economic, and social make-ups of the three areas discussed in this paper, there appear to be a few underlying factors driving recruitment to Salafi-jihadist movements throughout the Caucasus. Namely, the conflation of all versions of the Salafi movement—violent and non-violent—under a single label (“Wahabbist”, “extremist”, etc.), and the resulting securitization of the Salafi movement, denies any potential for Salafi adherents to meaningfully engage with the political process in their home countries. The governments of the Caucasus viewing all aspects of Salafism as inherently violent has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Especially in the North Caucasus and Azerbaijan, the attempted crackdown on the entirety of the Salafi movement has forced adherents to take a more violent path, including travelling abroad to participate in jihadist movements, and even conducting attacks at home.

In addition, all three states’ attempts to control Islam, particularly the close record of cooperation between state security services and official religious agencies, creates conflict between Salafi adherents and followers of other iterations of Islam. Autonomous Muslim religious agencies are necessary; the result of the secular state intervening in Muslim religious disputes in the Caucasus has created a paradigm where “traditional” Islam is automatically tied to state agencies. In turn, followers of Salafi Islam are crowded out and excluded from politics altogether, which creates a turn towards violence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REFERENCES

Balci, B. (2013). The Syrian crisis: a view from Azerbaijan. Foreign Policy Journal Op-Ed, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 18. http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/03/18/syrian-crisis-view-from-azerbaijan-pub-52295

Campana, Aurélie, and Jean-François Ratelle (2014). A Political Sociology Approach to the Diffusion of Conflict from Chechnya to Dagestan and Ingushetia. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37 (2): 115–134.

Cecire, M. (2016). Same sides of different coins: contrasting militant activisms between Georgian fighters in Syria and Ukraine. Caucasus Survey4(3), 282-295.

Clifford, B. (2015) “Georgian Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq: Factors of Violent Extremism and Recruitment”. Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies Expert Opinion, no. 48. http://gfsis.org/library/view-opinion-paper/48

Goyushov, A. (2012). Islam in Azerbaijan (Historical Background). Caucasus Analytical Digest 44: 2–17. http://www.css.ethz.ch/publications/pdfs/CAD-44-2-4.pdf

Knysh, Alexander. 2007. “Contextualizing the Salafi–Sufi Conflict (from the Northern Caucasus to Hadramawt).” Middle Eastern Studies 43 (4): 503–30.

Lonardo, D. (2016). The Islamic State and the connections to historical networks of Jihadism in Azerbaijan. Caucasus Survey4(3), 239-260.

Moore, C., & Tumelty, P. (2009). Assessing unholy alliances in Chechnya: From communism and nationalism to Islamism and Salafism. Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics25(1), 73-94.

National Statistics Office of Georgia (2016). “2014 General Population Census: Main Results”. April 28 http://geostat.ge/cms/site_images/_files/english/population/Census_release_ENG_2016.pdf

North Caucasus Caucus (2014). Guest Post: Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria. Jihadology, January 28. http://jihadology.net/2014/01/28/guest-post-azerbaijani-foreign-fighters-in-syria/

O’Loughlin, J., Holland, E. C., & Witmer, F. D. (2011). The Changing Geography of Violence in Russia’s North Caucasus, 1999-2011: Regional Trends and Local Dynamics in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Eurasian Geography and Economics52(5), 596-630.

Pelkmans, M. (2006). Defending the border: identity, religion, and modernity in the Republic of Georgia. Cornell University Press.

Pew Forum (2009). Mapping the Global Muslim Population, October 2009. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2009/10/Muslimpopulation.pdf

Prasad, C. (2012). Georgia’s Muslim Community: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? ECMI Report #58. http://www.ecmi.de/uploads/tx_lfpubdb/Working_Paper_58_En.pdf

Sanikidze, G., & Walker, E. W. (2004). Islam and Islamic practices in Georgia. Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies.

Schmid, A. P. (2013). Radicalisation, de-radicalisation, counter-radicalisation: A conceptual discussion and literature review. ICCT Research Paper97, 22.

The Soufan Group (2015). Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq. http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf

Souleimanov, E., & Ehrmann, M. (2013). The Rise of Militant Salafism in Azerbaijan and Its Regional Implications. Middle East Policy20(3), 111-120.

Tolerance and Diversity Institute (2014). Joint Statement on the Facts of Restricting the Rights of Muslim Community in Kobuleti. September 24. http://www.tdi.ge/en/statement/joint-statement-facts-restricting-rights-muslim-community-kobuleti

Valiyev, A. (2005). Azerbaijan: Islam in a post-soviet republic. Middle East Review of International Affairs9(4), 1-13.

Weiss, M. (2015). Russia’s Double Game with Islamic Terror. The Daily Beast, August 23. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/23/russia-s-playing-a-double-game-with-islamic-terror0.html

Wilhelmsen, J. (2009). Islamism in Azerbaijan: how potent?. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism32(8), 726-742.

Wiktor-Mach, D. (2009). Competing Islamic traditions in the Caucasus. Caucasian Review of International Affairs3(1), 63-69

Wiktorowicz, Q. (2006). Anatomy of the Salafi movement. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism29(3), 207-239.

Youngman, M. (2016). Between Caucasus and caliphate: the splintering of the North Caucasus insurgency. Caucasus Survey4(3), 194-217.

 

[1] Schmid, A. P. (2013). Radicalisation, de-radicalisation, counter-radicalisation: A conceptual discussion and literature review. ICCT Research Paper97, 22.

[2] Wiktorowicz, Q. (2006). Anatomy of the Salafi movement. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism29(3), 225.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For example, in Dagestan: Ibragimov, M. R., & Matsuzato, K. (2014). Contextualized violence: politics and terror in Dagestan. Nationalities Papers42(2), 291.

[5] Knysh, Alexander. 2007. “Contextualizing the Salafi–Sufi Conflict (from the Northern Caucasus to Hadramawt).” Middle Eastern Studies 43 (4): 515-516

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wiktor-Mach, D. (2009). Competing islamic traditions in the Caucasus. Caucasian Review of International Affairs3(1), 63-64

[8] O’Loughlin, J., Holland, E. C., & Witmer, F. D. (2011). The Changing Geography of Violence in Russia’s North Caucasus, 1999-2011: Regional Trends and Local Dynamics in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Eurasian Geography and Economics52(5), 596-600.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Youngman, M. (2016). Between Caucasus and caliphate: the splintering of the North Caucasus insurgency. Caucasus Survey4(3), 194-200.

[11] The Soufan Group (2015). Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq. http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf

[12] Weiss, M. (2015). Russia’s Double Game with Islamic Terror. The Daily Beast, August 23. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/23/russia-s-playing-a-double-game-with-islamic-terror0.html

[13] Campana, Aurélie, and Jean-François Ratelle. 2014. “A Political Sociology Approach to the Diffusion of Conflict from Chechnya to Dagestan and Ingushetia.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37 (2): 123-125

[14] Ibid., 124-126

[15] Moore, C., & Tumelty, P. (2009). Assessing unholy alliances in Chechnya: From communism and nationalism to Islamism and Salafism. Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics25(1), 75-80, see also Ibragimov and Matsuzato

[16] Ibid.

[17] National Statistics Office of Georgia (2016). “2014 General Population Census: Main Results”. April 28 http://geostat.ge/cms/site_images/_files/english/population/Census_release_ENG_2016.pdf

[18] Sanikidze, G., & Walker, E. W. (2004). Islam and Islamic practices in Georgia. Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Cecire, M. (2016). Same sides of different coins: contrasting militant activisms between Georgian fighters in Syria and Ukraine. Caucasus Survey4(3), 287-288.

[21] Estimates based on a database of reported participation and deaths compiled by the author, and on Soufan Group (2015).

[22] Clifford, B. (2015) “Georgian Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq: Factors of Violent Extremism and Recruitment”. Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies Expert Opinion, no. 48. http://gfsis.org/library/view-opinion-paper/48

[23] Ibid.

[24] Prasad, C. (2012). Georgia’s Muslim Community: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?. ECMI Report #58 http://www.ecmi.de/uploads/tx_lfpubdb/Working_Paper_58_En.pdf

[25] Pelkmans, M. (2006). Defending the border: identity, religion, and modernity in the Republic of Georgia. Cornell University Press.

[26] Tolerance and Diversity Institute (2014). Joint Statement on the Facts of Restricting the Rights of Muslim Community in Kobuleti. September 24. http://www.tdi.ge/en/statement/joint-statement-facts-restricting-rights-muslim-community-kobuleti

[27] Pew Forum (2009). Mapping the Global Muslim Population, October 2009. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2009/10/Muslimpopulation.pdf

[28] Balci, B. (2013). The Syrian crisis: a view from Azerbaijan. Foreign Policy Journal Op-Ed, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 18. http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/03/18/syrian-crisis-view-from-azerbaijan-pub-52295

[29] Goyushov, A. (2012). Islam in Azerbaijan (Historical Background). Caucasus Analytical Digest 44: 2–3. http://www.css.ethz.ch/publications/pdfs/CAD-44-2-4.pdf

[30] Valiyev, A. (2005). Azerbaijan: Islam in a post-soviet republic. Middle East Review of International Affairs9(4), 1-2

[31] Lonardo, D. (2016). The Islamic State and the connections to historical networks of Jihadism in Azerbaijan. Caucasus Survey4(3), 242.

[32] Ibid., 243-247

[33] North Caucasus Caucus (2014). Guest Post: Azerbaijani foreign fighters in Syria. Jihadology, January 28. http://jihadology.net/2014/01/28/guest-post-azerbaijani-foreign-fighters-in-syria/

[34] Ibid.

[35] Lonardo, 239

[36] Wilhelmsen, J. (2009). Islamism in Azerbaijan: how potent?. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism32(8), 733.

[37] Ibid., 733-734

[38] Souleimanov, E., & Ehrmann, M. (2013). The Rise of Militant Salafism in Azerbaijan and Its Regional Implications. Middle East Policy20(3), 117-120.

[39] Wilhelmsen, 728-729

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