To prevent terrorism, it is necessary to win the hearts and minds of those who are most vulnerable to radical ideology.

An Islamic State flag hangs amid electric wires over a street in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon. Photo: Reuters

On July 13, the news media reported the death of one of the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), Tarkhan Batirashvili, also known as Omar al-Shishani, or “Umar the Chechen.” However, subsequent tragic events — the July 14 terrorist attack in Nice and the failed coup in Turkey — overshadowed what would have been headline news.

Of course, reports of the death of Umar the Chechen have appeared in the media before. He was reportedly killed by the strikes of the Iraqi army, in skirmishes with Kurdish militias, and during American air raids. But in July 2016, the death of Batirashvili was officially reported by the agency Amaq, which specifically covers the activity of ISIS. In fact, a screenshot of the report was posted by the SITE Intelligence Group engaged in analyzing and monitoring jihadist organizations.

However, whatever date is finally designated as the day of al-Shishani's death, his meteoric rise within the militant jihadist ranks is worth considering. The son of a Georgian father and a Kist mother (a name used in Georgia for the Chechens and the Ingush inhabiting the Pankisi Gorge in the north of Georgia), he fought in the ranks of the Georgian army during the so-called Five-Day War against Russia but then failed to assimilate into military service.

Afterwards Batirashvili moved to Turkey, then to the Middle East where he joined ISIS. In the terrorist organization, he occupied a series of high positions including that of the “minister of war.” Thus, al-Shishani became one of the highest-ranking Middle East terrorists among those who hailed from the post-Soviet Caucasus. As political writer Arsen Ibragim pointed out, in today’s Middle East, “al-Shishani” sounds like a notorious brand.

At the same time, it would be wrong to consider the person of Batirashvili only in the context of his terrorist network’s confrontation with the U.S. Importantly, while American politicians denunciate the policy of “Russian revisionism” and voice fears of possible “re-Sovietization” of the post-Soviet space, the jihadists have no hesitation about putting America and Russia next to each other as their existential enemies.

Almost immediately after ISIS declared itself a global caliphate, Russia - and the North Caucasus in particular - was declared one of its targets. According to the eminent Russian Islamic scholar Akhmet Yarlykapov, the first manifesto of the newly created “caliphate” practically implied territorial claims to Russia.

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In fact, the document lists the terrorist organization Caucasus Emirate operating in the North Caucasus as an ISIS structure, explains Yarlykapov. At the same time, Caucasus Emirate has been blacklisted by the U.S. State Department and publicly declared a threat not only to Russian, but also to American interests.

In this respect, it is very important to identify the political force represented by al-Shishani. Here, radical Islamism and jihadism are best viewed as a separate political-ideological movement rather than as part of Islam, one of the world’s leading religions.

As the Russian scholar Aleksandr Ignatenko has justly remarked, “The Islamic world has been struck by a misfortune whose meaning and scale Muslims are only beginning to realize. A sect has emerged that proves its righteousness not by a profound knowledge of the Koran and the Sunnah or some good deeds, piety and asceticism, but simply declaring all the other Muslims to be infidels.”

Suffice it to say that, over the years, the Islamists have made targets not only of members of other religions but also of ordinary Muslims, prominent statesmen, and cultural figures professing Islam (such as the President of Egypt Anwar Sadat or the classic of Arab literature, 1988 Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz).

In this sense, the concept of the “clash of civilizations” can hardly be used as an appropriate tool for understanding the jihadist challenge. This is especially true because the different Islamist “columns” not infrequently come in confrontation with each other. For example, the Taliban and the terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra occasionally have conflicts with ISIS.

Various terrorist activities under Islamist slogans occur not only in the regions where al-Shishani and ISIS have made a name for themselves. It would be incorrect to say that Islamist radicalism boils down to ISIS. The reasons for the popularity of Islam in North Africa and Afghanistan, in the Balkans and Greater Caucasus are diverse and not reducible to general formulas such as “deprivation, poverty and joblessness.”

Not infrequently, the ideologists and sponsors of terrorism are people with decent education and high social status. It is different with the terrorist “soldiers,” who are much more easily recruited from those segments of the population that are the victims of social injustice, corruption, social differentiation, and racial and class segregation.

Still, the ideological aspects must not be discounted, either. Very often the Islamist ranks are joined by intellectuals possessed by inferiority complexes of the Islamic East as compared to the “decadent West.” Quite often the ideas of “Eastern revanche” are maintained by people who are concerned with the erosion of traditional values and globalization.

In any case, the existing social injustice, lack of equal opportunities, and Western “prosperity” cannot be considered as justification of mass murder of people including, incidentally, fellow believers. The terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice, Beirut, Pakistan, or the republics of the Russian Caucasus can hardly make destitute Muslims any wealthier or bring solutions to the problems of Palestine, Kashmir, Dagestan or Chechnya.

In any case, the Islamist challenge is not a war of “bad guys” against “good guys.” It is a complex, socio-political, psychological and ideological-cultural phenomenon that cannot be rooted out by spectacular assassinations alone. As was justly remarked by the head of the Middle East program at the well-known expert center Joost Hiltermann International Crisis Group, “Unless we solve the governance problem in the areas currently controlled by ISIS and Al-Qaeda, even a complete defeat of the jihadists will only lead to the emergence in their place of something similar but of a much more radical sort. We need to tackle the root of the problem.” 

Clear evidence of that is found in the North Caucasus. In 2013–2015, the number of terrorist attacks in the region decreased steadily, the most dangerous leaders of the militant underground (Dokka Umarov, Aliaskhab Kebekov) were liquidated, and the organization Caucasus Emirate (proclaimed in October 2007) was almost totally destroyed.

However, it has been replaced by another structure, Wilayah Caucasus, which poses as a division of ISIS. In November-December 2014, some of the North Caucasus field commanders swore allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This organization has already taken responsibility for the attack on a group of tourists in Dagestan in December 2015 and for a series of terrorist acts in the North Caucasus in 2016.

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Thus, certain achievements by the authorities in fighting terrorists not solidified by work in other areas (relations between the state and the believers, human rights issues, socio-economic development) have not brought a breakthrough.

Therefore, dealing with the terrorist threat cannot be reduced to liquidating the organizers of explosions and attacks (although this line of work is necessary, too). It has to be a complex of measures involving international interaction. This is because the Islamist challenge includes a war of network structures against states with certain weaknesses that make them a target for the terrorists. But most importantly, it must include a struggle for people’s minds.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

This opinion was written following discussions at a forum on the problems of the South Caucasus in Batumi, Georgia, which was organized by the Gorchakov Foundation, a Russian organization focused on public diplomacy, and Caucasian House, the Georgian Center for Cultural Relations.