A new YouTube video threatening the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate to the North Caucasus has induced much speculation about the threat posed by radical Islamists within Russia.

Iraqi Shiite militia fighters hold the Islamic State flag as they celebrate after breaking the siege of Amerli (northern Iraq) by Islamic State militants. Photo: Reuters

On September 2, Russian media was shaken by a YouTube video, in which an alleged ISIS fighter sends a powerful message to Vladimir Putin that the Islamic State will come to “liberate Chechnya and all of the Caucasus.” ISIS claims to territory within Russia are not new, since a recent map released by the Islamic State colors Russia’s South as part of an Islamic Caliphate to be established by 2020. But how real was this threat from ISIS?

The Kremlin could well have ignored the video, since the warning in it came from an unidentified member of the terror group, who was unlikely to belong to the leadership of the Islamic State. Yet, Russian media picked up the story and kept it on the boil, while the General Prosecutor's Office went as far as to open a criminal investigation over the incitement to violence and gave an order to block access to this video in Russia. But the most vocal reaction to the warning to Vladimir Putin came from Ramzan Kadyrov, the President of the Chechen Republic, who promised to destroy the ISIS fighter who had threatened Russia “right where he is.”

The wave of commentary that the video provoked in Russia suggests that, even with Ukraine in the spotlight, the ISIS threat is being studied in the Kremlin. But can the Islamic State really “liberate” the Caucasus and are they in a position to develop a capacity to do so?

The crackdown on the Islamist movement in the North Caucasus, especially in Chechnya, has allowed the authorities to put a cap on the spread of radicals in the region. The primary concern of Islamists who have been forced underground is their survival. Of secondary concern is the fight for resources necessary to carry out individual attacks. All in all, the North Caucasus, once a hotbed of troubles for the Russian government, is now relatively pacified.

Nikolay Surkov of MGIMO-University explains why Russia is concerned with the perspective of Syria turning into a terrorist hub. Video by Pavel Gazdyuk

But the fighters who pursue the goal of a Caliphate in the Caucasus may have found refuge somewhere else, namely in Iraq and Syria, by joining ISIS. The Islamic State itself claims that they have about 2,000 Chechens in their fold, including the notorious Muslem Abu al Waleed Shishani and Omar al Shishani, both participants of the second Chechen war and prominent current members of ISIS. The organization seeks to lure more of their compatriots and has stated a goal of establishing a Chechen brigade.

It appears, however, that attracting Chechens as fighters is not the sole goal of the Islamic State. Recently it became known that the organization has set up a Caucasus-focused school for Russian-speaking children, fighters-to-be, in Syria’s Rakka. Apart from that, according to Joanna Paraszczuk who leads a blog on the Chechen involvement in Syria, ISIS has created a website, H-Center, that specifically targets Russia. The taped warning to Mr. Putin was released by this very website.

If the Islamic State is allocating so many resources and efforts to deliver its message to the Russian audience, then their threats aren’t at all groundless. Chechen ISIS members may have a cause to return to the Caucasus in two vastly different cases – If the reason for their return to Russia is an ISIS victory in Iraq and Syria, then the well-trained Russian-speaking fighters might want to achieve the same victory in the Caucasus, something they did not achieve in the early 2000s. However, even if ISIS is eventually destroyed, the Caucasus-originating forces will have no other choice but to return to the region in order to avoid persecution in the Middle East. The big question for Moscow then will be how to deal with veterans of the two Chechen wars if and when they attempt to “liberate” the Caucasus.

It looks like the Russian leadership fully comprehends this threat, and is seeking to carry out pre-emptive strikes against Chechen ISIS fighters. According to some sources, the Russian security service (the F.S.B.) may have already infiltrated many Chechen cells and brigades. But the major fight against terrorists is likely to be spearheaded by the President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been in charge of pacifying the region for the last seven years.

In recent years, Kadyrov has developed impressive links in the Middle East, including in the Gulf, which in light of the new ISIS threat, may turn out to be fruitful for Moscow. In the last six months, Kadyrov met with King Abdullah II of Jordan two times, first in Amman in March and later in Grozny in June. King Abdullah’s visit to Chechnya was a short stopover on his way to Kazakhstan, but it may indicate that active talks on anti-terrorist cooperation are now underway between Chechnya and Jordan. The Kingdom of Jordan shares a long border with both Iraq and Syria, but is also home to tens of thousands of ethnic Chechens.

By establishing such links between Chechen societies in the Caucasus and in the Middle East, Kadyrov may present himself as a protector of Chechens worldwide and eventually be able to exercise influence over those of them who took sides with ISIS. But judging by Kadyrov’s political methods and even his alleged involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, the President of Chechnya may decide to take his own fight against Chechen terrorists a step further and eliminate them by infiltrating ISIS Chechen brigades before they return to the Caucasus.

The real prospect of ISIS expansion to the Caucasus is unlikely at the moment, but the region is still vulnerable. Kadyrov may have turned Grozny into “the Dubai of the Caucasus” with Chechnya having a lot at stake in this fight against ISIS, but neighboring Russian regions (Dagestan and Ingushetia) are still struggling to eliminate the terrorist underground and Islamist ideas may well find fertile ground there.

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

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