2014 has been a year full of challenges for Russia’s security services. On of them is the increasing terrorism threat created by external factors such as the rise of the Islamic State. How should Russia address this threat in 2015?

Citizens of Volgograd commemorating the victims of the terror act in Volgograd that killed 17 and injured more than 40 on December 29, 2013. Photo: RIA Novosti

A year ago Russia was shaken by terrorist attacks just ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in the symbolically important city of Volgograd. Claiming the lives of more than 30 people, the terrorist attack was not only a terrible human tragedy amidst New Year celebrations but also a grim warning for participants and spectators planning to attend the Sochi Olympics.

Remarkably, just as with recent attacks in Grozny, the Volgograd bombings came at a time when Russia was under severe pressure. At the end of 2013, the information space was flooded by criticism over Russia’s wasteful spending and skepticism as to whether hosting the Olympics was really worth it. Back then, the terrorist attack in Volgograd fueled the criticism of those who believed Russian ability to protect its citizens was tenuous at best - this, regardless of the fact that, in terms of security, the hosting of the Sochi Olympics was almost impeccable.

But as the Olympics halo effect faded and the international spotlight turned to Ukraine, Russia’s terrorist challenge was only a subject of interest to a handful of experts. In 2014, there were two major developments in this area.

First, “the Sochi effect” that placed all of Russia’s security services on their highest level of alert helped stabilize the situation in this field for a good part of the year. As a result, a factual decline in terrorist activity can be observed. Alexander Bortnikov, Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), reported a total of 78 “crimes of terrorist nature” took place in 2014. That is approximately three times less than the number that took place in 2013 and four times less than in 2012.

While the official statistics tend to paint a more optimistic picture, the progress is real: There has been a lower incidence of “backlash” terror attacks in 2014 than in previous years.

The death of the head of the Caucasus Emirate (Doku Umarov) reported in March was probably the peak of the government-led anti-terrorist efforts since Umarov had long been on the Russian government’s “most wanted” list. Since terrorism today operates in a less structural form than previously, his death didn’t lower the overall threat. Nevertheless, it was an important symbolic milestone of success in the fight against jihadi extremists.

However, the attack in Grozny on Dec. 4 (combined with a subsequent skirmish in Nalchik seven days later) was an indication that the extremists were not as inactive as they may appear in the tally of formal statistics. With a new leader Ali Abu Mukhammad al-Dagestani (Aliaskhab Kebekov), a refreshed structure and a revitalized ideological approach, extremism remains a serious security challenge for Russia. If anything, it will not be off the agenda in the region as long as the root causes of terrorism as a phenomenon are not eliminated.

Internally, these root causes are the result of socio-economic grievances and governance flaws. Externally, the sources of extremism include the rise of like-minded groups in the Middle East.

This represents a second key trend of the year – the international dimension of religious extremism in Russia has been crystallized. This is, of course, not a new trend for the region, but certainly one that has been re-energized with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

As many jihadists from the North Caucasus and the Volga region joined either Al-Nusra or the Islamic State in their fight in Iraq and Syria, terrorist activity in Russia shuffled off to the Middle East. This, in a way, subtracted a certain amount of “terrorist resources” from Russia itself, but this is rather a temporary trend.

Concerns over the potential return of even more experienced and ideologically indoctrinated extremists are real in the region. In this respect, the shootings in Grozny are a troubling omen – especially if they indeed have to do with ISIS.

Whether the perceived threat transforms into a real one depends on at least three factors – how cooperative the states engaged in the fight against global terrorist networks will be; how the situation with the Islamic State unfolds; and what Russian federal and regional authorities do to address the issue.

Since uncertainty in the Middle East is a permanent factor and the present international context doesn’t provide for a great deal of cross-coordination, Moscow should count on its own policies and currently struggles for working out a comprehensive strategy.

When a feeling of vulnerability is exacerbated, the temptation to tighten the screws is strong. But whatever the recipe for success in tackling the terrorist threat is, there must be a sound understanding that any external factor is only an aggravating force that feeds on a regional socio-economic distress – not the other way around. A failure to get the sequence right means that Russia might end up chasing more phantoms and multiplying problems for itself in 2015.

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