Vienna, February 20 – Having generally failed to block websites propagating Islamist ideas to young people in the North Caucasus, the Federal Security Service (FSB) is trying out a new and potentially more fruitful approach: it is producing its own articles on Islam and terrorism and posting them online.
According to the text of one such article, FSB officers decided to take this step because “the presence of an enormous quantity of sites, which propagandize intolerance and the use of force is a sad reality of contemporary cyberspace,” especially in the North Caucasus.
The first examples of this intriguing effort are two articles posted on the website of the Karachay-Cherkessia government, www.kchr.info, entitled “Symbol of Extremism or an Example of Patriotism?” and “Islamic Morality against Extremism.” Both are signed simply “The FSB Administration for the Karachay-Cherkess Republic.”
Unlike much Russian government commentary on Islam, these articles are noteworthy for their sophistication, their thoughtful rather than bombastic tone, and their numerous references to the Koran and the shariat. And because of that, they appear to be potentially at least far more effective than anything Moscow has tried in the past.
Indeed, both reporting about them by Muslim portals (see, among others, www.islam.ru/rus/2008-02-18/) and the comments readers have made on them (new.09biz.ru/2008/02/19/islamskaja-moral-protiv-jekstremizma.html and new.09biz.ru/2008/02/19/v-fsb-karachaevo-cherkesii-vserez.html) have been positive.
And what is far more important, the FSB articles are being picked up, reposted, and praised by other portals in the region, making it more likely that young Muslims will see them and take them seriously than if they remained on government sites alone (new.09biz.ru/2008/02/19/v-fsb-karachaevo-cherkesii-vserez.html).
That the FSB employs some of the Russian Federation’s most knowledgeable experts about Islamist radicalism is hardly surprising. Typically, intelligence agencies in Moscow have known far more about what is taking place in this field than anyone else. But deciding to employ their expertise so openly is unusual if not unprecedented.
More typically, officials in the North Caucasus either on their own or with the help of the FSB and other Moscow agencies have tried to close down sites they view as extremist or – and for most of them, this is the same thing – involved in spreading information that shows the government in a bad light.
Quite often, however, this effort has backfired, failing to close these sites and attracting more attention to them than they might have received otherwise. Ingushetiya.ru, which officials have tried to shut down, now has more visitors than ever, its editors reported this week (www.ingushetiya.ru/news/13364.html).
Indeed, for many people in Ingushetiya and for outsiders interested in developments there, that site with its numerous departments and multiple daily postings is not only essential reading but also the primary and sometimes only source of information on what is going on there.
That is now likely to change, because the local interior ministry has adopted a strategy which parallels the one the FSB is using in Karachay-Cherkessia: It has launched its own website (www.mvd-ri.ru/, the first post of which was on January 22nd) to give the official reaction to many of the stories Ingushetiya.ru is running.
While few in Ingushetiya are likely to turn to this site rather than Ingushetiya.ru, many journalists and analysts from beyond that republic’s borders will make use of it in their writings, either in the name of balance and objectivity or out of an acceptance of official characterizations of the independent site.
And to the extent that happens, the Russian security agencies and pro-Moscow officials in the North Caucasus will have achieved their goal in this area too -- and in a way that is far less likely to attract the kind of scrutiny and criticism their far more heavy-handed efforts against such websites have in the past.