Staunton, October 13 – As Russian-Iranian relations deteriorate and the divisions between jihadists and ethno-nationalists in the North Caucasus resistance deepen, Tehran may provide “massive reinforcements to the detachments of [Caucasus Emir] Doku Umarov, something that could lead to more terrorist violence in the region and across Russia.
In an essay on the “Chastny korrespondent” portal, Denis Kolchin argues that if the Iranian leadership decides to send more “Muslim volunteers” to Russia’s North Caucasus, it will only be continuing a program that it and other jihadist groups abroad have been pursuing for more than a decade (www.chaskor.ru/article/modzhahedy_v_rossii_20436).
Even though Russian forces have managed to kill some of them, Kolchin notes, “foreign Muslim volunteers continue to arrive in the North Caucasus.” And given the deterioration of relations between Russia and Iran, there is a very real threat that “Tehran can provide massive reinforcements of Persian mujahidin Doku Umarov’s detachments.”
Over the last 15 years, he continues, such Muslim fighters have arrived in the North Caucasus from “the Islamic countries of Africa, from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Albania, from the Crimea (Crimean Tatars)” and even from Indian Kashmir, Chinese Uyghuristan and Malaysia.
The most numerous and high profile arrivals came at the time of “the active phases of military operations: in 1995-96 and in 1999-2000,” when many of the arrivals were well-trained military operatives from Jordan and Saudi Arabia and when these mujahidin assumed command positions in the North Caucasus resistance.
As Kolchin points out, “the phenomenon of mujahidism [in its modern form] was born during the period of the Afghan war (1979-1989). At that time, against Soviet forces fought not only representatives of the Afghan peoples but also volunteers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and the Philippines.”
In the early 1980s, there were some 3500 Arab fighters in Afghanistan, and by the middle of that decade there were 18,000 of them in the units subordinate to Gulbeddin Hekmatiar, an indication of just how many people in the Muslim world are interested in such activities and how quickly they can be dispatched to places of conflict.
When Doku Umarov proclaimed the formation of the Caucasus Emirate in 2007, he spoke the language of these mujahidin. “The Caucasus is occupied by the unbelievers and those who have betrayed the faith and is thus part of the Dar ul-Harb or Abode of War, and our immediate task consists in making the Caucasus part of the Dar ul-Islam or Abode of Peace.”
That can be done, Umarov continued, by “establishing shariat on this land and driving out the unbelievers.” After that is achieved, he continued, “we must return to ourselves all the historical lands of the Muslims, and these borders are situated beyond the borders of the Caucasus” – “the program maximum” of his movement, Kolchin says.
That agenda, religious not national, is especially attractive to potential mujahidin from abroad, and they will be dissuaded if and only if Russian forces inflict a decisive defeat of the militants, but the current situation in that region is “very, very far from that.” Consequently, the foreign mujahidin will continue to arrive.
Kolchin devotes most of his article to the origins and careers of four notable foreign mujahidin in the North Caucasus: Amir ibn al-Hattab, Abu al-Walid al-Gamidi, Abu Haf al-Urdani and Haled Yusuf Mohammad al-Elitat. While the first have been eliminated, the last remains active and was reportedly behind the split in the Emirate leadership this past summer.
All these people came from the Arab world, but for the Russian Federation, Kolchin argues, “the experience of Bosnia is more valuable” because “one of the organizers and sponsors of Muslim resistance there, in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, was Iran,” whose “Corps of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution” helped train and lead Muslim units there.
“Today,” Kolchin concludes, “there is a definite risk that Russia may partially fall into a situation like Yugoslavia.” Relations with Iran have deteriorated, and Tehran is likely to response by dispatching “unofficial representatives” of the Corps of Guardians to the North Caucasus to strengthen the Islamist resistance.
Iran can do that through the already “tested” corridor through Azerbaijan. Baku has killed some of the people passing through that corridor, Kolchin says, but the widely reported “death of these persons in no way means that the project of transit through Azerbaijan has been closed.” Consequently, for Russia, “the jihad is continuing.”