Staunton, January 15 – Moscow is increasingly losing the battle for the hearts of minds of young Muslims in the North Caucasus to Islamist radicals, according ot a leading specialist on the region, the result not only of the success the radicals have had in getting their message to this group but also of the failure of the Russian authorities to counter this activity.
In a detailed analysis posted on Geopolitika.ru, Igor Dobayev, a professor at the Southern Federal University in Rostov, argues that terrorism cannot be defeated by force alone and that the Russian side in the more important battle for hearts and minds of young Muslims in the North Caucasus is losing to the radicals (geopolitica.ru/Articles/1148/).
Unfortunately, most Russian officials and commentators, he suggests, continue to focus on the number of the opposition killed, wounded and captured and on the number of terrorist actions to suggest that Moscow is winning the battle on the ground. But that leads to a serious misreading of the situation.
On the one hand, there are serious problems with the statistics not only because those reporting them have a vested interest in projecting success but also because there has been a change in the definition of terrorist acts in Russian law that has led to a spurious “decline” in their number and made “terrorist acts in [Russia] an extremely rare crime.”
And on the other, focusing on body counts has had the effect of detracting attention from a fundamental change in the way in which Islamist militants are prosecuting the conflict and the success they have had in reaching out to young people, a success that Moscow has not yet found a way to counter effectively.
Indeed, Dobayev says, if one looks at the statistical record as a whole, then one sees that “the situation in 2008-2010 on the territory of the Southern Federal District was characterized by a sharp increase in terrorist activity by the illegal armed formations,” and not a decline as many have suggested.
Moreover, during this period, “the Islamists have been directing their attacks above all against the force structures” in order to suggest to the population that these institutions are “not capable of guaranteeing security” and that the people can count only on the Islamists rather than on state institutions, thus depriving the powers of a potentially important ally.
.And even as the force structures increased their activity in 2010, capturing or killing more militants, their Islamist opponents “have been taking active measures” not only to recruit replacements but also to spread their message more broadly in the population, efforts that Dobayev says have been more or less successful.
To spread their message, the militants have published and distributed “books, brochures, broadsides, DVD disks, video cassettes and of course use the possibilities offered by the Internet.” Russian forces routinely confiscate such production, but over the last two years there has been a major shift in where these materials are found.
“If in 2008, these materials were uncovered in a majority cases in hiding places and at the bases of militants, then, beginning in 2009, they have been found primarily in the homes of citizens,” especially in Daghstan. And they have been found ever more often among young people, the chief recruiting target of the militant.
As a result, young people make up most of the ranks of the militants, forming 80 percent of more of the units, a pattern that suggests the militants are recruiting for the long term. And Dobayev adds, without details, “the militants have begun to try to recruit Slavs into their ranks,” people who could be used beyond the borders of the North Caucasus.
Clearly, force alone is not going to solve the problem,m and “the struggle ‘for minds’ [needs to become] the most important constituent part of the anti-terrorist strategy,’ an approach that will “require a lengthy period” for success. Unfortunately, despite Moscow’s plans for this for the period 2008 to 2012, the Russian side has made relatively little progress.
Russian efforts in this direction, Dobayev continues, have not been based on a careful study of the situation and the use of specialists. Instead, officials have acted on the basis of ignorance or assumptions about reality that are often incorrect, something that has reduced the effectiveness of the programs that have been put in place.
Moreover, Russian officials have been less than enthusiastic about strengthening the indigenous Muslim leadership, often viewing it as part of the problem rather than part of the solution but thereby ceding the field to radicals already on the ground and to the far more influential Muslim training centers abroad.
Some 1500 young people from Daghestan alone have gone to study in foreign Muslim centers – and “about 500” have already returned. As a result, Dobayev says, “imams who are supporters of traditional Islam are gradually being driven out of the mosques by their more educated competitors who have been trained abroad.” The consequences of that are obvious.
In additional to using force and solving social problems, Moscow must support both more academic investigations in the North Caucasus and more Muslim education inside Russia, Dobayev concludes, if it is to have any hope of winning back the local population to its side, isolating the militants, and thereby pacifying the region.