Russia Fears Islamic Terror Blowback Over Syria After Sinai

Russia carries out airstrikes in Syria

A Russian airstrike west of Aleppo, Syria in October.

Photographer: Abdulfetah Huseyin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Russia faces `significant' extremist threat, official says
  • Most Caucasus militants allied to Islamic State, analyst says

As evidence grows that a bomb may have downed a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, the Kremlin is focused on countering the threat of terrorism at home from sympathizers of Islamic State.

Officials insist they were prepared for the risk of terrorist reprisals after President Vladimir Putin ordered air strikes against militants in Syria. Even if an attack on Russians abroad wasn’t among their most likely scenarios, the loss of 224 lives in the Metrojet crash is underlining the importance of keeping a simmering domestic insurgency under control.

Russian jet crash debris
Russian jet crash debris
Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

“We need to ring the alarm bells, there’s a significant increase in the level of risk,” said Rizvan Kurbanov, a member of parliament for Dagestan, a North Caucasus region that’s experienced some of Russia’s worst terrorism. “If the problem was a local one in the past, now it’s in a number of other regions of the country.”

An Islamic State affiliate claimed it blew up the jetliner that left Sharm el-Sheikh for St. Petersburg on Oct. 31, saying it was in retaliation for Russian bombing in Syria. Russians becoming the targets of international terrorism adds another element of risk that Putin must navigate in his quest to restore his country’s role in global affairs. He built his political strongman image while fighting home-grown attacks and the Kremlin will be keen to avoid a new wave of violence undermining support for the military campaign that began Sept. 30.

‘Activate Groups’

Russia’s Federal Security Service says people suspected of financing international terrorism, a term usually used to describe Islamic State and similar groups, have been found in 77 of the country’s 85 regions. There’s also been a steady stream of arrests of suspects linked to Islamic State, which was named as the prime target of the Syria air strikes.

“We understand of course that, with the start of this operation, all these terrorist organizations in Syria and those that morally and financially support them will try to activate groups in the underground who remain in Russia,” Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the defense committee in the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, said in an interview.

Russian authorities should set up a program to “conduct ideological warfare against Islamist terrorism,” particularly on the Internet, as children as young as 12 are playing at being militants in schools, said Kurbanov, a former top security official in Dagestan. “We know very well how to destroy and pre-empt” terrorists “though we’re doing little to fight their ideology.”

‘Ensure Security’

Putin ordered Russian flights to Egypt halted on Friday to ensure “the safety of our citizens,” his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters. The U.S. and the U.K. said a bomb may have caused the plane crash in the Sinai desert, a view echoed by France. Egypt and Russia said they have no evidence for this, though they haven’t ruled anything out and investigators are probing a last-second noise heard on the flight data recorder.

The ban on flights won’t be lifted soon and “it will take time to ensure security for a vacation in Egypt,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at a meeting with his deputies in Moscow on Monday. “Let’s not indulge in illusions, this won’t be a short period.”

Putin justified the military campaign in part by saying that 5,000 to 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet states have joined Islamic State and “can’t be allowed to apply later on at home the experience they are gaining today in Syria.” Until the bombing campaign began, however, officials in Moscow had played down the threat from Islamic State within Russia.

Caucasus Insurgency

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war may have revived a terrorism threat that had been in decline as home-grown extremists flocked to the Middle Eastern battlefield, according to a senior Caucasus region official, who asked not to be identified discussing security issues.

“Now every Russian tourist, every Russian businessman, every Russian diplomat is a target,” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said. “Putin has put a giant bullseye on every single one of them.”

In the North Caucasus, where an insurgency has festered for years, “about 10 groups have sworn allegiance” to Islamic State, said Grigory Shvedov, who runs Caucasian Knot, a news and analysis center in Moscow. “That’s the majority of fighters in the region but not all of them.”

‘Combat Capabilities’

Few see a return to the outrages of the early 2000s when Islamists from Russia’s Chechnya region killed hundreds in attacks that included the September 2004 seizure of children and adults at a school in Beslan eight days after two passenger planes were blown up in suspected suicide bombings.

Still, the campaign in Syria may broaden anger against the Kremlin since Putin is lining up with Shiite Muslims by supporting the Assad regime and its allies in Iran, while the majority of Muslims in Russia are Sunnis.

Russia’s engagement in Syria “risks antagonizing many within the Sunni world,” Robert Danin, senior fellow at the Belfer Center’s Middle East Initiative at Harvard University, said.

The “combat capabilities of our armed forces” have improved and “this is strongly confirmed by the anti-terrorist operation we’re conducting at the request of the Syrian leadership,” Putin told defense-industry officials in Russia’s Sochi on Monday.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE