Russia has long struggled with Islamic (and other) terrorists in the Caucasus. President Vladimir Putin promised to eradicate terror networks and separatists movements as he rose to power in 1999 and 2000, and ever since then he’s been ruthless in targeting enemies of the state. The days of hostage crises and apartment block bombings are gone, but danger, still lurking in the mountains of the Caucasus, is expanding to other parts of Russia too.
A senior Muslim cleric was killed and another seriously injured in what appeared to be coordinated attacks Thursday in central Russia’s Tatarstan republic.
Valiulla Yakupov, the Islamic chief ideologue in the predominantly Muslim region, was shot by gunmen several times about 10 a.m. as he was leaving his home, officials said…
About 15 minutes later, a bomb went off under the car of the region’s Islamic leader, Mufti Ildus Faizov, who was injured when he was thrown out of the vehicle by the blast.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the blasts. Accusations nonetheless are being leveled at two groups: Islamic radicals, who might have been unhappy with the moderate, state-supported Islam espoused by Yakupov and Faizov; or Russian criminals with their eyes on lucrative Hajj pilgrimage contracts proffered to Russian Muslims. Perhaps both groups worked together. The authorities don’t know yet.
Still, as the smoke clears, a few things are coming to light. Someone is killing Russia’s pro-government, moderate, Muslim clerics. The LA Times continues:
“The latest attack — the way it was implemented — certainly looks as if the fire from the North Caucasus is coming up here already,” [Alexei] Malashenko [an expert on Islam at the Moscow Carnegie Center] said in an interview. “But I also have a strong fear that if the state comes out to crack down on such communities in Tatarstan in full force, it may result in a backlash of violence that should be avoided by all means.”
Also clear is that these pro-government clerics are well connected and are corruptly selling Hajj permits.
“Tatarstan Muslim leaders tightly control the holy hajj quotas issued to Tatarstan for Mecca travels, and there is so much money involved in it,” said Maxim Shevchenko, a television anchor and expert on Islam. “There are so many powerful organized crime groups in Tatarstan that I wouldn’t be surprised that some of them would want to get their cut of it too.”
This means that if the radicals arrive in force, they will have an easy time convincing people that the state sanctioned clerics are unworthy leaders — especially because dating back to the Soviet era, government approved clerics of all faiths have been willing tools of the state. That President Putin comes out of the KGB is lost on no one in Russia, and you don’t have to be a paranoid conspiracy-monger to speculate on continuing ties between the state and powerful clerics.
Part of Putin’s support for Assad comes from fear that if religious extremists win in Syria, or if chaos allows them to develop bases and networks, fighters, money and other things will start moving through the mountainous regions into Russia itself. The “Sunni surge” sweeping the Middle East threatens Russia through the Caucasus and through Central Asia.
No matter how you look at it, this situation is troubling. From Syria to the Caucasus to Tatarstan and Moscow, radical Sunnism is a force the Russian authorities cannot ignore. But it is easier to recognize the danger than to fight it effectively, and nothing the Kremlin has tried so far has had much success.