The shadow of ISIS Khorasan on the attacks in Dagestan

At least seventeen people, including fifteen police officers and a priest, were killed and at least 25 others were injured in two coordinated terrorist attacks on Sunday in the Russian Caucasus republic of Dagestan. The death of four attackers was confirmed, while Father Nikolai, 66, had his throat cut, the head of the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Dagestan, Gayana Garieva, reported to the principal. This suggests that the Islamic extremists of ISIS Khorasan could be behind the attacks. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but some Dagestan officials quickly pointed the finger at Ukraine and NATO. “There is no doubt that these terrorist acts are somehow connected to the secret services of Ukraine and NATO countries,” wrote Dagestani MP Abdulkhakim Gadzhiyev on Telegram. In a video released on Telegram, three men dressed in black and with typical Caucasian beards can be seen taking over a police van and taking aim with machine guns. In another video, one of the attackers shouts “Allah u Akbar” (Allah is great), while filming the burning synagogue, a circumstance that belies the surreal accusations against Ukraine and NATO.

Both the church and the synagogue are in Derbent, a predominantly Muslim city on the Caspian Sea. The police station is located in Makhachkala, about 125 kilometers away. According to the information available at the time, the attacks were carried out with firearms and a fire then broke out in the synagogue. The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov defined the attacks in Ria Novosti as «a vile provocation and an attempt to cause clashes between religions. Those responsible for the massacres have no faith or nation, they are non-people who must be killed on the spot.” Dagestan is a Muslim-majority Russian region, bordering Chechnya and close to Georgia and Azerbaijan. For the regional leader, Sergei Melikov, “the attacks are an attempt to destabilize society”. In the capital Makhachkala and the coastal city of Derbent, the authorities have established a state of emergency and opened a criminal investigation “for terrorist acts”.

Following the recent terrorist attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, which killed at least 140 people, attention has focused on the motives and identity of the perpetrators. The attack was attributed to the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (IS-K), a regional faction of the Islamic State (ISIS). However, the four individuals accused of carrying out this attack are Tajik citizens, allegedly under the command of IS-K. Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries have become important recruiting areas for IS-K. In Tajikistan, militants often emerge from the ranks of migrant workers in Russia, who often face discrimination abroad, as well as from poor local communities. While ISIS-K’s recruitment efforts are primarily focused on Central Asia, the risk of radicalization in the North Caucasus, particularly in the Russian republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, has recently been somewhat underestimated.

Before the Crocus City Hall incident, the main perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Russia were individuals from the North Caucasus. It should not be forgotten that less than ten years ago they constituted a significant part of the Islamic State forces in Syria. Russian was the most common second language taught in Islamic State schools during the height of the so-called caliphate. Although the security situation in the region has since improved, incidents of violent extremism are still widespread within national borders, with attacks by North Caucasians also in Europe. In 2023, although there were relatively few attacks in Ingushetia, regional authorities still said they were dealing with extremist violence and terrorist acts, positioning it as the hardest-hit North Caucasus republic.

There were several targeted attacks against law enforcement, police and other security personnel. In the same year, an assault on an Ingush traffic police outpost resulted in the deaths of several police officers. The problems of radicalization and violence continue to be of serious concern in the North Caucasus and among the diaspora, particularly among the younger population, whose formative years were marked by the First Chechen War (1994-1996) and the Second Chechen War ( 1999-2009). As The Soufan Group recalls, the jihadists arrived in Chechnya towards the end of the first Chechen war, distorting the nature of the conflict and laying the foundations for the following decade. During the Second Chechen War, local separatists almost completely lost their influence to jihadist elements, while the struggle against Russian control took on a broader and more universal jihadist dimension. In the years that followed, the conflict spread beyond Chechnya, influencing jihadist movements regionally, inspiring extremism and radicalization in Dagestan and Ingushetia, and prompting notable terrorist attacks in Russia.

In 2013, the death of a prominent Chechen rebel, Dokka Umarov, creator of the North Caucasian jihadist movement “Caucasian Emirate,” along with the rise of the Islamic State, led many North Caucasians to join the global jihadist movement. This reflected the transformation of the Caucasian uprising into a transnational phenomenon. Although Russia has cracked down on separatist movements, larger jihadist elements still prevail in the region. The growing discontent among young people in the North Caucasus cannot be attributed solely to aggressive online propaganda. The persecution of Muslims in the region has made the ideas of the Caucasus Emirate and ISIS resonate strongly. In 1999, Wahhabism, an austere strand of Sunni Islam, was banned in Dagestan, where Russia’s persecution of Muslims has been among the most extreme. In 2016, the popular Salafist imam Muhammad Nabi Magomedov was tortured and imprisoned in a penal colony “for justifying jihadist violence”, despite years earlier having been threatened by Dagestani militants for condemning ISIS. A few months later, two young boys were killed by a Dagestan official, allegedly mistaken for rebels. Polls in 2019 revealed that 14.5% of high school students and 9% of teachers in Dagestan showed support for compatriots who joined ISIS. Given the legal risks in Russia of supporting ISIS, an organization banned since 2014, the actual number of sympathizers in Dagestan is likely to be significantly higher than reported. However, the persecution of Muslims in the North Caucasus, particularly by Russia, is not limited to Dagestan. This has played an important role in the radicalization of individuals across the region. With the Syrian conflict at a stalemate, the return of foreign ISIS fighters could strengthen the influence of radical groups such as the Caucasus Emirate in the region, especially considering the violent approach of regional authorities. It is easy to predict that such an influx, combined with the severe counterinsurgency operations employed by Russian and regional governments, will exacerbate the problem. Finally, as we write, according to a source close to the local police cited by Tass, the attackers are “all members of an international terrorist organization” and several agencies write that there has already been a first arrest: Magomed Omarov, head of the Sergokalinsky district of Dagestan and father of two of the four killed attackers and uncle of one of the eliminated terrorists.

According to analyst Lara Ballurio « the coordinated attacks in Dagestan, targeting places of worship and law enforcement, represent a further worrying escalation of violence. These attacks appear to be aimed not only at causing death and destruction, but also at fomenting inter-religious tensions and further destabilizing the region. The latest dastardly act could signal a reinvigoration of jihadist activities in the North Caucasus, perhaps inspired or supported by international extremist groups such as ISIS Khorasan.” How will the Russian authorities react? «In the short term, Russian authorities are likely to intensify security measures and counter-terrorism operations in Dagestan and surrounding regions. This could include increased military presence, tighter controls and potential restrictions on civil liberties, further fueling the cycle of violence and repression. In the long term, stabilization of the North Caucasus requires an approach that addresses the root causes of radicalism. This includes more inclusive policies to combat socioeconomic inequalities, improve educational and employment opportunities for young people and respect human rights. Furthermore, it is essential to promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue to counter extremist narratives and build bridges between different communities. Only through a holistic approach that combines security, development and social inclusion will it be possible to break the cycle of radicalization and create a future of peace and stability for Dagestan and the North Caucasus.”