Ever since last month’s bombings at the Boston Marathon, speculation has abounded as to what led the perpetrators — suspected to be ethnic Chechens 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar — to carry out the most significant act of terrorism on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. By all accounts, both were largely homegrown radicals who received inspiration, and perhaps even dangerous instruction, from jihadist elements in the United States and abroad. The roots of the Tsarnaevs’ militancy can be traced back at least in part to Russia’s own troubled “war on terrorism” — a struggle that Moscow, more than two decades after the Soviet collapse, is in real danger of losing.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1990s, the threat posed by Islamic radicalism was still distant for most Russians. The Soviet collapse had unleashed a wave of ethnic separatism on the territory of the former USSR, with the successful independence movements of the Caucasus and Central Asia igniting dreams of the same in many corners of Russia. This was particularly true in the majority-Muslim regions of Russia’s North Caucasus, and Moscow moved quickly to suppress these stirrings. In places like Chechnya, it did so with overwhelming force, waging not one but two bloody campaigns to pacify the restive region.
While it managed to score some tactical victories in this effort, the Russian government also prompted a metamorphosis of the problem, transforming the self-determination struggle in Chechnya into an Islamist jihad there and in neighboring Russian provinces (including Dagestan and Ingushetia). Today, despite regular public pronouncements to the contrary from officials in Moscow, the North Caucasus remains a political quagmire — and a center of resilient Islamic radicalism.
The contagion, moreover, is spreading. Islamist activism and jihadi violence in Russia’s heartland have shown upticks in recent years. In places such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where moderate, traditional Islam has long coexisted peacefully with the Slavic state, there are telltale signs of an extreme manifestation of the religion.
Tatarstan, for example, finds itself in the throes of a widening confrontation between a radicalizing Muslim population and local authorities. Just how serious that contest is was showcased last summer, when the region’s former deputy mufti, Valiulla Yakupov, was fatally shot outside his home in the capital city of Kazan. Nearly simultaneously, the region’s current chief mufti, Ildus Fiazov, was injured by a bomb planted in his car. The tandem attacks amounted to a very public rejection of the established religious status quo in the region.
Next door, in Bashkortostan, a similar problem prevails. Over the past three years, authorities there have waged a massive campaign against Islamist and ethnic separatist elements active in the region. Nevertheless, sustained violence by both factions has become so acute that in December, the Kremlin took the unprecedented step of dispatching internal security forces to quell the instability — the first time it had done so since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Why is the Kremlin’s counterterrorism policy failing? Because Russia’s leaders for years have gambled that their scorched-earth policies eventually would succeed if ordinary Russians believed the Islamist threat to be both marginal and distant. High-profile terrorist incidents, however, such as the 2002 hostage-taking at Moscow’s Nord-Ost theater, the 2009 bombing of the Moscow Metro and, most recently, the 2011 suicide attack on Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, have put Russians on notice that the problem is anything but.
Time, moreover, is not on Moscow’s side. At some 22 million, Muslims now make up approximately 16 percent of Russia’s overall population. But the number of Russian Muslims is growing, while that of Russia’s Slavs is not, thereby making Muslims an increasingly influential player in Russia’s political future. They also are becoming an alienated one. The growth of Muslims in Russia has been matched by a surge in domestic discrimination and xenophobia, creating a dangerous distance between Russia’s Muslims and the state. Radical Islamic groups have begun to exploit that phenomenon, with considerable effect.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, President Obama has pledged to reinvigorate counterterrorism cooperation with the Kremlin. That represents a step forward, insofar as greater intelligence-sharing and law enforcement contacts might help prevent more bombings of the type that shook Boston, either in the United States or elsewhere. But it bears noting that the very reason such cooperation is necessary in the first place is because Russia has failed in its struggle against radical Islam — and because that phenomenon has begun to emerge as a threat to the West.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.