Recent research by Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute has confirmed suspicions of Russian intelligence-linked organisations stoking religious tensions in the UK. Utilising social media, Russian intelligence-linked twitter accounts like @TEN_GOP cultivated their high subscription and circulation, using this to spread messages in the hours following the Manchester Arena attack such as: ‘Retweet if you think that Islam needs to be banned right now’.
This policy makes international sense from a Russian security perspective: the Russians seek to empower right-wing parties and leaders who have shown warmth towards Russia — such as Marie Le Pen and the National Front, Donald Trump, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. But the inflammation of Islamophobia is a terrifying prospect for Russia at home: there are over 16 million Russian Muslims, and another four million Muslim migrants from former Soviet Republics, many of whom are already economically disadvantaged.
Recent incidents do not bode well. In April, the St. Petersburg Metro bombing killed over a dozen people, and an August knife attack spree in Surgut was claimed by Daesh. While overall statistics do not indicate a surge in Islamist attacks in Russia, the volume of arrests for planned attacks is alarming. Authorities rounded up cells planning attacks in St. Petersburg in July, in Moscow in August and October, and another in St. Petersburg just before Christmas.
This raises again the spectre of violence that plagued Russia in the early 2000s during the Second Chechen War. Hundreds died in attacks by Chechen rebels and Islamic extremists in hospitals, trains, airports, polling stations, and aeroplanes; many of the attacks were compounded in their lethality by disastrous responses from Russian security forces. Only by eliminating much of the moderate Chechen opposition, ignoring foreign pressure to negotiate a peace, and securing the defection of the militia commander and former Chief Mufti of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, did Russia keep Chechnya as part of the Federation, while also seeing violence subside.
The Russian state has spent many years since trying to reconcile with its Islamic citizens, particularly those in the North Caucasus. They have given the late Akhmad’s son Ramzan Kadyrov two free hands to institute conservative policies, while President Putin goes to great pains to appear in public with senior Islamic leaders, and stress the similarities between the Islamic and Orthodox faiths.
The rise of Daesh however, and Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria, require Russia to stage a dangerous balancing act. At first glance, they appear to be succeeding; surveys in Tatarstan and Dagestan suggest that Russian Muslims are only marginally more likely than their Orthodox counterparts to oppose intervention in Syria. However, even if that does reflect the true state of affairs, in 2015 President Putin acknowledged that between 5-7,000 Russian and Central Asian fighters had joined Daesh. By 2017 this seemed a very conservative estimate; a PBS report from Dagestan suggested that 5,000 fighters had joined from the Republic of Dagestan alone.
Russian Islamic clergy, and other Islamic leaders like Kadyrov, have tried to tie both rising Islamophobia and terrorism to the West, particularly Western intelligence services, and distance Russia from anything that could be considered anti-Islamic. However, according to Alexy Malashenko, a former scholar of the Carnegie Moscow Center, these efforts may be in vain:
‘two-thirds of imams are over 70 and out of touch with the modern world. More radical and charismatic young clerics, many of whom have graduated from Islamic universities in the Middle East, are now manoeuvring to take over these mosques’.
If enough disgruntled Muslims have already stopped believing their ageing clergy, then news of Russian intelligence’s attempts to spread Islamophobia in the UK may compound the problem, if it is believed. Russia’s compliant clergy appears to be crumbling, its security forces have been in a desperate cat-and-mouse game to stop more major attacks, and it has large minorities of impoverished, increasingly radicalised Muslim youths.
Further, although Russia is officially disengaging from Syria, it may have permanently alienated at least an element of its Muslim population; it also has over 20,000km of land border to police to prevent returning Daesh fighters from making their way back into Russia. Many will just want to leave the war behind, and return to their families; some will not.
Russia’s intelligence services have played a dangerous game with their online propaganda campaign. If we’re all very lucky, it won’t blow up in their faces.