ISIS could be Putin’s ‘chronic nightmare'

ISIS jihadists released a video threatening Russia shortly after they captured an air base in Syria

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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Russia, which has criticized U.S. plans to launch strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, could soon become a victim of the militant group, whose members include extremists from Chechnya.

The Soufan Group, a New York-based intelligence firm, estimated in June that some 200 Chechen fighters were involved in the Syrian conflict.

Earlier this month, ISIS jihadists released a video threatening Russia shortly after they captured an air base in Raqqa, eastern Syria, and seized Russian-made fighter jets.

In the video, a militant said: "This message is addressed to you, oh Vladimir Putin. These are your aircraft which you sent to [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad], and with the help of Allah we’ll send them back to you. Remember this. And with the permission of Allah, we’ll liberate Chechnya and all the Caucasus."

Marvin Kalb, a senior adviser to the Washington-based Pulitzer Center, told Al Arabiya News: “Putin worries constantly about local insurgents getting field training in Syria, or now in ISIS, and then returning to Russia to implement their new skills.
“Putin doesn’t want them back in Russia, and this is a chronic nightmare for him.”

Alex Melikishvili, a senior analyst at U.S.-based research giant IHS, said it is “entirely conceivable” that returning ISIS fighters would wage war against Russia, just as Chechen insurgents have done over the last two decades.

“The longer it takes to destroy ISIS, the higher the likelihood that some of its battle-hardened militants will make their way to the North Caucasus,” Melikishvili told Al Arabiya News.

“In that case, the terrorism risks in Russia will increase because even if the returnees are few in number, they’ll possess considerable combat experience gained in Syria and Iraq.”

However, Mia Bloom, a professor at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said anti-Moscow Chechen rebels might not find themselves aligned with ISIS ideologically.

“There isn’t a great history of foreign [fighters] in Chechnya or Dagestan, where a considerable focus is on local issues framed in terms of global jihad,” Bloom said.

Additionally, “more Chechens still wouldn’t speak Arabic, and would be hesitant to follow a non-Chechen, non-Dagestani outsider.”

On Monday, a high-level Russian delegation joined 30 countries in Paris and offered its support to fight ISIS in Iraq.

“We have got a contribution to make to the joint efforts in the specific area of ensuring security in Iraq through consolidating society and mobilizing it in a fight with terrorism and extremism,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Paris.

However, Moscow has said any strikes against ISIS in Syria would be “illegal” without Assad’s approval.

Melikishvili said: “The precariousness of the Russian position is reflected by Moscow’s desire to minimize the ISIS threat without undermining Assad’s regime in Syria.”

An analysis released earlier this month by U.S.-based intelligence firm Stratfor said while Moscow is “far from comfortable” about events in Syria and Iraq, the theatre of conflict acts as a needed distraction from the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

“Anything that diverts U.S. attention from Ukraine is beneficial to the Russians. For its part, the Islamic State must oppose Russia in the long run. Its immediate problem, however, is U.S. power, so anything that distracts the United States is beneficial to the Islamic State.”

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