Dagestan Attacks: Dimensions of Escalating Terrorist Operations in Russia

Russia is once again experiencing tensions in its vulnerable regions. On June 23, 2024, Dagestan (an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation) was targeted by a series of terrorist attacks. Armed militants executed a fire attack on a synagogue and an Orthodox church in the coastal area of Derbent, attacked a traffic police center in the capital Makhachkala, and fired on a police car in the Sergokalinsky district. These attacks resulted in the deaths of over 20 people, including about 15 police officers and an elderly priest, while at least 46 others were injured. The authorities announced that six militants were killed in a security operation following the attacks.

It appears that Russia is facing an escalating threat from extremists as a reaction to its operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, as well as against al-Qaeda affiliates in the African Sahel. This has prompted media channels affiliated with these groups on social media to praise the Dagestan attacks and target Russian interests.

Security Issues

Several security and geopolitical factors are now acting as catalysts for the escalation of terrorist operations in Russia, which can be interpreted as follows:

Intelligence Agencies Preoccupied with the Ukraine War:

The international goals of the war against Ukraine seem to affect the performance of intelligence agencies regarding contentious issues in regions historically and socially prone to the emergence of jihadist Salafism, such as the Caucasus. Security investigations into the recent Dagestan operation revealed that a sleeper cell had planned the attacks for a month prior, using extensive electronic communications among local elements. This allowed them to choose a suitable time to target multiple locations within a short period, with the assassination of a priest being a deliberate act within the operation, not coincidental. On June 24, 2024, Russian authorities announced the arrest of Magomed Amrov, the head of the Sergokalinsky district and secretary of Dagestan’s branch of the ruling United Russia party, for his family’s involvement in the recent attacks. Amrov denied responsibility for his children and nephews’ involvement in extremist ideologies, stating it was beyond his control. One of his relatives involved in the attack, Murad Amrov, works as the head of children’s football in the Dagestan Football Union, highlighting a security lapse in monitoring the ideological affiliations of those close to the authorities and their families.

Exploitation of International Conflicts by Terrorist Propaganda:

ISIS has issued several media messages to its followers, urging them to exploit the Russia-Ukraine conflict to expand their presence in targeted areas. Extremist groups understand that political conflicts create more space for extremism by diverting security agencies’ focus and using psychological warfare among conflicting leaders, which can foster new followers amid social and economic neglect. In a series of video clips released by al-Qaeda in November 2021, its late leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (1951-2022) emphasized the need to exploit international conflicts between the East and West camps to achieve global jihadist goals, instead of seeking agreements with international bodies that do not follow the correct Sharia, according to extremist views.

Fueling Sectarian Strife in Russia: Local security agencies in Dagestan reported that the targeting of places of worship was not coincidental but premeditated to ignite sectarian strife. On June 23, 2024, Dagestan’s Mufti Ahmed Abdullah stated that extremist groups aim to incite citizens against each other through sectarian tensions sparked by these attacks, but the state will counter such plots.

Rising Threat of Familial Terrorism:

Familial terrorism, where members of the same family plan and execute terrorist attacks, is a well-known pattern in Asia and is now causing concern in Russia. The recent attacks in Dagestan have heightened fears of this method’s spread, as two of Magomed Amrov’s sons, Osman and Adil Amrov, and their cousin Abdulsamad Ahmedziv were involved in the attacks, alongside wrestler Gadzhimurad Kagerov, who was killed in the subsequent security operation. Terrorist groups are likely to exploit these attacks to promote familial terrorism in Russia, posing a significant security challenge due to the difficulty in tracking attack plans that originate within close family circles and the low reporting rates due to familial loyalty and internal sympathy.

Russia and Regional Partners Preoccupied with Multiple International Conflicts:

Russia faces a unique crisis with its regional partners being involved in multiple international conflicts, affecting their perception of escalating extremist activities in the region. China is engaged in a conflict complementing the East-West dispute, with issues related to South China Sea sovereignty, while North Korea has its agenda towards the West and its southern neighbor. Although this can be exploited to manage a unified regional conflict, individual governmental disputes affect cooperation on terrorism issues, based on official views recently expressed by regional governments, particularly Russia, regarding the link between terrorist attacks and international movements, regardless of internal drivers creating favorable conditions for extremism.

Central Asian Extremist Spread:

The spread of extremist influence in Central Asian countries poses a security challenge on Russia’s borders due to the ability of terrorist groups to recruit and grow in the region. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which switched allegiance from al-Qaeda to ISIS in 2015, is a notable entity in this context. Russia faced a direct threat from Tajikistan with the involvement of four Tajiks in the Crocus attacks in Moscow in March 2024. Some Central Asian governments have repatriated their ISIS citizens from Syria and Iraq, notably Kazakhstan, which shares direct borders with Russia and repatriated around 231 nationals from Middle Eastern terrorist camps in May 2019. This raises concerns about controlling extremist expansion amid internal political turmoil. Additionally, Central Asian countries share borders with Afghanistan, where internal security instability provides an opportunity for ISIS to expand and recruit Central Asian extremists through geographical networks threatening neighboring countries, making the issue of extremist incitement against Russia a complex security matter.

Rising Presence of the Caucasus Emirate: A Russian-language media channel affiliated with ISIS Khorasan praised the Dagestan attacks on June 23, 2024, stating these operations result from incitement calls to target Russia and its interests in the Caucasus. ISIS seeks to exploit the attack, whether or not it clearly claims responsibility, to highlight its efforts in inciting against Moscow and sends a direct message to its regional branch to intensify its operations. The organization released another video on June 24, 2024, featuring a song about lone wolves and suicide attacks.

Exploiting Gaza War Echoes in Dagestan:

Extremist groups are trying to benefit from the violent opposition to the brutal Israeli war against Gaza shown by regional populations to fuel internal unrest and create broad recruitment to enhance their influence. In October 2023, angry protesters stormed Makhachkala Airport in Dagestan’s capital during the landing of a plane from Israel, resulting in hours-long clashes with dozens injured and several arrested.

Inciting Nationalist Sentiments by Attacking Police:

Violent attacks against the police are used to undermine the authority, portraying it as contrary to Sharia according to misinterpreted religious teachings, and suggesting it does not represent the people or align with their efforts to improve living standards. Extremist groups aim to incite nationalist movements to fuel internal unrest by exploiting public dissatisfaction with Dagestan citizens being mobilized for the war against Ukraine, as expressed in protests in September 2022.

Surrounding Indications

The security and social issues highlighted by the recent attacks in Dagestan suggest several indications surrounding the relationship between the central Russian authority and its Caucasus republics, as follows:

Wealth Distribution vs. Imposed Duties: The protests in Dagestan against the mobilization imposed by Russia revealed a grievance within the community. An October 2022 report by the Conflict Intelligence Team noted that Dagestan, one of Russia’s poorest regions, had the highest number of casualties in the war with Ukraine. This will renew discussions about wealth distribution among Russian regions and the role of poverty in joining extremist groups, as well as fueling ethnic and sectarian conflicts amid Moscow’s preoccupation with international issues.

Doubts about Russian Authority’s Security Capabilities: The series of attacks in Dagestan will likely shake confidence in the Russian authority’s ability to maintain security in the region, criticizing the declining security efforts in monitoring officials and their families and the spread of sleeper terrorist cells amid the region’s ISIS expansion. This perspective is expected to develop in the coming period, fueling internal unrest.

Reaffirming Dependence on Moscow-loyal Governors: On June 26, 2024, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called for the killing of relatives of those involved in the Dagestan attacks, emphasizing the responsibility of parents for family deviations. This suggests Russia’s reliance on assessing regional officials based on their loyalty to the regime; the main goal is controlling these autonomous regions and maintaining their connection to the central government in Moscow, regardless of apparent and underlying internal disturbances. This approach can also apply to the ruling party official in Dagestan, whose sons turned to extremism beyond state review.

Rising Debate on Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Russian Caucasus Republics: The cautious approach to handling religious and ethnic differences in Dagestan and other Russian Caucasus republics, avoiding potential issues, has deterred the government from implementing serious policies to unite citizens under a single national identity. This has allowed extremist ideologies to grow in the region, manifesting in opportune moments.

Internal Incubators

In conclusion, extremist incitement against Russia has found resonance in the region by exploiting intelligence preoccupation with the Ukrainian war and enhancing internal drivers in vulnerable areas to produce security disturbances. Recent incidents, along with the Russian government’s insistence on accusing Ukraine of involvement, highlight the gap between the political view of the war’s effects with the West and the internal incubators for extremist escalation, which can be exploited by any conflict.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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