Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
The recent terror attack in Paris has violently forced issues of immigration, multiculturalism, Islamist extremism, and counter-terrorism into Western European public discourse. The attack, which was recently claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, left a total of 12 dead. The brazenness and severity of the attack has put European security into perspective, as many are now beginning to reevaluate where genuine threats lie. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has called for a “more cooperative and constructive relationship” with Moscow in response to the attack, stressing the importance that “Russia – which is our biggest neighbor in Europe – and NATO are able to work together on important issues, like for instance, fighting terror.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed these sentiments prior to personally leading the Russian delegation at Sunday’s anti-terror march in Paris. The Russian public has rallied in support for the French victims, reflecting both the growing ties between their countries and their own history as victims of Islamist terror. Should the opportunity for cooperation in anti-terrorism efforts be taken, it is likely to presage the normalization of relations between Moscow and Western Europe and shift some focus away from Ukraine and sanctions.
Islamic Extremism in the Caucasus
Russia has extensive experience in dealing with Islamist radicalism and militant groups. Chechnya and neighboring republics saw the worst of their violence during the 1990s, when nationalist efforts in the North Caucasus evolved into a religious struggle. This conflict, and its effects, later spilled over into the Russian heartland, with high profile attacks in Volgograd and Moscow.
December 2014 saw a return of armed hostilities to Chechnya, with gunfights even taking place in the republic’s capital, Grozny. This is of particular concern given the recent resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, which has been dubbed an “unnoticed Islamic revolution” by the Russian press. Some Russian analysts have even gone as far as to fear a “second Syria” in the North Caucasus given a growing number of incidents between local fundamentalists and security services.
Caucasian Militants in ISIS, other Jihadist Groups
This problem is compounded by the large presence of Chechens and other Caucasian nationals fighting in the Middle East for jihadist organizations. Roughly 2000 such militants are estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq for organizations such as ISIS and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Chechens hold prominent leadership positions in ISIS and are counted among the groups most effective and experienced fighters.
Balkan and Western Jihadists
Linking this problem to Europe is the large of militants in jihadists groups hailing from Western countries. Islamic regions in Bosnia and Kosovo have contributed large numbers of fighters to militant efforts in the Middle East, but the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq has seen the unprecedented rise of jihadists from Western Europe. Muslim citizens of France, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom have joined Islamist groups in the Middle East’s conflicts. The domestic backlash against these Western volunteers has resulted in the recent Marches against Salafism in Germany and accompanied the rise of anti-immigration parties continent-wide.
At least 150 fighters Kosovars have travelled to Syria, joining their ethnic compatriots from Albania, a country which has seen about twice as many volunteer to fight. Furthermore, over 500 militants have come from Bosnia, a country where Salafi and Wahhabi Islam has dramatically risen since the war there in the 1990s. All three countries have been at the center of jihadist recruitment efforts, with summer camps for Balkan children even being hosted by ISIS for aspiring combatants.
Russo-European Counter-Terrorism Cooperation
Genuine Russian solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks is a natural complement to Moscow’s ongoing strategy of partnering with European conservatives and Eurosceptics. The consistent rise of such parties is the logical result of their willingness to discuss the taboo topics of immigration, national identity, and Islamization that others across the political aisle appear too afraid to touch. The very real concerns of the European electorate are being ignored by mainstream politics for fear of appearing prejudicial or in any way contrary to the neo-liberal, multicultural dogma to the point where the far right acts as the natural alternative for an aggravated electorate.
It is in this context which Russia has offered increased counter-terrorism cooperation with France, and Western Europe in general. Given Russia’s own recent struggles with such threats, many in both the West and the East feel that they have common cause. Despite a lack of prior large-scale cooperation in these areas, it is likely this will mark a shift in security relations between Moscow and Paris, if not Moscow and the continent as a whole.
Russia’s Partners in the Middle East
Moscow’s close working relationships with Syria and Iran, improving relationship with Israel, and extensive experience in combating militant groups in the Caucasus leaves Russia well suited to partner with the West in counter-terrorism efforts. Its own Muslim population, about 10% of the total, offers Moscow additional leverage in dealing with the Islamic world.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has played an important role in such outreach efforts. In this interview with the Abu Dhabi based Sky News Arabia, he explains how Salafists and Takfiris have distorted Islam and are nothing but criminals and marauders. He continues by saying that as far as Chechnya is concerned, they are nothing but apostates and devils who have betrayed the teachings of Islam.
Shi’ite leaders, such as Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, have expressed similar sentiments, stating that, "The behavior of the takfiri groups that claim to follow Islam have distorted Islam, the Koran and the Muslim nation more than Islam’s enemies ... who insulted the prophet in films... or drew cartoons of the Prophet.” He further elaborated, “Takfiris are the biggest threat to Islam, as a religion [and] as a message.”
Moscow’s cooperation with such Muslim factions is something it can offer the West. Working together with Muslims in combating the violent anti-Western elements will likely be more successful than efforts strictly coming from outsiders. America’s semi-rapprochement with Iran is a possible indication that Western strategists have come to a similar conclusion.
In many ways, the attack on Charlie Hebdo may serve as a turning point in relations between Europe, Russia, radical Islamism, and Muslim factions opposed to extremist ideologies. How France and Russia handle this situation going forward will set the tone for bilateral relations in the future. Already, European leaders have tired of maintaining sanctions against Russia—just prior to this incident President Francois Hollande had urged the West to lift sanctions on Russia, explaining that this Western policy has just made the situation in Ukraine worse and that Mr. Putin has no intention to annex eastern Ukraine.
Counter-terrorism cooperation, a politically safe and non-controversial area, may well serve as the first step in normalizing relations between Russia and the West.