Russia Analysis: Islamic State claim of church shooting in Dagestan likely to trigger increase in counter-militancy raids amid growing threat ahead of elections, World Cup
• The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a shooting attack on a Russian Orthodox Church in Kizlyar, Dagestan on February 18 which left five worshipers dead.
• The attack was likely directly instructed by IS leadership in Iraq and Syria in an attempt to increase religious tensions and display capabilities in the country.
• The incident underscores the continuing militant threat in Russia ahead of the March elections and 2018 World Cup.
• Security forces are likely to significantly increase counter-militancy raids in both the North Caucasus and major cities ahead of the elections and World Cup.
• Travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg may continue at this time while adhering to standard security protocols given the latent threat of militancy, crime, and civil unrest.
• On February 19, the Islamic State (IS)claimed responsibility for a shooting attack that left five worshippers dead and five others wounded, including two security personnel, outside a Christian Orthodox Church in Kizlyar City of Dagestan on February 18.
• The incident reportedly began when the assailant, now identified as a local resident named Khalil Khalilov, opened fire using a hunting rifle, targeting a group of worshippers who were leaving a church ceremony dedicated to the start of the lent season for Russian Orthodox Christians. According to a statement from the Ministry of the Interior, the assailant was neutralized by the security forces almost immediately following the incident.
• At the end of December 2017, the North Caucasus saw a significant rise in anti-militancy operations from the Russian authorities, with a threefold rise in raids compared to the previous two months combined. This came before the entry into the holiday and election seasons, as the Russian Orthodox calendar celebrates a number of festivals at the beginning of the year and the first round of elections are slated for March 18, 2018. In addition, these operations came as part of a more macro plan by the government to increase the levels of security in Russia in general, ahead of the 2018 World Cup to be held in June/July.
Assessments & Forecast
- Given that the claim was an official publication from IS, that it came less than 24-hours after the incident, and that it explicitly mentions “Qawqaz Wilayah” at the top, referring to the IS’s affiliate in the North Caucasus, we assess that the attack was likely directed by IS leadership. IS has recently been looking to increase its focus in Russia and one of the primary ways it has achieved this goal is through the Qawqaz Wilayah affiliate, built primarily of local Caucasian militants who have long been organized into jihadist cells. Initially stemming from the Chechen wars in the 1990s and 2000s, many militants received training within the group’s ranks in Syria, where North Caucasian Russians made up a significant number of the foreign fighters.
- The reason for IS’ interest in Russia is based on both ideology and practicality. From an ideological point of view, Russia played a significant role in reducing the power of the Islamic State in Syria, by supporting the Bashar al-Assad government militarily, making them one of the most prominent targets for retribution in the eyes of the group’s leadership. In addition, with the elections and World Cup coming up in 2018, the country is receiving particular international attention, compounding the attractiveness of carrying out attacks.
- From a practical point of view, given that Russia already has a high number of radical jihadist militants and Islamist minded individuals, both in the form of Caucasian cells and Central Asian semi-organized lone wolf groups, it is a prime country to encourage attacks. There are also a large number of fighters from Syria who are believed to have returned to the country and have both the training and motivation to carry out major attacks. In that regard, Russia is somewhat of a vulnerable target, given the extensive militant networks which have existed in the country for decades, as well as the large numbers of poor, disenfranchised Muslims, particularly Central Asian immigrants, who are good targets for online radicalization.
- While attacks are fairly common in the North Caucasus (occurring almost every month), they usually target security forces and not civilian targets. Not only was the February 18 attack directed at a civilian target, but it was directed at an Orthodox Church, viewed by many as a symbol of Russian pride and culture, likely making the attack particularly negative for many of the Russian populace. This incident stands out from the regular trends of militancy in the North Caucasus as a notable and particularly heinous attack, which will spur the government to pay particular attention. IS and their affiliates likely deliberately targeted an Orthodox Church knowing how sensitive the issue is, in an attempt to catalyze ethnic and religious tensions in the country, between Muslim Caucasians and Orthodox Russians. Such tensions allow them to better recruit and carry out attacks, as Muslim youth in the country becomes increasingly disenfranchised by the religious friction.
- FORECAST: The incident on February 18 underscores the previously assessed threat of militant activity targeting the civilian population in the coming months, based on their attempts to carry out attacks in the run-up to the elections and World Cup. Such attacks are likely to primarily manifest in two ways. The first will come from small cells and organized groups in the North Caucasus, who primarily operate within that region. The second will come from IS-inspired “homegrown” cells in major cities in Russia, which are predominantly made up of self-radicalized militants of Central Asian origin. While both militant threats have the potential to manifest in attacks in major cities going forward, past precedent has indicated that the threat from Central Asian radicals is more pertinent in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
- FORECAST: The Russian government is aware of the acute militant threat in the country, particularly in the North Caucasus, and the current administration, led by President Vladimir Putin, who is running for reelection, is cognizant of its need to maintain a strong hold on the country’s security. Security forces will likely be instructed to carry out a large number of visible counter-militancy raids, particularly in the North Caucasus, to display to the electorate that the Putin administration is handling the militancy problem properly and to build confidence in the Kremlin. This will occur similar to what happened before the winter holiday season, which saw a dramatic increase in anti-militancy operations. The Russian government is also keen to portray a stable security situation to the international community, ahead of the 2018 World Cup, which is being staged throughout the country, (with games being played in Sochi and Rostov-on-Don both near to the North Caucasus region) and has been explicitly mentioned by the Islamic State as a potential target for attacks.
- FORECAST: The raids are likely to occur over the coming weeks and involve major operations in the North Caucasus which will likely see Special Operations units attempt to arrest or neutralize armed militant cells, predominantly in the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. In addition, it is also likely that arrests will be recorded in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, focusing more on Central Asian self-radicalized homegrown cells.
- Travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg may continue at this time while adhering to standard security protocols given the latent threat of militancy, crime, and civil unrest.
- Avoid all nonessential travel to the North Caucasus region, including Dagestan, given the elevated potential for militant incidents targeting civilians.
- Maintain vigilance when traveling in Russia around notable events such as the national elections or 2018 World Cup, given the increased potential for militancy.