Russia grapples with Central Asian terrorist threat

Peter Spinella –
The recent arrests of numerous suspected terrorists from former Soviet republics of Central Asia have gripped Russia’s attention.
The arrests are the continuing fallout from a deadly bombing on an underground train in St Petersburg in April.
But they also point out the long-simmering problems posed by Russia’s ties to Central Asia.
Central Asia has been destabilised by the war in Afghanistan, as well as widespread unemployment, poverty and clan infighting in the upper echelons of government, said Russian security analyst Nabi Abdullaev.
“Growing popular dissent, especially among young males, becomes fertile soil for the terrorist recruiters,” said Abdullaev, Associate Director for Russia at the global consultancy Control Risks Group.
The St Petersburg bombing is believed to have been perpetrated by a 22-year-old Russian citizen whose family had moved to the country’s second largest city from the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. Authorities allege that he was a suicide bomber radicalised by extremists.
The Soviet KGB’s main successor, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), has been behind
many of the arrests, which are regularly reported in the national media.
On Monday, the FSB announced that it had detained a group of three Central Asians and one Russian who had close ties to the extremist organisation IS and were making bombs to commit attacks inMoscow.
Two weeks ago, the FSB said it had detained a group of seven Central Asians suspected of planning terrorist attacks in St Petersburg. There have also been highly publicised arrests elsewhere in the country.
News of a Russian and Central Asian terrorist unit with ties to IS in Russia’s far-eastern Sakhalin region sent shockwaves throughout the country.
“The Kremlin’s greatest concern is terrorism in the Russian heartland, especially in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election, given the extent to which [President Vladimir] Putin’s legitimacy is based on his image as the protector of the nation,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security and political issues.
“The April bombing provided the Kremlin with an explosive wake-up call about the potential Central Asian threat,” Galeotti said in emailed comments. “As a result, the FSB has been scrambling to respond, and hence the recent spate of arrests.”
About half of the fighters from the former Soviet Union who have joined IS in the Middle East are from Central Asia, noted Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
A week after the St Petersburg bombing, which occurred as Putin was visiting his hometown, the Russian head of state said that, of the estimated 20,000 foreign militants fighting in Syria for IS, about 10,000 were from the former Soviet Union.
“Many natives of the Central Asian states fight in Syria and Iraq on the side of IS,” Abdullaev said in emailed comments.
Such fighters pose a threat to Russia because they “can easily travel to and from Russia and seamlessly blend in socially in the large Russian cities that count millions of their countrymen working here as labour migrants.”
Central Asians, many of whom are able to enter Russia without a visa, flock to the country’s cities in pursuit of economic opportunities.
Now the focus on Central Asia as a source of terrorist activity appears to have usurped the media spotlight on another region in the former Soviet Union, southern Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, including Chechnya.
But law enforcement agencies are still paying considerable attention to potential threats from the Russian Caucasus, Galeotti said.
The Russian military has fought two wars against separatists in the North Caucasus since the end of the Soviet Union, and there are regularly reports of terrorist groups being captured in that region.
Extremist groups linked to Chechnya have conducted some of the deadliest attacks in modern Russia, including the 2004 school hostage-taking in the southern town of Beslan in which more than 300 people were killed and a theatre hostage-taking in Moscow two years earlier in which more than 170 people were killed.
“The FSB keeps a pretty tight control over people from the North Caucasus in the rest of Russia,
but the danger from radicalised migrants (from Central Asia) is one it has historically neglected,” Galeotti said. — dpa