Emmanuel Karagiannis is a senior lecturer at King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies. He can be followed on twitter: @E_Karagiannis.

  • Home-grown terrorism in Saint Petersburg or Syrian spillover? , On: Sun, 09 Apr 2017

  • Home-grown terrorism in Saint Petersburg or Syrian spillover?

    The flow of Russian and Central Asian jihadist volunteers to Syria presents a unique challenge to Moscow.

    2017/04/09 Issue: 101 Page: 4

    The suicide bombing in the Saint Petersburg Metro was not unexpected. Russia has witnessed some of the worst terrorist attacks in Europe: The Budyon­novsk hospital hostage crisis in 1995, the attack at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in 2002, the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004, the Moscow Metro bombings in 2010 and the suicide bombings in Volgograd in 2013.

    Russian authorities identified a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen as the perpetrator of the latest assault. The logic of the attack against a soft, high-profile target was straightforward: To inflict massive casualties on the population and undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong leader.

    The timing of the attack is significant, coming during a period of increased political tensions between the Kremlin and the liberal opposition. By targeting civilians, the group behind the assailant likely hoped to spark a racist backlash against the coun­try’s Muslim communities and thus gain more recruits. The rise of Islamophobia has led to physical and verbal attacks against Muslims in Russian cities.

    Akbarzhon Jalilov, the alleged perpetrator, probably did not act alone. Although there is no effective way to prevent a deter­mined individual from committing an act of mass murder, Russian security services must answer a fundamental question: Was the attack an act of home-grown or international terrorism? Their response could have serious ramifications for Russian foreign and security policy.

    The Russian Federation is a heterogeneous country, composed of many religious groups, including approximately 20 million Muslims. Many of them are heavily Russified and tend to be secular but over the last two decades, and accelerating in recent years, there has been a process of radicalisation of Russia’s Muslim communities. The hotbed of political Islam remains the North Caucasus.

    The Russian-Chechen conflict started as a separatist conflict but turned into a religious one. Bombings and other attacks have spread to neighbouring autono­mous republics of Karachay- Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, indicating an ever-widening scope of operations for jihadist groups.

    The Saint Petersburg suicide bomber could have been a member of such North Caucasian groups and acted on their behalf.

    On the other hand, the interna­tionalisation of the Syrian conflict means that networks and links have been established between at least some of Russia’s jihadist groups and their counterparts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Thousands of Russian and Central Asian Muslims have joined the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups to fight in Syria and Iraq.

    Within the transnational jihadist networks, there is a clear division of labour among those who radicalise individuals, recruit fighters, raise funds, provide logistical support, participate in the actual fighting and propagate messages to a larger audience.

    Was Jalilov a member of such a transnational jihadist network? If yes, that means the Islamic State (ISIS) or another jihadist group has targeted Russia and more attacks are likely to take place. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin has portrayed the intervention in Syria as a preventive war against jihadist terrorists. It is a narrative that resonates well with many Russian citizens.

    Yet the flow of Russian and Central Asian jihadist volunteers to Syria presents a unique challenge to Moscow. If the history of Arab Afghans is a guide, the return of Russian fighters to their home country after the end of the war may contribute to the outbreak of jihadist campaigns in Russia or other former Soviet republics. Having gained military skills and operational experiences, jihadist veterans may be tempted to target their own country.

    Moscow must carefully choose strategies and policies for dealing with this new security threat. For instance, a harsh security response could push more Russian Muslims to join transnational Islamist networks in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. While investing more in intelligence-gathering is a neces­sity, a successful strategy should focus on promoting further integra­tion of Muslim communities. As a visible minority, Russian Muslims have greatly suffered from exclu­sion and discrimination.

    The siege of eastern Aleppo and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the Russian Air Force were bound to radicalise many young Muslims. The Syrian city is the Srebrenica of the 21st century. While Bosnian Serbs attempted to hide the evidence of mass murder in the UN-protected enclave, the suffering of Aleppo’s civilians has been documented by social media users and citizen journalists. The memories will not go away easily.

    Editors' Picks

    The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

    From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

    Published by Al Arab Publishing House

    Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

    Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

    Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

    Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

    Senior Editor: John Hendel

    Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

    Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

    Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

    East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

    Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

    Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

    Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

    Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

    Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

    Regular Columnists

    Claude Salhani

    Yavuz Baydar


    Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

    Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

    Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

    Thomas Seibert (Washington)

    Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


    Ibrahim Ben Bechir

    Hanen Jebali

    Published by Al Arab Publishing House

    Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

    Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

    Tel 020 3667 7249

    Mohamed Al Mufti

    Marketing & Advertising Manager

    Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

    Direct: +44 20 8742 9262


    Al Arab Publishing House

    Kensington Centre

    177-179 Hammersmith Road

    London W6 8BS , UK

    Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

    Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

    Follow Us
    © The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved