Under Sochi spotlight, forgotten insurgency aims to mount comeback

With the Olympic venue on lockdown, Caucasus Emirate may seek to attack soft targets around the rest of Russia

Caucasus Emirate Emir Dokka Umarov in an undated screen grab posted to a pro-insurgency website in 2010.

From the moment the Olympic torch is lit on Friday in Sochi, a summer resort town nestled along the Black Sea, Russia will play host to a two-week-long world spectacle in the backyard of a low-level Islamic insurgency. Much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, an extremist group based in the North Caucasus — just a few hundred miles away from the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics — hope Sochi will mark their resurgence on the world stage.

Putin has sunk $50 billion into the spectacle, making them the most expensive of all time, but he has also staked his personal and political prestige on Russia’s first Olympic Games since 1980. As such, the event will offer a rare and spectacular target for the long-stifled Caucasus Emirate, which for years has been overshadowed by Al-Qaeda-led uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.

“In Sochi, anyone who wants to do damage to Russia has an unparalleled opportunity to bring attention to their cause. It’s an enormously inviting target,” said Jeff Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The Olympics are always a prestige project,” he added. “But in the Russian case, that’s compounded by the fact that this is the first time an event of this magnitude has been held in Russia since the Soviet collapse, and by a desire to prove that Russia is ‘back’ from a period of decay.”

Terror threats against the Olympic Games are hardly unique to Sochi, and they are often overblown. When then–presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited London ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics, he expressed “grave concerns” about the event, which went off without a hitch.

But the threat posed by the Caucasus Emirate, an umbrella group of cells based in Russia’s largely Muslim southwest that ultimately aim to establish an Islamic caliphate from the Caspian to the Black seas, appears to be very real.

In a video uploaded in December, Dokka Umarov, the Chechen emir of the emirate, said his fighters would “do everything possible to disrupt these demonic dances on the bones of our ancestors.” When fighters linked to the insurgency claimed responsibility for a string of bombings later that month that killed 36 people in the city of Volgograd — the first major attack outside the Caucasus in three years — vague threats of Sochi treachery shook the millions of fans, athletes and dignitaries booking flights for the Olympics.

A pair of extremist fighters claimed credit for those attacks in a YouTube video that also promised a “present” for Putin and all the tourists flocking to Sochi. Similar threats have been directed at Western delegations to Sochi.

The Caucasus Emirate has stirred trouble for years in the form of a simmering insurgency. And though emirate attacks usually run the gamut from isolated potshots at Russian security forces to coordinated hand grenade attacks on security checkpoints, the group’s campaign against Russia has been punctuated by a handful of deadly attacks on public transportation in Moscow — far beyond its Caucasian roots.

The emirate, which incorporates sometimes-rival vilayats, or wings, in bordering Dagestan and Chechnya, made its name in 2010 when it deployed two female suicide bombers to the Moscow metro system in an attack that killed 40 people. A year later, another emirate-claimed bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport took another 40 lives.

Since 2011, however, the insurgency has been quiet, a factor both of the Russian crackdown during seven years of preparation for Sochi and leader Umarov’s indecisive attitude about the targeting of civilians.

Russian security forces have had a stranglehold on the restive North Caucasus since quelling the Chechen wars in 2009, effectively cutting links with parallel groups in the Middle East and stifling the flow of aid and fighters into Chechnya that had been rampant since the 1990s. In the middle of the second Chechen war, the global Salafist movement shifted focus to Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas where money could more easily be channeled and governments were fragile. The Caucasus insurgency fell by the wayside.

The Moscow terror attacks sent shock waves through Russia but remained blips on the global radar compared with the mass civilian casualties inflicted by Al-Qaeda in places like Iraq, Yemen and now Syria.

But many analysts say the movement could be transforming itself — and therefore unpredictable. The Volgograd attacks caught Russia by surprise, and many fear they might be a precursor to more violence in the coming weeks.

While their capacity to inflict heavier casualties is questionable, a minor victory against Russian security on the global Olympic stage is precisely what the Caucasus insurgency desperately needs, say analysts.

“By using the Olympics as a media outlet and a symbolic target, the Caucasus Emirate can demonstrate to jihadist networks that they are still a strong insurgency, still fighting for the same objective,” said Jean-Francois Ratelle, a postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University and an expert on the North Caucasus insurgency. “It’s a symbolic occasion to bring back the case of the Caucasus, more so than being about fighting infidels or targeting Russians.”

Ratelle added, “If they are able to re-establish themselves as one of the main fronts of jihad, they could receive more funding, or at least the support of foreign fighters for the network.”

An ‘internal abroad’

There have been indications that even the Kremlin, which like all Olympic hosts puts on a brave public face about security matters, is gravely concerned about the looming terror threats against the Sochi Olympics.

“Security and safety at Sochi 2014 has always been and will remain of paramount importance with an unprecedented level of planning and measures put in place over the last seven years,” Sochi 2014 organizers told Al Jazeera in an email that made assurances of safety and underlined the "unprecedented" threat in the same breath.

Given the estimated $2.5 billion that Russia pumped into Sochi security to create a so-called Iron Ring, most security analysts have a hard time imagining how Caucasus insurgents could pull anything off inside Sochi. In addition to the 60,000 security personnel deployed in and around the city and an almost omnipresent surveillance apparatus, there have been reports that anyone with a connection to the North Caucasus trying to enter Sochi has been subject to invasive security investigation.

“But the problem is that Russia is a really big country. You can pour limitless resources into securing a single city, but you can’t do that for the whole country,” said Mankoff. “Even if the games themselves go off without anything happening, people in the Kremlin are going to be on the edge of their seats trying to figure out where the other shoe might drop.”

Sochi is just a stone’s throw away from its home base, but the Caucasus Emirate has proved it can reach deep into the Russian homeland. U.S. intelligence officials have cited that fact in calling for Russia to be more forthcoming about its counterterrorism efforts — and the threat that extremist fighters might pose.

“I think fundamentally they don’t want to admit that they don’t have complete control here and they might need some help,” former Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell told CBS in January.

Russia is especially prickly about its sovereignty, noted Mankoff, and it wants to show that the Caucasus is secure, to enhance Putin’s standing on the world stage. And a letdown for the insurgents could be crushing to their separatist aspirations.

“The insurgents have invested a lot rhetorically and politically in their attempts to disrupt them,” he added. “If they fail to pull that off, it will hurt their credibility.”

Whatever happens in Sochi, the Islamic insurgency has proved to be far from extinct. Analysts note that it could present new challenges to the Russian Federation in the coming years.

Dagestan is undergoing a palpable radicalization, with reports of attacks on stores that sell alcohol and even moderate imams who do not subscribe to Salafi extremism or the insurgents’ separatist aspirations. Alexey Malashenko, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, coined the term “internal abroad” to describe how distant Dagestan and the rest of the North Caucasus have become from Slavic, European Russia.

Mirroring that transformation, analysts say the Dagestani vilayat of the Caucasus Emirate is poised to eclipse Umarov and his Chechen vilayat within the group’s leadership structure, and that could mean an ever more radical insurgency.

“The Caucasus remains driven by this older, Soviet generation of men who didn’t really grow with Salafism,” said Ratelle. “But there’s a clash of generations between younger ones in Dagestan, who are driving the suicide attacks, and then the ones in Chechnya who are losing their influence on the younger generation.”

Younger insurgents are also more likely to travel abroad to take up arms on the global Salafi front lines. Many have sneaked across Syria’s porous borders to fight alongside Al-Qaeda-linked groups that aim to upend the Syrian regime and clear the way for a restored Islamic caliphate. There is even a rebel faction in Syria composed exclusively of emirate fighters.

The return of these Caucasian veterans of the Syrian war could spell trouble for Russia long after the Sochi torch is extinguished.

“We don’t know how much influence they will have, or even if they will be able to enter the region and integrate into the insurgency,” said Ratelle. “But if the emirate is able to link to the global jihad, we can expect more problems for the Russian government and a much stronger insurgency.”

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