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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.”
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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