On May 20th, a group of four attacked the Archangel Michael Orthodox Church in the downtown of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital city. The attack came during a mass and killed a churchgoer and two police officers who came to the rescue.
Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the act, yet fell short of offering evidence to support the claim. Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in turn, denied the claim, saying it was meant to "distract the investigation".
"The outlets that track ISIS activity are trying – either intentionally or by coincidence – to create the impression that the Iblis State is still an omnipotent organisation". "Iblis State" is the term Kadyrov uses to spell out the IS acronym: Iblis means "devil" in Arabic.
"I am not saying IS followers would not dare to order such a barbarous action. However, in this particular case, we have intel on where this order came from, so we know from where the wind blows," argued Kadyrov, adding that it was carried out "upon order of a Western country". "Make no mistake – those behind the attack will be severely punished", Kadyrov warned.
It was later reported that the attackers were 18-19 years old: three of them were natives of Chechnya, and one of them was a resident of the neighbouring Ingush Republic. An investigative hypothesis suggests that the militants were originally considering to launch an attack on the building of the Chechen administration, but after realising that the building was under strong protection, they decided to storm the church and were killed while trying to break into the temple.
In the last couple of months, Russian security services have been on the hunt, foiling terrorist plots in big cities. In late April, the National Counter-Terrorism Committee (NCC) session reported that, since the beginning of 2018, about six terrorist attacks had been thwarted while three more have been carried out – in Russia's Far East regions of Khabarovsk, Sakhalin, and the North Caucasian Republic of Dagestan. The FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) also foiled four terrorist sleeper cells and arrested more than twenty suspects that allegedly had ties to ISIS and had been plotting terrorist attacks in Moscow. The most recent potentially large-scale attack prevented by the security service was on May 9th, during the "Immortal Regiment" march in Moscow, attended by both President Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
While in Chechnya the church attack was the first one in a year and a half, the situation in the neighbouring Dagestan looks more precarious. The official statistics say that while, in 2017, the Republic's law enforcement registered 531 "crimes of terrorist nature", liquidated six terrorist groups, held 40 militants, and arrested 312 suspects and their alleged accomplices, 19 more suspected terrorists broke in. 15 of these were so-called "Syria returnees" – Russian citizens who joined the ranks of terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq – and 23 others were apprehended while trying to leave for Syria. Out of a little over than three million people living in Dagestan more than 1,300 are believed by the regional law enforcement to be "members of different international terrorist organisations".
Suicide bombings and terrorist attacks against the Muslim clergy have also become an unfortunate practice. Recently, two Salafists set off the shrine of Said Afandi Chirkeysky, a prominent moderate Islamic cleric who had been killed by a female suicide bomber of the Al Qaeda-linked Imarat Kavkaz in August 2012.
Security experts who spoke off the record with the author argue that frequent counter-terrorism operations across the country are "a normal practice in the run-up to big sporting events". In a few weeks, Russia will be hosting the FIFA World Cup. Given the magnitude of the event – 11 cities will host the tournament – there is greater pressure on the Russian security services to ensure it goes smoothly.
Indeed, a similar security pattern had been observed in the wake of the Sochi Olympics in 2012. The big difference between then and now, however, was that a great number of jihadist militants were not only eliminated for security reasons but were voluntarily leaving the North Caucasus for the war in Syria and Iraq. Now that ISIS and other radical groups are retreating, many of its followers seek to "return home".
Moscow has thus employed all international channels to seek stronger alliances with the world's leading intelligence and security services on safeguarding the sports event. Earlier this year, the directors of Russia's three top intelligence agencies went to Washington. While details of the visit remain undisclosed, the US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman revealed that then-CIA chief Mike Pompeo told him he just had "probably the most important meeting on counter-terrorism in a very, very long time, at the senior levels". Last year, the FSB also asked the FBI to help provide security for the World Cup. By now, most tickets for the tournament have been purchased by Americans, Chinese, and Mexicans.
The resurgence of "ISIS returnees" is a shaping trend Russia has long braced itself for and, in terms of security measures, appears to be prepared to tackle. Yet, a number of key socio-economic issues that have traditionally helped breed youth radicalisation at home have remained largely unsolved – poverty, corruption, and unemployment, among the others. And while Russia's actions in Syria, also with the help of the Chechen and Ingush military police, have helped change the course of the war to a large degree, the home front, including the North Caucasus, remains volatile and demands adequate governance and economic development.