The North Caucasus has a notorious reputation of being Russia's volatile frontier and what security experts have come to call an “arc of instability”. The region’s rich conflict potential and troubled socio-economic dynamics constantly keep Moscow on its toes. For president Vladimir Putin, whose career was in large part boosted in the late 1990s – early 2000s by his ability to put the genies of regional separatism, terrorism and violent instability back in their bottles, the situation in the North Caucasus has both significant political meaning and a personal dimension. At the same time, the region is extremely susceptible to external influence, including from the Middle East.
By the time Russia launched its Syria campaign in the fall of 2015, a few thousand Russian nationals, mostly from the North Caucasus’ predominantly Muslim republics, had joined the ranks of ISIS, Al-Nusra and other extremist groups. As ISIS gained territory and media attention, its influence on sympathizers in Russia’s North Caucasus was projected in three ways: ideological, financial and “digital”. The terrorist organization had been financing its off-shoot groups and sleeper cells operating in Russia, and continued to indoctrinate and recruit new people – mostly youngsters – via blogs and social media groups (on Facebook or its Russian counterpart VKontakte). Besides great-power projection and gaining geopolitical leverage with the West, Russia’s military campaign in Syria sought to clamp down on these ISIS influences by the physical elimination of whomever Moscow deemed skilled, experienced and motivated terrorists before any of them could reach Russian territory. “If a fight is inevitable – strike first,” Putin would later argue for Russia’s decision to enter Syria.
Now that ISIS seems to be defeated militarily and is disbanded – at least at the current stage – Russian security officials argue that the North Caucasus no longer faces the imminent threat of terrorism on the scale of 4 to 5 years ago. On October 8, the annual session of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAC) reported that the number of recorded terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus had decreased significantly: from 15 in 2017 to 6 in 2018 to just 2 in 2019. Yet the numbers that Russia’s FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov provided at the same session point to a sustained presence in the region of people and groups that can nonetheless wreck serious havoc, if not timely disabled. “Since the beginning of the year, across the territory of the North Caucasus federal district we’ve eliminated over three dozen terrorist cells that were plotting some 15 attacks in public places,” Bortnikov noted.
Earlier this year, Russian law enforcement reported having averted four large-scale terrorist attacks in big Russian cities as well as the arrests of as many as 152 people on the grounds of alleged ties to terrorist groups. These official statistics suggest that, as Russia seeks to capitalize internationally on its military success in Syria, there’s still some work to be done at home.
Currently, there are two tracks for Moscow to follow to deal with these issues. The first track has to do with fighting the very techniques of terrorist influence and infiltration and the prevention of outlawed activities. In this sense, dealing with the use of technology that terrorists have mastered over the last few years to carry out their standard practices appears to be the most challenging yet the most important task for Russian security services. “Skypization” in the spread of jihadist ideology has become one of the most common challenges since more Russian nationals are being recruited as would-be terrorists via a “non-contact way”, without face-to-face communication with a recruiter but over the internet. The Russian-made messaging application, Telegram, now banned in the country, is also a well-known example of online platforms used by Islamic State supporters.
Another challenge is the increased use of electronic payments and cryptocurrency for financing terrorism-related activities. In May 2019, Russia’s FSB apprehended in Moscow an alleged ISIS follower who presumably used these systems to transfer as much as 50 million rubles (715,000 euros) to ISIS militants for their activities. These types of challenges are many and are often beyond the reach of Russian security services given the extra-territorial character of the “grey zone economy” in which the terrorists operate.
The other track is in a way more challenging since it has to do with rooting out or at least mitigating the causes for the radicalization of young people in the North Caucasus. Socio-economic grievances and flawed governance in the region create the basis for the population’s displeasure with regional and federal authorities and, by extension, provide fertile ground for radical recruiters.
Concerns over the potential return of even more experienced and ideologically indoctrinated extremists is real in the region. Yet in the long run Russia’s equally big problem is arguably home-grown jihadism. The average age of those who lately committed terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus (mostly 18 to 24) suggests that these are criminals who grew up in the past last five years while Russia and the West have been fighting ISIS and wrestling with one another politically.
Some young ISIS sympathizers may never have been convinced of the rightness of Moscow’s campaign to destroy terrorist groups and intentionally opted for the path of what they distortedly see as “the holy war”. Others may have strayed into the radical camp for personal, religious or other reasons, family hardships, or motives of revenge against the authorities for abusing their relatives. Regardless of the driving force, the question of whether the North Caucasus re-emerges as a domestic security problem in Russia depends on at least three factors. First, how cooperatively states engage in the fight against global terrorist networks. Second, how the situation in the Middle East, especially Syria, unfolds. And, third, how skillful Russian federal and regional authorities are in addressing ethnic, economic, social and other issues in the region.
The current situation in the Middle East does not provide much optimism for peace and security in the region. Nor does the present international context suggest a great deal of cross-coordination between Russian and Western security services. Therefore, Moscow would be right to demonstrate the same type of political creativity it showed in Syria in policies regarding its own troubled regions.
Whatever the recipe for success in tackling the terrorist threat, external factors usually feed into regional socio-economic and political distress – not the other way around. A failure to get the sequence right may mean that a country gets carried away with foreign adventures but keeps on compiling domestic problems.
 June 2015, Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Alexander Bortnikov spoke of 1,700 people who left Russia for ISIS. In October 2015, President Putin said there were 2,500 people. In February 2017, the Russian President said there were 9,000 jihadists “from Russia and other post-Soviet countries” in ISIS.
 The term refers to an incident in the Russian security practice where an arrested wannabe-suicide bomber confessed that his path toward terrorist activities started with his adoption of Islam “via Skype'' – a practice in which extremist recruiters indoctrinate users via social media and other interactive platforms.