Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Russia's Chechnya republic, says that the Islamic State (IS) was just bluffing when it announced the creation of its first wilayat, or governorate, in the northern Caucasus of Russia earlier this week.
Analysts aren't so sure of this, suggesting that IS could fill a power void in the region's simmering insurgency and eventually help fund and organize attacks on Moscow and other cities around Russia.
IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani announced on Tuesday the creation of a new governorate in the north Caucasus, a region between the Black and Caspian seas at the southern edge of Russia that includes the resort town of Sochi. The declaration, which came after influential militants in Chechnya pledged their loyalty to IS — which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, and by its Arabic acronym Daesh — apparently marks the first time that the terrorist organization has claimed territory outside of the Middle East and taken command over a group of local fighters in Europe.
But Kadyrov, who controls Chechnya with an iron fist and whose security service officer has been charged with killing opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in February, scoffed at the Chechen militants' announcement that they would join IS.
"This statement is nothing more than a bluff," he said, according to Russian media. "I don't think that a few surviving bandits who are still hiding in the woods can provide serious help to radicals from the so-called Iblis State," he added, using an Arabic term for "devil" to refer to IS.
"These thugs have no chance at all here," Kadyrov continued. "Nonetheless, we're not ignoring the threat that the Iblis State could pose, and so we will continue working to not allow the spread of this contagion in Chechnya. We will mercilessly destroy devils and bandits."
In an audio recording published on YouTube on June 12, Chechen insurgent Aslan Byutukayev gave an oath of loyalty that he said was on behalf of all Chechen fighters to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the news and analysis site Caucasian Knot reported. He was the latest in a string of prominent Caucasus Emirate commanders to pledge allegiance to IS.
Byutukayev is the commander of the Gardens of the Righteous, a suicide bomber battalion, and is one of the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, which has been the primary local insurgent group fighting to break away from Russia and establish a state based on Islamic law. He is best known for helping to organize the 2011 Domodedovo airport bombing that killed 37 people.
Byutukayev is also believed to have ordered a December 2014 attack by Islamic militants in the Chechen capital of Grozny. During that operation, a dozen militants killed three traffic policemen at a checkpoint and then barricaded themselves in a state media building in the city center. A vicious all-night gun battle ensued, with the militants escaping to a school after the media building caught fire. A civilian, 14 policemen, and 11 gunmen were killed.
Coming on the heels of a suicide bombing in Grozny that fall, the attack raised concerns that the Islamic insurgency in Chechnya was again growing after a crackdown over the past decade by Kadyrov, who has been accused of using brutal methods in his effort to stamp out Islamic violence.
In another audio recording in Russian and Arabic published on Sunday, an unnamed voice announced that all mujaheddin in Chechnya and the neighboring regions of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria were pledging their allegiance to Baghdadi.
In his recording, Adnani welcomed the new "soldiers of the Islamic State" in the Caucasus and named Abu Mohammad al-Qadari the leader of its Caucasus branch. Qadari, whose real name is Rustam Asilderov, had been the leader of Caucasus Emirate fighters in Dagestan but was dismissed by top commander Aliaskhab Kebekov after he became one of the first Caucasus militants to swear loyalty to Baghdadi in December.
The announcement of the IS branch in Russia further cuts into the influence of the Caucasus Emirate, which has been losing clout since Kadyrov announced that its leader Doku Umarov had been killed last year. This spring, security forces also killed Kebekov, who was his successor.
The security services' killings of Kebekov and other Caucasus Emirate leaders who had been recently taking a more moderate stance, condemning attacks on civilians and suicide bombings by women, has been opening a power vacuum in the region, according to experts. Gregory Shvedov, the editor of Caucasian Knot, told VICE News that security service operations against those very commanders who had announced a more "soft power" approach to jihad had paved the way for IS to enter the scene.
"It's very dangerous that the Islamic State is stepping up to replace the Caucasus Emirate," he said. "I think that Russian law enforcement should be trying to destroy not leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, but rather leaders of the Islamic State" in the Caucasus.
He added that IS has far more financial resources than other terrorist organizations, including the Caucasus Emirate, which was affiliated with al Qaeda.
"If the Islamic State is going to support fighters in the Caucasus with finances, training, and ideology, that's a big danger," he said. "There is a threat of attacks outside the Caucasus, like in Volgograd, Beslan, Moscow."
Three suicide bomber attacks in Volgograd in 2013 killed more than 80 people and displayed the deadly reach of Caucasus insurgents outside their home region. Basayev, who founded the group that Byutukayev leads, was a Chechen militant who won infamy for organizing the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis in which 130 civilians died as well as the 2004 Beslan school siege in which 385 people died.
The terror threat could also grow as fighters who left the Caucasus to fight in the Middle Eastreturnhome. A member of Russia's security council said this week that about 2,000 Russians, most of them from the Caucasus, are fighting for IS in the Middle East, adding that they could create a threat when they return home.
Kadyrov said Friday that the "road back is closed" for residents of Chechnya who had gone to fight with IS, saying that they sought only to "sow violence and chaos."
"In Chechnya, we will allow neither the appearance of members of this gang, nor even those people who sympathize with them," he remarked.
After the December attack on Grozny, Kadyrov announced that the homes of militants' relatives would be destroyed and they would be exiled from Chechnya. As of January, security forces had burned down at least 15 homes there, the Telegraph reported.