There isn't much Ramzan Kadyrov wouldn't do to prevent the rekindling of an Islamic insurgency in his mountainous fiefdom. Despite his well-known love for Instagram, the head of Russia's Chechnya republic is even ready to turn off the internet there, he told journalists on Monday night.
The remarks follow a rise in tensions in the mostly Muslim republic after a suicide bombing this month that many believe was tied to the Islamic State, against which Kadyrov has begun a personal vendetta.
"There was a time when I dreamed about connecting our republic to the Internet, but now I'm for turning it off," Kadyrov said on Monday. "There's Internet in every home. Anyone can find and listen to the sermon of some jihadi."
The statement seemed especially drastic coming from the Chechen president, who unlike his internet-wary mentor Vladimir Putin carries an iPhone and is well-known for his Instagram addiction, posting daily photos and videos of himself lifting weights and boxing, attending tape-cutting ceremonies or frolicking with exotic animals. But it points to what experts say is a growing problem as fighters from Chechnya and other Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union join the ranks of the Islamic State, some of them promising to return to wage jihad against Putin and Kadyrov.
The threat to block the Internet indicates that even in Chechnya — where Kadyrov's feared security forces have instilled a rigid order while being accused of forced disappearances and other crimes — "they can't fully control the Internet, and they can't manage to stop recruitment or propaganda by terrorists," Gregory Shvedov, the editor of Caucasian Knot, which maintains a network of correspondents across the Caucasus region, told VICE News.
"Technically and politically it's fully possible" that the Chechen authorities could block the Internet, Shvedov said, as Kadyrov could quickly overcome any legal or other barriers if he were to make such a decision. Notably, Chechnya blocked access to YouTube across the republic in 2012 after the controversial film "Innocence of Muslims" was posted onto the video service, only unblocking it on Kadyrov's say-so earlier this year.
Chechen rebels fought two bloody wars for independence from Moscow in the 1990s and 2000s, and the republic was a hotbed of Islamic insurgency before Kadyrov, who himself once waged jihad against Russia before defecting to Moscow's side, suppressed it with the help of Russian forces. But fighting between security forces and Islamic militants continues in neighboring Dagestan, and since 2012, more than 1,000 civilians have died in near-daily attacks in the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas, according to Caucasian Knot. Recently, the presence of fighters from the Caucasus has been reported in Iraq and Syria, along with militants from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
"There is a clear danger that the ideology of Islamic State could continue to spread and take hold in the Russian Federation or elsewhere, helped by Russian-language jihadi networks on social media," Joanna Paraszczuk, a journalist who covers foreign Islamic fighters in the Caucasus and the Middle East on her blog ChechensInSyria.com, wrote this week on RFE/RL.
On Tuesday, Kadyrov suggested he was trying to hunt down the leader of the Islamic State "bandits," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying "my people are looking for him, but he's nowhere to be found."
The comments were the latest in a war of words between Kadyrov and Islamic State leaders that has grown increasingly personal and may have erupted into violence with this month's suicide bombing. The spat began with a video reportedly shot after rebels captured the Assad regime's Taqba airbase in Syria, in which an Islamic State fighter threatens Vladimir Putin as others work on what looks to be a Russian-made MiG-21 fighter jet.
"These are the planes that you sent to Bashar [Assad]. God willing, we will send them back to you, remember that!" a clean-shaven fighter with a curly afro addresses Putin, according to Russian subtitles. "With Allah's consent, we will liberate Chechnya and the whole Caucasus! The Islamic State's caliphate exists and will keep existing, and it is expanding!"
In response, Kadyrov uploaded a photograph of himself in a Putin t-shirt to Instagram with a lengthy caption calling the fighter's words a "childish threat" and accusing the Islamic State of being "bandits trained and armed by the United States and the West to destroy with their own hands strong and resource-rich Islamic countries."
"Anyone who thinks to threaten Russia and pronounce the name of our president Vladimir Putin will be destroyed wherever he does so … We destroyed them completely in Chechnya, when their forces numbered tens of thousands, and we will now destroy those who even think to look askance at Chechnya," Kadyrov wrote.
Kadyrov's tirade prompted Omar al-Shishani, or "Omar the Chechen," a red-bearded Islamic State commander with Chechen blood who is originally from Georgia's Pankisi Gorge across the border from Chechnya, to put a $5 million bounty on Kadyrov's head. A former Georgian military officer who moved toward radical Islam in prison, al-Shishani has been credited with masterminding the Islamic State's devastating campaign in Iraq's Anbar province.
The bounty has raised suspicions of an Islamic State connection to the suicide attack in Grozny on October 5 as the Chechen capital celebrated Kadyrov's birthday, as well as city day and the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. A 19-year-old man detonated a suicide vest near a metal detector at the entrance to the celebrations, killing five police officers and injuring 11 more.
Leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, the main jihadist group fighting for an Islamic government in Russia's Caucasus, had previously questioned the tactic of suicide bombings and banned "Black Widow" female suicide bombers like the one that reportedly killed 18 in Volgograd in December, which led Shvedov to suspect that the Islamic State could have been involved.
"We think this attack could be connected to the Caucasus Emirate, but its leaders' statements leave doubts, and taking this into account it's likely that this bombing was organized from outside the Caucasus and was connected with the bounty on Kadyrov's head," Shvedov said.
Available evidence points to a growing flow of fighters from the Caucasus to the Middle East, which could bring battle-hardened jihadis back to the restive area along Russia's southern flank and spread the Islamic State's message there. Dozens of men from the Caucasus region both north and south of the Russian border have been killed in Syria and Iraq, Caucasian Knot has learned from relatives, and legal cases have been brought against residents who have returned from the two countries and are accused of fighting there.
Dozens of men from al-Shishani's homeland in the Pankisi Gorge, where most of the population belong to a Chechen ethnic group, are fighting with Islamic State forces, Bloomberg reported.
Al-Shishani has said in a video address that 500 foreign fighters from his brigade have been killed in Syria, and thousands of such fighters have been killed in the Middle Eastern conflict in total. He has also promised to return to the Caucasus to wage jihad against Russia.
In the video, al-Shishani said his brigade of foreign fighters joined the Islamic State specifically because its leaders welcomed his request to "from time to time" send men back to the Caucasus. "They were enthusiastic and said that for a long time looking for ways to help the Caucasus Emirate," he said.
He also told his father in a phone call, "Don't worry dad, I'll come home and show the Russians," according to the Bloomberg report. "I have many thousands following me now and I'll get more. We'll have our revenge against Russia."
If indeed al-Shishani comes for Kadyrov with an army of battle-scarred Islamist militants, the Chechen leader will need to do more than block the Internet to defend against them.
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn