Islamic State Affiliate Blamed for Attack on Tourists in Southern Russia

Russian authorities say three gunmen who killed one sightseer and wounded 11 others in Dagestan belonged to a militant group that has pledged allegiance to IS.
December 30, 2015, 10:45pm
Members of Russia's special forces stand guard during an operation in Dagestan. (Photo via Reuters)

As Russia bombs militants in Syria, jihadists might be shooting tourists in Russia.

On Tuesday night, three gunman shot at sightseers visiting the 8th century fortress of Naryn-Kala in Derbent, an ancient city on the Caspian Sea in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, where Moscow has been fighting Islamist insurgents seeking an independent state since the 1990s.

The shooters killed one person — a border guard visiting the citadel — and injured another 11, according to the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. Russian authorities quickly blamed terrorists referred to as a "Derbent group," the agency reported. The militant group has been fighting Russian rule for years, but pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in June. No group has come forward to take credit for the shootings.

Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, an Istanbul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group who specializes on the Caucasus, said the incident could represent a new turn in the violent history of Dagestan. IS has long referred to Russia's territory in the Caucasus as a wilayat, or province in Arabic, of its self-proclaimed caliphate centered in Iraq and Syria. But, busy in the Middle East, IS has never sent serious money, material, or other resources to its affiliates in the Caucasus, said Sokirianskaia. The attack on Derbent suggests the group might be asserting itself in the region.

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"Everybody was saying that ISIS marked its territory in the Caucasus by silence," Sokirianskaia said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State. "It seems that things are changing."

But Sokirianskaia said it wasn't clear if the Derbent attack would have been designed to showcase IS's power in the Caucasus in retaliation against Russian airstrikes in Syria, or whether more local concerns were at play. The attack might have been launched to disrupt New Year's celebrations, she said.

"New Year's is a big holiday in Russia, and the Islamists in Dagestan are particularly against New Year's," said Sokirianskaia. "Every year in Dagestan they have a new campaign against New Year's. It's a symbol of Russian-ness."

Or they might have targeted the ancient fortress because Dagestan's pro-Russian leader, Ramazan Abdulatipov, memorialized the 2,000-year anniversary of the citadel in September by saying it showed how different religions and cultures could coexist in Dagestan, added Sokirianskaia. Seized by Russian troops fighting for a Christian czar during a war with Persia in the late 1700s, the citadel houses Russia's oldest mosque and madrassa, or Islamic religious school.

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No matter why the attack occurred, if the IS affiliate is indeed responsible, the incident illustrates Russia's challenges in combating Islamist militant groups. A few years ago, jihadists from the Caucasus were leaving Russia to travel to Syria to fight the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, reportedly with the help of Russian authorities who were happy to see them go, especially amid threats by militants to disrupt the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

The New York Times recently reported that 2,000 of the 7,000 jihadists from Russia and the former Soviet Union fighting in Iraq and Syria are from the Caucasus.

But the tentacles of IS appear to have been moving in the opposite direction, too.

"Derbent, in southern Dagestan, seems to have become an epicenter of the jihadist 'holy war' against the Russian state," said a report published last year by the Gatestone Institute.

IS is just the latest addition to the Islamic extremism in the region, however.

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The Gatestone Institute report detailed how the radical Islam has become more popular in the Caucasus in recent decades as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have paid for strict religious schooling in the region. Extremists have also provided clinics, schools, and other social services that are superior to the Russian government's, and Moscow's draconian policies in the region have triggered a backlash.

Now Russian officials are barring suspected jihadists from leaving Russia, and they're arresting Muslim militants who they catch trying to go to the Middle East, said Sokirianskaia.

But that crackdown has likely put pressure on local IS affiliates like the Derbent group, who might want to prove to their brethren in the Middle East that they, too, are waging an important holy war. Unless they stage high-profile attacks like the one at the ancient fortress, they'll become irrelevant, Sokirianskaia said.

"In order to recruit, they need to show they are effective," she said. "They're trying to show that 'We are here and we can do it."

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