Mountain Men: The Caucasus and the Future of Global Terrorism

3 years ago ccwa 0

sochi-superJumboIn recent months news coverage and American counterterrorism policies have been dominated by the Islamic State—the latest name of the militant extremist group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—and its campaign in Iraq and Syria. Though certainly warranted, this focus has caused many in the American public and intelligence community to lose sight of similarly dangerous networks that continue to operate on smaller scales. One of those networks is especially potent—it can’t be pinned down because it operates transnationally even within its native region. Its members are commanders in nearly every global terrorist organization, and it may have even played a role in the most lethal attack on American soil since 9/11—yet it was not designated as a terrorist organization until 2011. This elusive group is known as the Caucasus Emirate.

The Caucasus Emirate (CE) is a terrorist group operating within the Caucasus Mountain range, which splits Southern Russia and Northern Georgia. Most of its members hail from the Russian region of Chechnya, though a fair number also come from the region of Dagestan and the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. The group was considered the primary threat to the Sochi Winter Olympics; additionally, there have been unconfirmed reports that it also played a role in the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers. Though its stated goal is to separate from the Russian government and create an Islamic caliphate within the region—an idea that has led many to regard the group as freedom fighters instead of extremists—CE has attacked civilians in the past and have declared Western nations their enemies. Recently, however, the group at seems to have been tamed—its efforts to stage an attack Sochi failed, attacks within Russia have slowed down, and its longest-running and most popular leader, Doku Umarov, recently died and was replaced by a less extreme leader who discourages suicide bombing. So what continues to make CE a threat?

In actuality, Western intelligence is worried less about CE operatives within the Caucasus than globally. Many of the biggest players in modern terrorist networks hail from the region and have ties with CE—most notably Umar Shishani, a Georgian-born violent extremist who traveled to Syria to fight under an oath of allegiance to the group. He is now the military commander of IS. Since then, Russian and Georgian fighters have joined the front lines in the region at unprecedented rates. In other parts of the world, CE operatives train with Al-Qaeda members and serve as lieutenants in its regional branches such as in the Arabian Peninsula. Both former Al-Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri have acknowledged their usefulness as force multipliers and have ties with the region. US Special Operations also report that Chechens make up one of the most common ethnic groups in the Taliban militias they engage in Afghanistan.

CE may not seem like an immediate problem but it is a present and growing threat. Terrorism in Russia seems a world apart from any possible threat to the US, but developments in the Caucasus and the success of counterterrorism efforts in the region could be the only thing stopping more recruits from joining the ranks of the Islamic State militants and other global networks. As the United States works to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria, as well as Al-Qaeda and its newly recognized faction the Khorasan Group in Syria, the military and intelligence community should be mindful that fixing the problem of terrorist recruitment at its source is the only way to finish the organizations for good. One of those immediate sources is the Caucasus Emirate.

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by Wesley Swanson

(photo credit: graphics8.nytimes.com, chechensinsyria.com)