European Eye on Radicalization was proud to team up with TRENDS Research and Advocacy to present a webinar, “Implications of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict on Extremist and Terrorist Movements”.
The webinar covered a number of timely topics:
Rahaf al-Khazraji, a researcher and the deputy director of the scientific publishing department at TRENDS, noted that the phenomenon of foreign fighters has been seen in recent years with the Islamic State (ISIS). Many of those who originally went to fight in Syria did so because they were concerned about those Muslims who were suffering at the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime, before they were drawn into extremist groups. Al-Khazraji suggests that in Ukraine a similar dynamic is now at work, with many volunteers coming into the country to help Ukraine, while groups like the Azov Battalion lurk in the background trying to recruit these people. It is also possible that the European far-Right will specifically look to travel to Ukraine to gain military training, and in this way the war could become a fulcrum of extremism.
There is an intra-Islamic aspect to the Ukraine war, Al-Khazraji notes. In Chechnya, the current regime under Ramzan Kadyrov—installed by the Russian government—has sent troops in with the Russian army, while other Chechens, who lost the wars in the 1990s, are fighting alongside the Ukrainian government. This has made the conflict of interest to jihadist groups. On the one side, ISIS has condemned in Al-Naba, its weekly newspaper, Muslims taking sides in this war. On the other side, Al-Qaeda and its allied groups have tended to be pro-Ukraine—or more precisely anti-Russia—because of what the Russian government did in Chechnya and more recently in Syria.
Jacob Zenn, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and a senior fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation, began by noting that a significant amount of the jihadist foreign fighter flow has been diverted from the Levant to West Africa. This has made many countries, notably Algeria and Senegal, very nervous, and those two states have banned Ukraine recruiting for its foreign legion because they fear their citizens getting engaged in Ukraine and bringing trouble home with them.
Zenn pointed out that in a number of countries in West Africa, Russia’s influence has been growing, particularly in Mali, where the coup last year brought to power a military government that has tried to push the French counterterrorism force out of the country and bring in Russian forces, both the formal military and ostensible “mercenaries” that are closely connected to the Russian intelligence services. Russia is likely to continue trying to secure military partnerships in West Africa, says Zenn, just to try to avoid being isolated.
In Central Asia, says Zenn, the states are closely tied to Russia, having been ruled by it in the form of the Soviet Union until 1991, they speak Russian and the number of migrant workers from these states in Russia connects them all the more. The Central Asian states have suffered an Islamist extremist problem, with significant numbers of their citizens joining Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Some of these people have now come back, and meeting this and other security needs has made the Central Asian states wary of alienating Russia. The Russians provide security capabilities for these states—more specifically the governments, such as sending troops to put down the protests in Kazakhstan in January—and it is now a live issue whether Russia can protect this “underbelly” with so much of its army deployed in Ukraine.
The Central Asian states do fear Russia, Zenn says, because of this invasion of Ukraine—particularly Kazakhstan where there is a slight territorial dispute in the north—but this is more likely to make these states compliant with Russia, rather than hostile. The Central Asian states have so far managed to avoid being drawn into sending troops to help Russia in Ukraine, Zenn goes on, but this is simultaneous with avoiding any public condemnation of Russia and trying to curtail any efforts by their citizens to join the Ukrainian war effort.
The other important state in the Central Asian region is Afghanistan, where Russia has been establishing firmer relations with the Taliban regime to try to create stability that will prevent a contagion spreading over their borders. In turn, however, this policy angers the ISIS forces that are waging a sustained guerrilla campaign against the Taliban, possibly creating an issue for Russia it otherwise would not have. Still, Zenn reiterates what Al-Khazraji said: ISIS’s favoured policy is for the “infidel” states to exhaust each other.
Building off what Zenn said, Oved Lobel, a policy analyst at the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), where he focuses on security issues in the Middle East, particularly terrorism and Russia’s role, drew attention to Russia’s efforts to displace France as the security partner for West African states. But because the war has gone so badly in Ukraine, exposing the hollowness of the Russian army and the imperial overstretch of the Kremlin, which might leave space for jihadist groups as Russian security assets are withdrawn for deployment in Ukraine.
The damage to Russian prestige, and the need to transfer military resources to Ukraine, is also going to affect Syria, says Lobel, where Russia was already failing dismally to contain the ISIS insurgency report in the east. An additional issue in Central Asia, says Lobel, is that the Taliban might take the chance to implement its transnational vision with attacks on a state like Tajikistan, a state vitally dependent on Russia for its security, and Russia would be unable to respond to this.
Anna Gussarova, the director of the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies (CAISS), which focuses on bringing fresh perspectives to the security, political, and other issues in the Central Asian states, agreed with Zenn and Lobel about the region’s dependency on Russia for security. She also noted that not only jihadist extremism has afflicted Central Asia; the Russian sponsorship of the far-Right has affected the region, too. For now, says Gussarova, the Central Asian states have managed to stay out of the Ukraine war and foreign fighting is formally illegal, though there have been fake news stories from Russian media about volunteers travelling to Ukraine. It is too early to say how this will play out, Gussarova says, but she reiterates that the Central Asian states are continuing to struggle to deal with the Syria-Iraq foreign fighter wave.
Russia and the Far-Right International
Lobel described Russia as “the Iran of white supremacy”, because the Putin state has been gathering to itself and creating and supporting an international network of neo-Nazi and far-Right proxies—all while claiming that the war aim in Ukraine is to “denazify” a country with a Jewish President.
The story begins with the Iron March, Lobel says, a neo-Nazi forum founded in 2011 by Alexander Mukhitdinov, which then spawns a transnational network that includes groups like Atomwaffen Division in Germany and “The Base” in America (named “ironically” as the English translation of “Al-Qaeda”). Lobel notes that Mukhitdinov lives openly in Moscow and the leader of The Base, Rinaldo Nazzaro, also turned up in Russia and has been seen wearing a Putin t-shirt. Indeed, it seems Nazzaro it seems founded The Base in Russia and has been running his group from Russia, vetting and recruiting people as far afield as Australia. Mukhitdinov and Nazzaro clearly operate as functional extensions of Russian intelligence.
Alongside the Iron March, the other main hub of what Lobel describes as a “Neo-Nazi International” is the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which is sometimes portrayed as an independent group that has “an understanding” with the Russian state, but Lobel says that the relationship is much deeper than this and RIM’s independence is basically fictional. RIM trains far-Right operatives from around the world and then dispatches them back to their home countries, notably Sweden.
Then there is the Wagner Group, which is supposedly a private military company, but is a group that operates at the behest of the Russian state, in theatres as far apart as Syria and the Central African Republic, and its core identity is as a neo-Nazi group.
The danger with these groups, says Lobel, is that Russia will use these assets to take revenge over the Western sanctions by orchestrating terrorist attacks in the West. There is, however, another possibility Lobel highlights, namely that with Western public opinion turned so sharply against Russia and its proxies because of this war, Western states will move aggressively to isolate and neutralise the far-Right, not only these groups—many of them already designated as terrorist groups in Western countries—but the political parties of the hard-Right that Russia has given money and support to.
Food Shortages, Increased Instability
Ezzat Ibrahim, the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online, noted that ISIS and Al-Qaeda retain capacity, and with the decline of the United Nations and the international system, including now the encouragement of foreign fighters and mercenaries in proxy wars, new “gaps” are opening up for terrorist groups to exploit. This has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and now the interruption of the wheat supply from Ukraine that have weakened states. In Egypt, in particular, this will have profound effects because the country is so reliant on grain imports. It would be better for all concerned if the war could be contained and relations between the West and Russia could be repaired quickly, says Ibrahim.
Colonel David des Roches, a professor at the Near East and South Asian Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defence University in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. government official, noted that the Middle East is fragile in general, structurally, because of weak institutions and endemic corruption, among other things; the ISIS networks and foreign fighter flows have added to these problems. What Professor Des Roches focused on was the food insecurity.
As Ibrahim had raised, Egypt is a most serious case of food insecurity, says Des Roches. The Gulf states are, in percentage terms, more dependent on cereal imports, but they are wealthier states—except for Yemen—so can pay for it. These states also mostly import from Australia, and many West African Arab states import from France. Egypt’s special vulnerability is the combination of its massive population and its significant reliance on Ukrainian and Russian crops, with the former disrupted because it cannot be planted and the latter disrupted because it will be impounded under sanctions.
Subsidised bread is a key element of Egypt’s political stability. Des Roches reminds the audience of Anwar al-Sadat’s attempt to cut back these subsidies in 1977 as part of economic reforms, which led to bread riots so severe he immediately reversed himself.
Strategy and Distraction
“Every war has a sexy weapon to come out of it”, Des Roches notes, and in this war it is the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones. These drones had already proved themselves in supporting Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war in 2020 and in Syria when Turkey destroyed large parts of Assad’s army in Idlib. This weapon has “captured the imagination of security leaders around the world”, says Des Roches, by providing a cheap way to create serious impact on the battlefield. The weapons have to not be oversold, Des Roches cautions, because drones cannot do the job alone; they require other parts of the military system to be effective. But Ukraine has found a way of using the drones: it cannot destroy the Russian army in total because it is simply too big, but by choosing targets wisely “they can contribute to slowing down the Russian forces, which then allows the pretty poor logistics network that the Russians have to do what it does under stress, which is fail”.
From a different angle, Dr. Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics, a geo-strategic consultancy based in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct lecturer at the Dubai School of Government, focused on states that will use this crisis as an opportunity to misbehave: Iran and North Korea are the most likely candidates here, and the North Koreans have already begun with a missile test. Within Russia, a broader issue is how the state relates to Islam; the damage done to Muslim perceptions of Russia after Chechnya and Syria are serious, and mistreatment of the Tatars in Ukraine could compound this, potentially creating domestic instability. That said, as Dr. Karasik noted, a harsh crackdown resembling the worst period of the Soviet Union in the 1930s has been taking place in Russia, which might contain this threat.
A number of these points were developed during a free exchange session.