The changing face of ISIS

ISIS defectors have known it for several years. So have those who study these atrocities closely. But with the attack in Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon that claimed eight lives, it is becoming increasingly evident that there is something different about the extremists bringing blood and misery to the streets of major Western cities.

Whether it is running people over with a vehicle, shooting them with an assault rifle, or detonating a homemade suicide bomb, there is a common theme among many of the perpetrators. They weren’t born in the Middle East, but in the nations of the former Soviet Union.

Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, the 29-year-old suspect of Tuesday’s truck attack, came to the United States in 2010, earned a green card, and was apparently radicalized somewhere along that American route. One ethnic Uzbek acquaintance who knew him in Ohio told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that as recently as a few months ago Saipov began expressing “very radical views.” Another Uzbek friend in Ohio says that when he met the suspect in 2010, Saipov was not “very religious” although a “little aggressive.”

Such observations, assuming they’re true, seem to follow a cookie-cutter model for self-radicalization, usually via one’s own interest in jihadist literature and sermons online. Whatever the trajectory Saipov took, it allegedly culminated in a letter pledging allegiance to ISIS being left behind near the rental truck converted into a human battering ram. And while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday night that Saipov acted alone and had only incurred minor traffic violations in his seven years here, his name was reportedly familiar to federal authorities, as part of a separate investigation in which his role has not yet been disclosed. 

That an Uzbek, not an Arab, was behind the deadliest terror attack in New York since 9/11 isn’t all that surprising and tracks with an uptick in attacks being perpetrated abroad by actors from the post-Soviet sphere, and also with the rising prominence of such actors within the elite cadres and central command structures of ISIS itself. 

In 2015, weeks before the grisly Paris attacks, I interviewed a former ISIS operative who had defected from the terror organization and wound up temporarily in Istanbul. “Abu Khaled” (not his real name) had worked for ISIS’ domestic intelligence service, the amn al-dawlah, and in that capacity he’d been tasked with training foreign fighters from around the world. He said the most admired — and feared — contingent of ISIS recruits were the “Chechens” — in this case a reference not just to citizens of the semiautonomous region of the Russian Federation, but to those who had grown up in the greater Caucasus or various Central Asian republics that attained their independence upon the collapse of the USSR.

Many were in fact Chechens or Dagestanis, battle-hardened from decades of civil war and insurgency back home. According to Steve Swerdlow, a human rights researcher and attorney for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, veterans of the two Chechen wars in Russia “had to survive [Vladimir] Putin’s carpet bombing for so long” that they emerged almost as professional soldiers, not guerrilla fighters.

Some of the post-Soviet fighters in ISIS are actually graduates from their countries’ armies or law enforcement bodies, having made the pendulous transition from agents of counterterrorism to agents of terrorism.

Consider the allegedly deceased Gulmurod Khalimov, the terror army’s so-called war minister, a special operations colonel who had previously served in an elite police unit back in Tajikistan, known as OMON. Khalimov actually received his counterterrorism training from the US State Department. He personally underwent five US-funded courses, in both Tajikistan and the United States.

“Listen, you American pigs,” Khalimov taunted his former patrons, in Russian, in a 2015 video in which he declared his loyalty to ISIS. “I’ve been three times to America, and I saw how you train fighters to kill Muslims. God willing, I will come with this weapon to your cities, your homes, and we will kill you.”

Khalimov’s predecessor was the better known Abu Omar al-Shishani, or Tarkhan Batirashvili, a Georgian national (with partial Chechen ethnicity) who had also apparently served in Georgia’s special forces, according to Georgian defense officials. Shishani’s battlefield prowess was highly romanticized, and his skills were evidently put to use in Tbilisi’s 2008 conflict with Russia. And, in characteristic fashion for so many foreign recruits to ISIS, Shishani served time in jail back home before emigrating to Syria.

The difference between these emigres to caliphate country and the more ISIS-inspired or ISIS-affiliated attackers who strike abroad depends largely on which post-Soviet state one is examining, according to Swerdlow. “With Uzbeks and Tajiks and Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, you have a different demographic. They didn’t fight in any wars, with some exceptions.”

“[Uzbeks] that go to ISIS,” Swerdlow said, “tend to be the losers, the lonely boys from villages on the outskirts of Moscow,” another frequent point of migration. “They’re trying to prove their manhood. Some are lured in by sex and the prospect of the wives ISIS fighters are promised. But they suffer from a profound societal disconnect, falling prey to radicalization in that specific experience of being migrants in Russia, where they’re discriminated against by neo-Nazis, or humiliated in the Russian cultural sphere.”

Turkey in ISIS crosshairs

Many are then repurposed by ISIS as foreign operators — suicide bombers and terrorists intent on striking outside the ever-dwindling caliphate, as a recent spate of terror attacks in Turkey demonstrates.

In June 2016, three gunmen opened fire on civilians passing through Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, killing more than 40 people and injuring hundreds more. All three — reportedly from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan — were believed to have been dispatched to Turkey under the orders of Akhmed Chatayev, a notorious jihadist from Russia’s North Caucasus. Turkey later identified two of the three attackers as Rakim Bulgarov and Vadim Osmanov, without providing full details of their backgrounds.

This attack was followed on New Year’s Eve by an assault by Uzbek national Abdulgadir Masharipov, who Turkish officials said confessed to being the gunman that later claimed a connection to ISIS, sprayed gunfire into the crowded Reina nightclub, also in Istanbul, killing 39 people.

Closer to home, in 2015, US prosecutors in Brooklyn charged Uzbek and Kazakh immigrants to the United States with “attempt[ing] and conspir[ing] to provide material support and resources” to ISIS.

That also happens to be the year that Russia started its intervention in Syria, an act of adventurism that catalyzed further calls for jihadism in the Russosphere, particularly on social media, where ISIS supporters have an easier time congregating than on the English-language forerunner social media platform.

Even before Vladimir’s Putin’s bloody campaign — which international monitors have frequently criticized as focusing more on non-ISIS actors, including civilians, than on ISIS militants — Russia and its former imperial holdings have long been cynosures for radicalization and recruitment. (It’s worth recalling that al Qaeda’s now leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was arrested in Dagestan in 1996 and ended up serving six months in prison there, under an alias, before being released.)

Historically it’s been harder to trace the importation from Islamist violence from the civil wars and low-boil insurgencies that have bedeviled the post-Soviet into the United States. True, the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, were originally from Chechnya. The elder brother, Tamerlan, spent time in Dagestan not long before the attack was carried out, but it is still unclear as to how immersion in the Caucasus contributed to their turn to jihad.

Finally, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself has long sought to brand ISIS as a polyglot and diverse franchise open to all ethnicities, races and nationalities, next to the hoary and mostly Arab al Qaeda brand. 

In 2014, he issued an international casting call for Russian-speakers specifically when he declared in a public speech as “caliph” in the now-destroyed Grand Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul that Russia was part of a worldwide conspiracy against Muslims (by his narrow definition, the only true Muslims are Sunnis beholden to the ISIS ideology), “led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews.” ISIS has made it a point in its propaganda videos to emphasize the polyglot and multiethnic composition of its ranks, displaying African, Asian, Central Asian and Russian fighters as a united brotherhood against the “Zionist-Crusader” West.

Compounding the threat posed by such injunctions to transnational violence has been the approach of authoritarians in the post-Soviet space, who have been all too happy to place the extremist label on genuine suspects and mere political opponents alike. Many of these states would also prefer to export their Islamist problem where crushing it domestically hasn’t worked.

Russia at one point took precisely this approach. In the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, as Reuters reports, the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, helped create a corridor for jihadists to exit  the North Caucasus and enter into Syria, arranging for visas that would otherwise be impossible to obtain. The objective was to minimize the risk of a domestic Islamist atrocity distracting from the exorbitantly expensive international sporting competition about to be held in Sochi. The Russians deny having such a program, although one unnamed FSB officer interviewed by the International Crisis Group said: “Of course, we did. We opened borders, helped them all out and closed the border behind them by criminalizing this type of fighting. If they want to return now, we are waiting for them at the borders. Everyone’s happy: They are dying on the path of Allah, and we have no terrorist acts here and are now bombing them in Latakia and Idlib. State policy has to be pragmatic; this was very effective.”

Of course, before being bombed by the Russian Air Force, these militants might have easily joined al Qaeda’s Syria franchise or any other insurgency that later enlisted in what, by 2013, had become ISIS. A probability that many Syrians won’t have found nearly as “pragmatic” as that FSB officer.

Politics is perception

Some US politicians have praised Vladimir Putin and Eurasian strongmen leaders for their counterterrorism savvy, which has taken the form of the carpet bombing and razing of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in the 1990s; disastrous military raids on terror-besieged theaters and schoolhouses, resulting in the death of hundreds of civilian hostages; and gross human rights abuses visited on a daily basis in the North Caucasus. Even as US sanctions were levied against Kremlin officials for the invasion of Crimea and east Ukraine, the Obama White House still invited FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov to the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February 2015.

None of which is lost on ISIS propagandists, who are keen to portray the United States and Russia as in league in an ongoing war of annihilation against Sunni Muslims.

The danger for America is that politics is perception, especially in the Middle East, where yesterday’s conspiracy theory can often resemble today’s foreign policy. As the jihadists tell it, the United States and Russia are not locked in a renascent Cold War but are in fact in league in a broader assault against Muslims — an allegation Syrian civilians being buried under the rubble caused by American and Russian bombs in Deir Ezzor might be inclined to believe. 

Thus the actions of one coalition can directly impact the homelands of another. Those growing up in a Russian-dominated neighborhood and radicalized by some heavy-handed dictatorship can either decide to strike at home or travel to these shores to engage in their fungible brand of holy war. The fear among terrorism analysts, myself included, is that even as the ISIS leadership is scattered or killed in Syria and Iraq, the manner by which the caliphate is toppled may unintentionally give new life to the propagandistic fever-dreams of Baghdadi and lead to more carnage on Western boulevards.

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