Moscow’s Connection to the Islamic State

Wide belief on the Russian periphery that Moscow supports the extremist group

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin / AP

On Dec. 6, a Ukrainian TV network aired an interview with a man claiming to be a former Russian Federal Security Service agent who specialized in terrorist organizations and counter-terrorism operations.

In the interview, "Yevgeniy" made detailed claims about how the FSB (as the security service is widely known) has recruited for terrorist networks, and said that Moscow has been "directly and indirectly complicit" in terror attacks against Western nations.

An investigative report published in July by Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina documented that, beginning in 2011, the FSB had established "safe routes" for North Caucasian militants to travel to Syria, where it was providing the necessary documents for travel.

The report claimed that FSB officers directly aided potential jihadis who wanted to leave Russia to fight in the Middle East.

While the FSB has not admitted aiding potential extremists, FSB deputy director Eugene Sysoev recently heralded Russia’s success in "[achieving] a sustained reduction in terrorist activity" inside Russia. He cited a reduction in "crimes of a terrorist nature" over the previous year, and claimed a ten-fold reduction in terrorist activity in the North Caucasus over the past five years.

In the same remarks, made in November, Sysoev admitted that at least 20 percent of foreign fighters in the Islamic State are from Russia and other post-Soviet countries, an assessment somewhat similar to estimates from private security consulting groups.

The interview with the purported FSB defector advanced the idea that Russia may be exporting its extremists, detailing how Russian security services have recruited Muslims to infiltrate extremist groups in Europe and materially supported their advancement within these organizations.

When asked if Russian agents could be involved in the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Yevgeniy said there was "complicity in acts of terrorism." He continued, "And the complicity could be direct or indirect. By analyzing their connections, one, of course, will be able to see the ties leading to Russia. Primarily Russia could benefit from this, and the Russian security services had all the possibilities to organize this."

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.

On the Russian periphery, it is widely believed that Russia has used the Islamic State as an opportunity to get rid of domestic jihadis.

"In spring 2014, local information networks provided credible information that individuals affiliated with Russian security forces were recruiting potential jihadists in Pankisi and in the Northern Caucasus to travel to Syria," says Giga Bokeria, a former Georgian national security adviser. "They were promising financing for trips, and assistance acquiring weapons."

Pankisi is a remote, mountainous Georgian region bordering Russia with a local population of Georgian Muslims, known as Kists. Omar al-Shishani, one of the Islamic State’s top commanders, is from Pankisi.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, formerly chief of staff to Ukraine’s Minister of Defense and now chairman of Ukraine’s Center for Defense Reforms, believes there is a strong connection between the Islamic State and the Russian government.

"ISIS is definitely a product of the Russian special services. Only the blind cannot see it. A significant part of the terrorists are citizens of the Russian Federation," Danylyuk said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. "The ISIS military command is composed of former Saddam Hussein generals, who studied in the Soviet Union and worked closely with the KGB," says Danylyuk.

"The connection between the Russian-speaking jihadis and the Russian-trained ex-Baathist Sunni military officers is what formed the core of what we now think of as ISIS," said Estonian expert Eerik-Niiles Kross.

Kross, now a member of Estonian parliament, is a former director of the Estonian intelligence services, and served under the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003-2004, working to rebuild the Iraqi military intelligence organization.

"Based on Russia’s history of infiltrating and manipulating terrorist organizations and extremist groups, it’s not so far-fetched to believe there is an operational relationship — at some level — between Russian security services and elements of ISIS," he said.

The conflict in Syria has allowed Russia to rebuild relationships with European countries that were damaged by the Russian intervention in Ukraine.

While the White House remains publicly cautious about collaborating with Russia against the Islamic State because of Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, the possibility of a Russian connection to terrorist attacks in Western countries would add a new element to Russia’s relationship to the West.

In Washington, however, Russia’s relationship with Islamic radicals has not been seriously evaluated, according to several congressional sources.

"The issue of Russia's relationship with ISIS has been raised in closed door briefings on the Hill," said one senior staffer with knowledge of recent intelligence briefings to lawmakers. "It's unclear how much the administration has looked into this issue."

But people in states close to Russia say American and other Western officials have been reluctant to accept information on Russian involvement in recruitment for extremist groups despite the use of explicitly anti-American rhetoric as incitement for enlistment.

"More than 80 percent of ISIS’s weapons are Russian-made," offers Danylyuk. "In Syria and Iraq we are witnessing the same form of hidden aggression as in Ukraine."

"The problem is," he says, "if Russia is recruiting for ISIS, and ISIS is attacking European and American targets — will anyone be willing to say that Russia bears responsibility in these attacks?"