The Russian government needs to do more to counter ISIS propaganda in social networks, which has proven successful of late in attracting and recruiting young Russians from both the North Caucasus and the Volga Region.

Shiite volunteers patrol the area as they secure it against the predominantly Sunni militants from the Islamic State, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), in the desert region between Kerbala and Najaf, south of Baghdad, July 3, 2014. Photo: Reuters

It is no secret that Russian nationals are fighting in Syria and Iraq alongside the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). The Russian government has been explicit about its concerns with regard to the effectiveness of ISIS recruitment in the country among young people. The estimates given by different officials and government institutions as to how many Russian citizens have actually joined the terrorist organization vary from 2,000 to 5,000 people.

Something that experts and Russian officials agree on is the upward trend in ISIS recruitment in Russia. Until now, they also agreed that the problem of recruitment had essentially been limited to the Muslim regions of the North Caucasus. Yet a string of recent events has shown that the scope of this problem has been continuously underestimated in Russia.

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On June 16, FSB head Alexander Bortnikov told the National Antiterrorism Committee that young people from Central Russia are now finding their way into Syria where they join the Islamic State. Over 200 residents of the Volga Region [the Volga Federal District] are fighting for the Islamists in Syria and Iraq, Bortnikov argued. The key takeaway from this statement is that what was previously regarded as a problem of the Muslim regions of the North Caucasus is now plaguing Central Russia as well.

A shocking proof of these words came when four young girls, two of them students at prestigious universities in Moscow and one - only 16 years old, attempted to leave for Syria to join the Islamic State. The Kremlin was certainly taken aback by the fact that ISIS propaganda has reached Moscow and by how effective its recruitment approach turned out to be.

Vladimir Putins spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the National Antiterrorism Committee and FSB are now working on the recently revealed cases. It [ISIS recruitment] is a serious issue and a dangerous process, he said.

The North Caucasus seems to be a relatively easy target for ISIS in terms of recruitment with members of local defeated extremist groups readily fleeing to Syria, while Central Russia and the Volga Federal District with its large Muslim community have been off-limits until now. 200 Russians from the Volga region that, according to Bortnikov, have joined the Islamic State most likely came from Bashkiria and Tatarstan, where Muslims constitute over 50 percent of the population. 

Social networks for aspiring jihadis

Yet the most shocking account of a Russian citizen trying to join the Islamic State happened in Moscow, when a girl named Varvara Karaulova, a student from the prestigious Moscow State University, disappeared from home.  She traveled to Turkey and only after her story went viral on Russian social networks thanks to her father was she detained by the authorities at the Syrian border. The story of Varvara Karaulova sheds light on how the Islamic State recruits new members in Russia and other post-Soviet states.

The girl allegedly intended to travel to Syria to marry a man from Tatarstan, who had already joined ISIS but whom Karaulova had never seen in person. According to a Russian tabloid, she was introduced to her husband-to-be on V Kontakte (VK), a Russian social network. After three years of virtual love on VK and WhatsApp the man who goes under the name of Klaus Klaus asked Karaulova, who had secretly adopted Islam, to travel to Syria in order to marry him. The fact that the Russian girl was detained at the Syrian-Turkish border in a group of 13 people indicates that the Islamic State is extremely good at connecting its online recruits with people on the ground, including in Turkey, a key transfer point for many new ISIS members.

The Russian authorities claim that Klaus is a professional recruiter of jihadi wives for the Islamic State and that he had several such love affairs on VK.

Russian social networks, including VK and Odnoklassniki, are flooded with extremist sympathizers and have become a key element of the ISIS recruitment strategy in Russia. The Russian General Prosecutors office demanded in October that VK take down seven pages associated with the Islamic State, but the pace with which the authorities identify extremist content online doesnt match that with which new ones pop up.

In fact, hundreds of ISIS communities still exist on VK, some of them disguised as groups dedicated to Islam or religious preachers, while others operate undisguised. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, VK does not have a policy that requires the social network to block pro-ISIS accounts en masse. According to VKs press secretary, the social network only blocks those accounts that incite violence or terrorism.

It is estimated that there are over ten thousand small ISIS-related communities on VK that openly post updates about daily life in the Islamic State, poetry romanticizing jihad as well as match-making ads of young unmarried fighters.

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ISIS members create accounts both in Russian and Arabic, which is why the social network can only filter part of the content they post. It is even suggested that the organization has decided to move some of its promotion activity from Twitter and Facebook to the Russian social network where extremist posts are less likely to be deleted.

Following the reports that several extremist groups from the North Caucasus gave bayah (pledge of allegiance) to the Islamic State, the organization declared its new governorate in the Southern region of Russia.

This event proves yet again that ISIS is looking to expand its influence into the post-Soviet space. The recruitment mechanism that seems to be working flawlessly at the moment is the major tool that will allow the organization to fill the ranks of the Wilayat Qawqaz (The Caucasus Wilayat).

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The Russian government has so far primarily been dealing with fighters who intend to join the Islamic State or those of them who return from Iraq and Syria ignoring the roots of the problem. Recent incidents with Russian girls who fell victim to ISIS propaganda prove, however, that it was a one-sided approach. The government needs to counter the threat in the cyber domain where extremist ideas increasingly gain mass appeal, which should include countering ISIS rhetoric, targeting online recruitment communities and engaging social networks in this fight.

Is ISIS propaganda threat exaggeration?

However, regardless of the increasing activity of the Islamic State in recurring young Russians, some experts argue that the threat of ISIS propaganda is exaggerated.  

So far, it is significantly exaggerated by Russias intelligence and security services, said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on religion and security matters for the Moscow Carnegie Center, in an interview to Russia Direct. But at the same time, we should not forget about ISIS propaganda, which is indeed transmitted in about 23 languages, including Russian. And there have been some results. Totally, there are between 1,700 and 3,000 Russian citizens who have joined the Islamic State.

Malashenko highlights that many recruits have disappointed in the ISIS dream and some came back. He believes that thinking that those who returned to Russia from ISIS pose a significant threat is again an exaggeration.

At the same time, he warns that in the case of a worsening economic situation and economic crisis, corruption and the growth of indignation in Northern Caucasus, there might be social unrest, which could, partly, turn into religious radicalism.

In this case, those who returned from ISIS, given their military experience, could play a role, he said.