Within the US and Russia, there are conflicting narratives of the terror threat posed by ISIS. This hampers effective counter-terrorism cooperation and sows the seeds of further mistrust and mutual suspicion.


A Muslim woman releases a dove as a symbol of peace during a rally against the Islamic State group, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. The banner reads: "ISIS is not Islam's voice. Stop Killing journalist." Photo: AP

Russian’s repeated insistence on the U.S. respecting the sovereignty of Syria during an international crackdown on ISIS and the seeming reluctance of the U.S. to involve Russia in this campaign indicate that finding common ground between Moscow and Washington is easier to say than do.

For example, during a Sept. 23 telephone conversation with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, Russian President Vladimir Putin “stressed that air strikes on the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist bases in Syrian territory should not be launched without consent of the Syrian government,” the Kremlin’s press service said.

For several months, ISIS has been a new buzzword for many terrorist groups operating across the Middle East. ISIS certainly stands out for three specific features. Its daily oil revenue of approximately $3 million makes it the richest of its kind in terror history. The size of its fighting force  which may include a pool of as many as 30,000 fighters  represents a powerful, far-reaching and hard-to-defeat force. Finally, its professional and efficient social media strategy makes it modern and potentially attractive for new recruits, if not the uniting core for all Islamist sympathizers.

The signs of this uniting message are already there – ISIS owes its success to the international horde of mujahedeen from the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and the North Caucasus. The latter sends an especially worrisome message for Russia, which has long pointed to the dangers of the jihadist “spillover” to neighboring regions.

For outside analysts the conventional wisdom is that, since a number of Chechens rank high in the ISIS leadership, what Moscow fears most is their return to wreak havoc in Chechnya, the region where the Kremlin invested so much of its political, social and financial capital.

The reason why many observers still conceptually fall into the trap of “the Chechen-stereotyped” paradigm is rooted in the divergent narratives on the insurgency Russia faces in the North Caucasus.

While Moscow claims it fights exactly the type of extremist enemy Western powers tackle in the Middle East, many in the West believed that the insurgency in the North Caucasus was of an ethno-nationalist character. In other words, that it is purely a “Russian problem” born out of mismanagement of socio-political processes and that this “terror threat” was then used by the Kremlin to justify its “tightening-the-screws policy.”

Even the different language used in Western and Russian discourse about the problem goes far beyond mere linguistic nuances: It reflects conflicting interpretations.

In fact, it’s nothing new: In 2011, even when the State Department recognized the Caucasus Emirate as a terrorist organization, many argued there were no ties between the notorious Emirate and Al-Qaeda, trying to make American policymakers believe that U.S. and Russia were facing challenges of a different nature.

To a large degree, the two conflicting narratives are still maintained in the expert debate on the issue in the two countries. Not only it is a major stumbling bloc hampering effective anti-terrorist cooperation and data exchange but it also sows the seeds of further mistrust and mutual suspicion.

In this context, the [Chechen] ethnic background of the ISIS leaders and their bellicose addresses to Russians are important for two reasons.

First, it certainly is a signal for the Russian authorities that, while the extremists currently see better opportunities for ideological and personal promotion in other parts of the global “jihadi frontline,” they haven’t given up on the idea of coming back to the region they originate from and use their experience and ideas there.

The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. For that matter, Chechnya with its tight grip on security and high personal stakes for its President Ramzan Kadyrov, seems the least possible, yet most tempting target. It’s rather its neighbors – Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria – with their tremendous social grievances that look most vulnerable to the extremist penetration and most susceptive to their ideology of “justice” as they see it.

Second, it opens a third window of opportunity for counter-terrorism cooperation between Moscow and Washington. The two states already missed two similar chances – first after 9/11, the second – after the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013.

These two cases, as well as the current situation with ISIS, exposed an inconvenient truth for the White House – fighting the terrorist threat overseas will not necessarily make you safe at home. For the Kremlin, the lesson is similar: Clamping down on domestic challenges doesn’t mean they won’t emerge even stronger to come back and haunt you later.

Therefore, both nations need a more robust, holistic and mutually engaging approach against the “territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi-state within a regular army” as best described by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

There are no shortcuts to solving the problem of global terrorism. Taking into account the current troublesome context of U.S.-Russia relations, there probably couldn’t have been a worse time to seek cooperation in such a vital area with such a complicated agenda. However, regardless of how enormous the challenge posed by the ISIS may be, it merits becoming an issue at the top of the agenda in any effort to restore the U.S.-Russia relationship.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.