By Paul Goble
Approximately 1,500 people from the non-Russian nationalities of the North Caucasus are now fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State for Iran and Syria, according to Sergei Melikov, presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus Federal District. Some of them have already returned to their homelands, and when more do, he said, they will likely take up residence in difficult-to-reach villages in highland Dagestan and propagandize the ideas of the Islamic State among young people there and in universities across the region (TASS, March 26; Kavkazsky Uzel, March 21).
That some North Caucasians have fought for the Islamic State and that some who have done so have already returned is beyond question—although there is no way to determine exactly how many people are involved or what they are doing. Some Moscow officials, like Melikov, have offered larger figures, while officials in the region itself have generally suggested that the numbers are smaller, perhaps to protect themselves from charges that they are failing to block the spread of extremism.
What makes Melikov’s latest statement especially interesting is less the figure that he offers but rather his suggestion that North Caucasians who have fought for the Islamic State are returning specifically to universities and are now promoting its cause with students there. That has sparked a sharp rebuttal from students of the North Caucasus Federal University in Stavropol and Dagestan State University in Makhachkala who, in the words of the news portal Kavkazsky Uzel, “categorically deny that there are former [Islamic State] fighters among their fellow students (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 26).
Many students at the two universities say that officials want to use the suggestion that Islamic State returnees are among their number as an excuse either to impose government control over all student groups or to require the students to take courses in patriotism. Either of these moves, the students said, would backfire, leading students as a whole to be more skeptical about the government and thus more willing to listen to those who speak out against the Russian authorities—including some who may be sympathetic to the Islamic State.
Aleksandr Skakov, an expert on the North Caucasus at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, has no doubt that there are people from the North Caucasus who are fighting with the Islamic State’s forces, that some of them have returned, and that they constitute a threat both directly (because of their experience with the use of arms) and indirectly (because of the aura of heroism that their combat experience gives them in the eyes of some) (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 26).