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The New Face of Terrorism in 2019
Forget the Middle East—it’s time to prepare for attacks from the former Soviet Union.
The way Westerners think about Islamist terrorism has grown dangerously outdated. For decades, officials have focused on attacks launched by Middle Easterners. Today, however, the real threat increasingly comes from further east. In the former Soviet states and beyond, militants who once harbored mostly local grievances are turning their attention to the West. They will be the menace to watch in 2019.
The threat posed by Middle Eastern terrorists has been shrinking for some time. Even during the war against the Islamic State, Russian speakers from former Soviet countries were already committing many of the major attacks in the West. Those included relatively simple lone-wolf events, such as the 2017 truck strikes on pedestrians in New York and Stockholm—both conducted by Uzbeks—but also more complicated operations, such as the 2016 suicide bombing of Istanbul’s airport—which was allegedly organized by a Russian national—and the 2017 attack on a nightclub in the same city, led by an Uzbek.
There are several reasons for the relative increase in anti-Western terrorism coming out of the post-Soviet world. For starters, in recent years Middle Eastern jihadis have been too preoccupied with local conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to head elsewhere. The pull of the Islamic State, meanwhile, has faded after its almost total defeat in Iraq and Syria.
At the same time, the wars in the Middle East have transformed militants from Russian-speaking areas, who previously focused on fighting repressive governments at home, into global terrorists. By 2017, at least 8,500 fighters from former Soviet republics had flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. That experience gave many of these jihadis their first taste battling U.S. and NATO troops, and it left them looking for vengeance, convinced that future operations should be aimed at the West.
Ahmed Chataev, for example, who allegedly organized the attack on Istanbul’s airport, apparently first cooked up plans to strike Western targets while fighting in Iraq and Syria. A phone conversation leaked last year between Chataev and another Russian-speaking terrorist, Islam Atabiev, revealed that the two were planning to collect intelligence on several U.S. consulates and restaurants popular with Americans in Turkey and Georgia.
The same dynamic has played out further east, where battle-tested jihadis from the post-Soviet world can travel far more easily than Arabs who hold Iraqi, Syrian, or Yemeni passports. As the persecution of Muslims in Asia grows, so do opportunities for grievances to turn international. When I was in Bangladesh in July 2018, I came across at least two separate groups from the Caucasus providing religious aid in Muslim Rohingya refugee camps. A leader of a Russian-speaking group affiliated with militants in Syria said he had likewise planned to send some of his people to Bangladesh. Such contact could boost the capabilities of local jihadis already conducting anti-Western operations in the area, including those who in 2016 stormed a bakery in Dhaka that was popular with expats. And it may win more Rohingya over to the idea that they’re involved in a global struggle for Islam, not just a local fight for their own survival.
In the coming years, the terrorist threat from Russia and beyond will only increase. With the fall of the Islamic State, Russian-speaking terrorists were mostly able to flee Iraq and Syria with more ease than Middle Eastern foreign fighters and are now back in hiding in the former Soviet sphere or in Europe. Having escaped the reach of the U.S. military, they may find it easier to bring their plots to fruition. Local sympathies will help. Government neglect and outright repression have made religious Muslims in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan attractive targets for radicals looking for new recruits. Several popular sheikhs from the Middle East, including the Saudi cleric Abdulaziz al-Tarefe, now have significant Russian- and Arabic-language followings on social media.
As the locus of terrorism changes, the United States and its allies will have to update their strategies for fighting it. Over the last two decades, Washington built up a huge bureaucracy around Middle Eastern terrorism. Untold millions of dollars were poured into finding and training Arabic-speaking researchers and analysts. According to data from a critical language scholarship program run by the U.S. government, out of 550 university students who will be admitted in 2019, 105 will be studying Arabic and only 60 Russian. And according to professors with whom I’ve spoken—from top policy schools such as the Harvard Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service—the overwhelming majority of college students who plan to work in counterterrorism still minor in Middle Eastern studies or Arabic. There’s also a dearth of experts who’ve specialized in Central Asia and can teach a new generation of analysts.
Reorienting the West’s focus will also involve political challenges, since the United States will have to find a way to cooperate with Russia and its neighbors. Over the last several years, for example, U.S. companies have gotten good at deleting jihadi propaganda from U.S.-based social media platforms, but the same propaganda is still widely available on Russian-language apps such as VK and OK, which are popular across post-Soviet states. Telegram, which was founded by a Russian national, has likewise become a major communications tool for terrorists of all backgrounds, and cell phones captured from the Islamic State revealed that they were operating on Ukrainian SIM cards.
Monitoring these systems and others will require deep cooperation and intelligence sharing with Russia. But such cooperation does not seem likely in the immediate future. There may simply be too much animosity between Washington and Moscow to allow for effective collaboration. There’s also the problem of the quality of intelligence. Many of those who end up on domestic terrorist watchlists and even Interpol lists throughout the region are actually members of the domestic opposition. Meanwhile, lots of known terrorists are never singled out: Russia is well-known for providing passports to radicals from the Caucasus on the grounds that letting would-be jihadis leave the country is easier than dealing with them at home. Intelligence from the region has become so politicized—and is used so much more often to violate the human rights of religious citizens than to stop real terrorist attacks—that it is hard to know what the United States would do with it.
The West should have recognized this shift long ago. It didn’t, but that doesn’t mean that it should sit on its hands now. The United States and its allies need to recognize that future attacks are more likely to come from the East than the Middle East and that there is no other option than to cooperate with Russia and its neighbors to stop them. If the United States fails to do so, it could soon see the effects in either a surge of attacks on the United States or the rise of a new post-Soviet-dominated terrorist group in one of the world’s many war zones
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.