Is al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate adopting Islamic State tactics in Russia?

Is al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate adopting Islamic State tactics in Russia?
Comment: If the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda is adopting the technique of remote radicalisation, there are serious implications - not least for Russia, writes Oved Lobel.
6 min read
04 Jul, 2017
FSB allegations go far beyond local and international jihadi interactions [Getty]

On 27 June, Russia's state security organisation, the FSB announced some rather explosive news: Several recent terrorist attacks in Russia were guided from Syria via Telegram, WhatsApp, and other encrypted messenger apps by the Uzbek jihadist group Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ), which was subsumed by what was then Jabhat al-Nusra in late 2015.

The FSB asserts that KTJ's commander, Sirozhidin Mukhtarov, also known as Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki, using different aliases and travelling between Turkey and Syria, personally guided the St Petersburg metro attack in April 2017, and a simultaneous attempted metro bombing in Moscow, as well as a thwarted May Day attack in 2016.

This is not the first time Mukhtarov has been blamed for organising an attack from Syria in the region. On 30 August 2016, a "suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device" (SVBIED), or car bomb, crashed through the gates of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and detonated.

Kyrgyzstan's National Security Committee pointed the finger at Mukhtarov and the Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party, both of which are formally within Jabhat al-Nusra.

However, the FSB allegations go far beyond local and international jihadi interactions, and read exactly like the ubiquitous Islamic State "remote controlled" attacks across Europe and the United States.

The cases revolve around the region of Osh in Kyrgyzstan, from which hundreds of residents have gone to fight in Syria. The government launched a massive operation in 2016 to round up returning fighters and crack down on their online and in person recruiting, focusing particularly on KTJ.

  The FSB allegations read exactly like the ubiquitous Islamic State 'remote controlled' attacks across Europe and the United States  

Following the identification of the metro suicide bomber as Akbarzhon Dzhalilov - an ethnic Uzbek from Osh - suspicion immediately fell on KTJ, and indeed several weeks later Al-Qaeda seemingly took responsibility, albeit in a dubious fashion and in the name of a previously unknown cell.

The first in-depth record of a guided attack in Russia was the FSB investigation into the thwarted May Day 2016 massacre published by Kommersant in April. This was also the first indication that all the attacks might be linked by way of a virtual controller in Syria.

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The case revolves around the Toshboltoev family, also from the Osh region, and particularly the middle brother, Anvarzhan. His younger brother went to fight for KTJ in the summer of 2014 and his older brother followed, both urging him to join them, a proposition he refused.

Shortly thereafter, a man calling himself Mohammed began contacting him via WhatsApp and Telegram and ingratiating himself by taking an interest in Anvarzhan's family and even paying for his child's treatment in Moscow.

Anvarzhan began carrying out small tasks, such as distributing money to fighters' widows. Eventually Muhammed told him to find work in Moscow, where Anvarzhan set up dead drops for burner phones and cash.

  Information on where Dzhalilov was radicalised is murky, with some suggestions it occurred in Osh, and others that it happened in Russia  

He also surveyed Red Square security arrangements and sent Muhammed the photos via WhatsApp. Weapons and living quarters were organised, cells were prepared separately and they were told not to interact. And yet "the wedding," as the organisers referred to the attack in communication, was foiled.

Muhammed also separately groomed two other Osh natives, Aibek Saidov and Usman Menglikulov, along with other unnamed persons, at least one of which also hailed from Osh. All members gave bay’ah, or an oath of allegiance, to Abu Saloh via Telegram or WhatsApp prior to the respective attacks.

  Read more: Increasingly paranoid Islamic State wary of spies on messaging-apps

Immediately after the metro bombing, 10 people from Central Asia comprising two cells in Moscow and St Petersburg were rounded up by the FSB, including Abror and Akram Azimov, who allegedly had been in direct contact in Turkey with KTJ and received money from them to execute the simultaneous bombings.

Information on where Dzhalilov was radicalised is murky, with some suggestions it occurred in Osh, and others that it happened in Russia after contact with Mukhtarov. In any case, it appears Dzhalilov spent at least a year in Turkey before being deported back to Russia in December 2016.

Overall, the dozens involved in these cases were radicalised virtually and on an individual basis by Abu Saloh, under the name Muhammed for the May Day attack and Umardzhon in the metro bombing, and guided in every aspect of preparation for the attacks.

  All members gave an oath of allegiance, to Abu Saloh via Telegram or WhatsApp prior to the respective attacks  

Anyone who has read Rukmini Callimachi's excellent New York Times piece on Islamic State virtual planners will recognise these stories, and there are serious implications - not least for Russia - of Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate adopting Islamic State tactics in organising extensive foreign attacks from Syria by remote radicalisation and guidance.

In fact, the head of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov, recently testified to this effect, asserting that the core component of the current terrorist threat was Central Asian migrant workers being recruited and radicalised.

Because information is scarce and often contradictory in Russia, it is unclear whether KTJ, and by extension the new iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, has in fact begun turning its gaze outward.

Islamic State has now twice implied its responsibility for the St Petersburg metro attack, despite never officially claiming it. Furthermore, some have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the arrests because of their speed and theatricality, and dismiss the FSB narrative as mere scapegoating of Central Asian migrants for domestic purposes.

There is also the fact that the FSB claims came only four days after Pavel Durov - the creator of Telegram - mocked Roskomnadzor's warning that Telegram would be blocked in Russia for the sake of national security, and suggested the FSB allegations were merely a pretext for expanding Kremlin control.

Finally, there are inconsistencies in the investigation itself, including Kyrgyz investigators telling Dzhalilov's younger brother that Akbarzhon was connected to the Islamic State.

The question remains how KTJ managed to put Islamic State practices to such effective use while the IS themselves haven't managed to virtually organise a single large-scale attack within Russia.

Oved Lobel graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a bachelor's degree in Russian Language and Literature. He is currently completing his MA in Government, with a focus on diplomacy and conflict studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.