Islamic State and low-tech terrorism in Russia

Islamic State and low-tech terrorism in Russia
Comment: Oved Lobel asks what's behind the seemingly small numbers of low-tech terror attacks in Russia.
5 min read
05 Sep, 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers in memory of victims of terrorist attack [Getty]
On August 19th in the city of Surgut, Russia, 19-year-old local Artur Gadzhiev, armed with a knife and an axe and wearing a fake suicide vest, injured seven people before being shot and killed by police. A video of his pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State surfaced shortly thereafter. 

To western observers, this sort of low-tech terror attack is only too common. Many cities in Europe have seen individuals radicalised by the Islamic State use vehicles, hatchets and knives in various combinations to conduct rampages. While coordinated assaults involving explosives and firearms do still occur, the West has of late become more accustomed to the low-tech variety of mass murder by "home-grown" extremists. 

This phenomenon is not technically new in transnational jihad. In 2010, for instance, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula published an article in its Inspire magazine entitled "The Ultimate Mowing Machine" on the subject of low-tech terror.

However, it was the Islamic State's then-spokesperson and head of its external operations branch Abu Muhammed al-Adnani who really breathed life into low-tech terrorism in a 2014 speech, urging followers to use any means at hand, including cars and knives, to inflict harm on disbelievers. It has since become the pervasive nightmare known throughout Europe today.

Curiously, this has not been the case in Russia. In fact, the attack in Surgut is the first Islamic State attack in Russia - completed or allegedly prevented - that did not involve firearms and explosives. The only similar prior Islamic State incident, in which two Chechens attacked traffic police in the city of Balashikha in August 2016 with axes, still involved a firearm.

Given the combination of complex and low-tech terrorism seen in the West, it is strange that Russia should be almost entirely devoid of the phenomenon.

Terrorism suspect captured by Russian police [Getty]

Terrorism suspect in the Saint Petersburg metro bombing which left
16 people dead 
and 64 injured, is captured by Russian police
in April 2017 [Getty]

The Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, reports it has become incredibly adept at preventing complex attacks and rounding up terrorist cells. FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov claimed in April that Russia had destroyed 46 "international terrorist cells" and prevented scores of attacks all across Russia.

The thwarted plans were apparently grand in scale and often involved coordinated attacks and Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, targeting large public gatherings, public transport or shopping centers. In nearly every prevented attack reported, IED components or laboratories have been discovered in raids along with firearms and other explosives.

Given the purported counterterrorism prowess of Russian security services and the successes in the West, it seems odd that not a single Russian has been inspired to vehicular terrorism or to use blades instead of firearms.

Not only would it be a way around FSB detection, but it would allow individuals who didn't know offhand how to build bombs or have access to guns, to wreak havoc as they have done, and continue to do, in the West.

By only referencing the Islamic State in thwarted attacks, the Kremlin can minimise the problem

The relationship between the Islamic State and Russia is a deeper rabbit hole than this discrepancy suggests.

For instance, the Russians have yet to officially acknowledge the attack in Surgut as terrorism, despite the Islamic State's claim of responsibility and the video demonstrating the allegiance of the attackers.

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

Even more surprising, at least four other attacks claimed by the Islamic State, including the axe assault in Balashikha, another on traffic police in Astrakhan, a shooting in Derbent in Dagestan, and a second knife attack on police in Dagestan last week were not investigated as terrorist incidents.

The cases were instead classified under other statutes in Russia's criminal code such as "attempt on the life of law enforcement officials" and "illegal possession of firearms and ammunition". Strikingly, the FSB claims to have foiled an attempted attack with a bladed weapon on August 31 after the suspect posted a video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State online, and the attack is being investigated as a terrorism incident.

Inconsistencies in Russia's terrorism investigations might be an attempt to play down the extent to which the Islamic State has radicalised individuals or local groups, just as it occasionally plays up the significance of its counterterrorism successes.

By only referencing the Islamic State in thwarted attacks, the Kremlin can minimise the problem and continue talking about small groups and "psychiatric problems". Bangladesh, for instance, has a history of denying Islamic State attacks, instead blaming them on domestic organisations.

The Islamic State itself has added to the mess by claiming an attack in Khabarovsk in Russia's Far East, in which an attacker opened fire on the FSB headquarters, killing two. The FSB insists the attacker, Anton Konev, was in fact a member of the neo-Nazi group Stoltz Khabarovsk and had no connection to the Islamic State.

Inconsistencies in Russia’s terrorism investigations might be an attempt to play down the extent to which the Islamic State has radicalised individuals or local groups

A study by Kyle Orton of the Henry Jackson Society, found that only 15 percent of attacks conducted by the Islamic State since 2002 have been true "lone wolf" attacks, while the rest were "either controlled or guided" by the group.

This pattern is likely to hold true in Russia as well, regardless of what the security services claim. Historically, too, the Islamic State is a much more reliable source of information on these claims than the FSB.

The fact that knives and cars are conspicuously absent from planned and completed attacks in a country overtly threatened by the Islamic State, especially given the plethora of radicalised individuals allegedly roaming the country and the capability of the FSB to thwart attacks, may simply be the result of Russia's long-standing insurgency throughout the North Caucasus.

This insurgency has bestowed a large cadre of radicals with the skills they need to carry out more complex attacks. On top of this, a massive foreign fighter contingent from Russia to Syria, estimated to be over 4,000, plus at least 5,000 from Central Asia, only adds to the number of individuals able to execute complex attacks.

The Islamic State may therefore be capitalising on this to urge and plan more impressive gestures, even if most are foiled. But with two stabbing attacks in as many weeks, this may be about to change.

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.