Russia, considered one of the countries with the highest number of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and other terrorist groups abroad, is trying to “reintegrate” those jihadis “into society, by way of shorter stints in jail and close monitoring,” the Washington Post reported this week.
On Sunday, the Post revealed that 42-year-old lawyer Sevil Novruzova from Russia’s predominantly Muslim Dagestan region has helped repatriate at least 120 jihadis from the so-called ISIS caliphate that once spanned large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
About half of the returned militants are in prison “for fighting in an illegally armed foreign group, which Russia criminalized in 2014,” the Post pointed out.
“We don’t know what goes on in the souls of our young people,” Novruzova told the Post. “We need to understand what they really want. Are they repenting or trying to leave a sinking ship?”
U.S.-backed locals – and, to a much lesser extent, forces loyal to the Iranian- and Russian-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – have annihilated the territorial caliphate, pushing ISIS out of its last stronghold in Syria last month.
Novruzova’s efforts stand in sharp contrast to the political indecision in the West over whether to repatriate citizens who sided with the Islamic State.
Her outreach is even more remarkable for the shift it reflects in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Putin had been ruthless in his pursuit of Islamist insurgents — vowing once to “rub them out in the outhouse” — yet his government appears to be changing tack when it comes to those who joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where Moscow is a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad.
Normally, Islamist insurgents inside Russia would receive long prison sentences. Their families were also arrested and tortured, according to human rights groups. Now, the Kremlin is attempting to reintegrate Islamic State members into society, by way of shorter stints in jail and close monitoring.
WaPo pointed out that an estimated 400 jihadis have returned to Russia, adding that most are serving time in prison. Over 100 wives of Russian ISIS jihadis and an equal number of children have also returned home.
In December 2017, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), charged with homeland security, cautioned that returning foreign fighters who left Russia to join terrorist groups in Syria pose “a real threat.”
ISIS claimed responsibility for carrying out a terrorist attack on a church in the Muslim-majority Russian republic of Chechnya that killed three and wounded three others in May 2018. A few months later that year, in August, ISIS claimed responsibility for multiple attacks in the Russian Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya.
The jihadi group has established a wing in the North Caucus region, home to terrorists who have targeted Russia’s transport infrastructure on various occasions in recent years.
In 2017, the Soufan Group (TSG) reported that at least 2,400 foreign fighters from Russia had traveled to engage in jihad in Iraq and Syria, the majority alongside ISIS — making Russia the top non-Muslim nation with the most foreign fighters in the Middle East.
— The Soufan Group (@TheSoufanGroup) April 3, 2017
The widely cited study only accounts for fighters who joined ISIS before 2015 when the terrorist group established its branch in the North Caucus.
Australia’s Lowy Institute placed the estimate for Russian foreign fighters at 2,500, noting that Russia is the top non-Muslim country with jihadists in the Middle East.
About 1,200 Russian foreign fighters were from the Dagestan region alone, the Post reported, citing official figures.
In October 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and the former Soviet republics had traveled to Syria to join ISIS. Some former Soviet republics are predominantly Muslim.
TSG determined that Russia is the third top country with the most foreign fighters in the region, after Muslim-majority Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.