Russian strategy to contrast terrorism and cooperation with EU: interview with Darya Bazarkina

The Russian Federation has been affected by terrorism and violent attacks since the ’90s during the years of the Chechen conflicts and later due to the affirmation of the Caucasus Emirate in the North Caucasus, a terrorist organisation which wanted to create an Emirate in the North Caucasus region and organised several terrorist attacks in entire Russia. After the rise of the Islamic State, Russia has experienced terrorist threats and attacks on its soil and nowadays the main risk is the return of foreign fighters to their homeland who, after having fought in the Middle East and North Africa, have the experience to organise guerilla warfare on the Russian soil.

Our organisation discussed issues related to the Russian counter-terrorism strategy and the possible cooperation with the European Union in the security field with Darya Yu. Bazarkina, Professor at the Department of the International Security and Foreign Policy of Russia, Institute of Law and National Security at Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Moscow) and also Senior Researcher at the School of International Relations at the Saint Petersburg State University (Saint Petersburg), and Research Coordinator on Communication Management and Strategic Communication at the International Center for Socio-Political Studies and Consulting (ICSPSC).

According to different sources, around eight to ten thousand foreign fighters from the post-Soviet space have been fighting among the ranks of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Since the fall of the Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq, different analysts and scholars have underlined the risk that foreign fighters might return to their homeland and start promoting jihadist ideologies. What is the Russian Government’s strategy to tackle this threat?

“This problem is indeed very relevant for our country, and the number of fighters from Russia and the other former Soviet republics that you mentioned coincides with the official Russian estimates. President Vladimir Putin cited data from the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, which indicate that about four thousand militants came to Syria from Russia and five thousand from the former republics of the Soviet Union. “Taking into account that we have a visa-free regime between the [former Soviet] countries, we understand what a huge danger lies in this hotbed of terrorism in Syria for us, for Russia”, the President said.

As the military defeats of the so-called “Islamic state” (IS), Russian law enforcement officers have repeatedly highlighted the problem associated with fighters returning from Syria. We can refer to the official statements of the Chairman of the National Antiterrorism Committee (NAC, a collegiate body tasked with the coordination and organization of government bodies’ counterterrorism activities), the Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov. He noted that the greatest number of terrorist attacks in 2018 was registered in the North Caucasian Federal District of Russia. Terrorist fighters returning from armed conflict zones in the Middle East often become the emissaries of international terrorist organizations. They promote the ideology of terrorism, especially among young people, and involve minors in acts of violence. Thus, of the five participants in the August 2018 series of attacks on law enforcement officers in the Chechen Republic, the oldest of the criminals (who hit traffic police officers at the entrance to Grozny by car) was 17 years old, and the youngest was just 11. The IS took responsibility for these attacks. Terrorists are also trying to provoke religious conflicts, for example by attacking Orthodox churches in regions with a predominantly Muslim population.

The solving of these problems is conducted in two ways in Russia. The first one is continuous operational investigative work: the pursuit of terrorist cells and individuals as well as the restriction of suspects’ entry into the territory of the country. Thus, in 2018, control over migration flows was strengthened to prevent their use by terrorists. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOI) and the Border Service of the FSB have denied the entry of more than ten thousand persons suspected of involvement in terrorist and extremist activities as well as the departure of more than sixty Russians and foreigners to the zones of armed conflicts in the Middle East. In this direction, the activities of Russian anti-terrorist structures are very successful; in 2018, in particular, the FIFA World Cup and the presidential elections took place without any terrorist attacks.

The second direction is the communication provision of the anti-terrorist activities. It should be noted that the strategy of the Russian authorities in countering the terrorist ideology is currently in a stage of revision: the period of implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Counteraction of Ideology of Terrorism in the Russian Federation for 2013–2018 has just ended. On 11 December 2018, the results of the work of the National Antiterrorism Committee and its Federal Operational Headquarters in 2018 were summed up. At this meeting, according to open sources, the draft Comprehensive Plan for 2019–2023 was considered. This document has not yet been published, but, at the beginning of 2018, Deputy Head of the NAC Apparatus Igor Kulyagin said that it is likely to preserve such well-established measures as explaining to society the essence of terrorism and its dangers and protecting the information space from the spreading of terrorist and extremist ideas.”

Darya Yu. Bazarkina, Professor at the Department of the International Security and Foreign Policy of Russia, Institute of Law and National Security at Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Moscow)

In particular, could you explain to us the most significant tendencies and challenges of the counter-terrorism strategy in the Russian Federation in the field of information warfare and strategic communication?

“The document reflecting the main directions of the communication provision for counter-terrorism in Russia is the already-mentioned Comprehensive Plan of Counteraction of Ideology of Terrorism. It specifies the main trends of work to reduce the level of radicalization and prevent the recruitment of new terrorists. In the previous version of the Plan, there were three such directions:

  • the clarification of the essence of terrorism and its extreme social danger and the formation of persistent rejection of the terrorist ideology by society;
  • the protection of the information space of Russia from the penetration of ideas justifying terrorist activities;
  • the formation and improvement of legislative, regulatory, organizational and other mechanisms to counter the ideology of terrorism.

In the new Comprehensive Plan for 2019–2023, these components will probably remain in one form or another (supplemented and expanded), as they cover the widest range of measures taken, from interaction with the media and civil society institutions in educating young people to the social rehabilitation of former extremists. Measures to combat radicalization and recruitment in multinational Russia are carried out in the context of support for the traditional cultural, including religious, values of the peoples of the country. Among the goals of youth forums, such as “Seliger” and “Kaspiy”, is the education of young people in the spirit of interethnic and interreligious tolerance.

The work with “risk groups” (young people; persons who have received religious education abroad; criminals who have served sentences for terrorist activities, etc.) also remains under active development. For these groups’ socialization and psychological rehabilitation (including targeted prevention of the terrorist activities of one branch or another), there is a selection of qualified specialists, including some who are constantly working on the Internet. Regarding this aspect, the counter-narrative disseminated by anti-terrorist actors is extremely important. In the media, we can find, for example, indications of the similarity of the IS to the Nazi regime.

I would like to focus on public-private partnership in the development of monitoring tools for the online environment in the fight against the spread of extremist content. In 2018, Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media), the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB, in cooperation with the General Prosecutor’s office, expanded the implementation of automated monitoring systems for online communications. This made it possible to prevent the dissemination of illegal information on more than sixty-four thousand Internet resources, of which more than forty-seven thousand contained materials related to terrorism.

Russian law enforcement agencies co-operate with non-state actors in countering terrorist social media activity. When the European bodies are in contact with the leading IT companies and social media owners (Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc.), the Russian authorities use the social media monitoring instruments established by domestic producers specializing in this sphere. Private contractors track down terrorist recruiters, block their e-wallets and monitor their correspondence in offices. For example, Andrey Masalovich, former FAPSI (Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, a Russian government agency responsible for signal intelligence and security of governmental communications in 1991–2003) Lieutenant Colonel, nowadays the founder of the Avalanche Online search and analysis system, was responsible for tracking extremist connections on the Internet and social media in Tatarstan. His company had to warn law enforcement agencies about the threats. During the social media monitoring initiated by the counter-terrorist bodies, Avalanche Online analysed and built a structure of relations between the members of the “Chistopol Jamaat” and the IS members. The intelligence engine identified recruiters, opinion leaders and support groups.

There are examples of co-operation between the public and the private sector in the counteraction of IS propaganda in social media in Russia too. In the summer of 2015, the “Sidorin Lab” IT company received a request from a customer interested in the extremist theme, the NGO “Combat Brotherhood” (“Boevoe Bratstvo”), an all-Russian public organization of veterans. The company identified and blocked accounts associated with IS. The second direction is the ideological counteraction of terrorists, who “use distrust of bureaucracy, loneliness, frustration, thirst for justice, such a natural among young people”. The “Combat Brotherhood” has a special group that opposes recruiters, which includes experts in counter-terrorism, Internet security and Arab and Syrian studies.

Among the challenges faced by the Russian Government in recent years has been the task of ensuring a balance between security and human rights. Thus, the case of blocking the Telegram messenger to disrupt terrorists’ communications shows a certain conflict of interests between the security structures and the business/public sector concerning counter-terrorism. This case shows that against the obvious successes in the operational–investigative work and the counteraction of IS propaganda through religious institutions, which has become a priority in Russia, some solutions in the digital area (in particular, the cooperation of the state and online service providers) still need to be improved.”

Since the Ukrainian crisis, EURussia cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism has been undermined, with severe repercussions for the security of Europe and the Russian Federation. In a globalized and interconnected world, where distance no longer represents an obstacle and social media are used to promote ideologies, how essential is it for Moscow and Brussels to cooperate in the field of counter-terrorism? What future steps can be taken to restore the dialogue and collaboration in this field?

Co-operation in this sphere is strictly important, taking into account the fact that the European Union law enforcement agencies also assess the mass return of foreign fighters from Syria as one of the most urgent threats. Many of these fighters are of European origin, and the exchange of experience between European and Russian law enforcement agencies in suppressing the propaganda and recruitment carried out by these militants could be extremely useful for both sides.

According to the Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation, one of the main thrusts of ensuring information security is “taking part in establishing an international information security system capable of effectively countering the use of information technologies for military and political purposes that are contrary to international law, or for terrorist, extremist, criminal or other illegal purposes”. Moreover, we must admit that even considering the exchange of sanctions, European and Russian security structures understand their common responsibility in the face of a common threat. If, for example, the functions of the FSB are focused on the internal security of Russia, the EU and Russian police structures will cooperate more actively. One of the most important events here was the 18th Meeting of the Russia–EU Joint Committee on Readmission held on 13 December 2018 at the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Representatives of the Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs of the European Commission, FRONTEX, representatives of the European Union in Moscow and experts from the EU Member States took part in this meeting. This was an important step against the background of the growth of illegal migration, which involves terrorists too.

In addition, the assessments of the terrorist threat made by the FSB and Europol are very similar. Thus, Europol, in its 2017 IOCTA Report, stated that it is aware that “the terrorist media campaigns are being prepared in encrypted social media platforms, such as Telegram, before the terrorist message is spread to the wider social media network”. The Director of the FSB also emphasized that extremists exchange information in private chats, which cannot always be deciphered. This is a particular urgent problem, which can only be the tip of the iceberg considering the growing interest of terrorists in artificial intelligence, machine learning and other advanced technologies.

New dangers and threats are emerging. In this situation, in addition to the practitioners’ contacts, it is extremely important to develop academic cooperation in the search for solutions in the interests of the EU and Russia. Today, on the basis of the Institute of Law and National Security of the Presidential Academy, the Russian–European International Center for Legal Studies has already been established (it is especially pleasant that the Prime Minister of Italy (1992–1993) Giuliano Amato and the Ambassador Extraordinary Plenipotentiary of the Italian Republic to Moscow Cesare Maria Ragaglini were present in person at the signing of the agreement for this centre). International research associations, for example, the EURUCM Network, the coordinators of which, by the way, are representatives of Russia and Italy today, could also become the foundation for the international expert groups. In Russia, there are platforms for major research projects. For example, last year, Saint Petersburg State University launched major research on information and psychological security, including the study of the social consequences of the use of artificial intelligence in information and psychological warfare with terrorists.

First, we need new analytical products, developed in the interests of both the EU and Russia, which could be sent to government structures for the development of political decisions. Against the backdrop of the possible turn of terrorism towards a new quality, it is imperative to understand that, in the face of the common threat, the aggravation of our political contradictions may be an obstacle to our future existence itself.

Security during the Sochi Olympics in 2014 (Source: Variety.com)

The NATO Stratcom Centre of Excellence released a report in which the Islamic State’s jihadist propaganda was considered to be dangerous and a threat to the West as Russian strategic communication, although Russia has been involved in the fight against terrorist groups in Syria supporting Bashar al-Assad and the Russian Federation has been targeted by terrorist attacks on its soil. The International Crisis Group, as well as some international and Russian experts, have declared that the Kremlin helped militants and extremists from the North Caucasus to travel to Syria and Iraq before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games with the purpose of improving the security situation in the country. Can you give us an explanation for these statements and allegations?

“Unfortunately, this publication of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence is further evidence that the NATO administration sees Russia as an enemy. However, this had already become apparent in 2008 (if not earlier), when the Alliance leadership ignored the opinion of Russia and continued to expand the bloc to the east, stating that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members. This stage of expansion was one of the factors in the prolonged crisis that split Ukraine. It is not surprising that the “words” and “images” in NATO’s strategic communication correspond to the “deeds” of the Alliance, and it is alarming that over time these messages have become more direct and provocative.

There is other publication of the NATO StratСom CoE, in which countries such as Russia and China are labelled as Nazi regimes (for example, “Putin, Xi, and Hitler—Propaganda and the Paternity of Pseudo Democracy”). It is noteworthy that such publications have not specified the long-term goals and political motivation of the “possible adversaries” of NATO but have in fact drawn a parallel on one parameter: Russia and China, as well as the Nazi Reich in the past and the IS today, use propaganda. With the same success, reverse manipulation is possible. If, as these authors have stated, “Both DAESH and Russia appeal to the human need for a sense of belonging and wanting to contribute to something worthwhile” (see page 13), why cannot we say the same about the United States, the EU (where, by the way, such messages are used in the “exit programmes” for former extremists) or any other state or supranational body in the world, associating it in the mass consciousness with terrorists?

We have to state that the coverage of the situation in Syria today is also an indicator of information warfare in the European region. If we read the above-mentioned report of the International Crisis Group carefully, we will see that it refers to opposing views on whether the control of the outflow of extremists from Russia was really weakened before the Sochi Olympics (see page 16 of the report), but a number of Russian media and bloggers preferred to cite only one point of view, sometimes even strengthening it (for example, the ICG wrote about “FSB leniency for the departing first wave”, but the Russian Internet resource “Medusa”, for example, published material under the heading “Special Services Before the Olympics in Sochi Helped the Military to Go to Syria”). Reuters cited as evidence the words of one fighter and “acting and former officials as well as relatives of those who left” (of five other fighters), but here a question arises about the reliability and awareness of such information sources, even when the journalists have managed to contact them.

These and other examples once again demonstrate the ongoing information warfare between different groups of interests, both in the international arena and within national states. Such uncertainty and disunity are and will continue to be used by terrorists and their sponsors. Media researchers report a drop in confidence in official media around the world. However, information warfare is gradually moving to the use of all the channels without exception. It is not possible to manage this without the reader him-/herself having a critical understanding and verification of information sources, if we want to ensure that a society is protected from psychological manipulation in the long term. Under these conditions, it is especially necessary to develop the media literacy of citizens.

A critical approach to information is stated today to be one of the components of strategic communication, for example, in NATO. However, strategic communication nowadays often depends on the goals of warfare, and this fact is a serious obstacle to agreement even on apparently common problems, and, as we have seen, it inevitably leads to increased manipulation. Only strategic communication based on common interests, which will not be reduced to propaganda alone, can save our common future.”


For more information about our organisation’s meetings and activities or analysis regarding the Russian Federation and its counter-terrorism strategy it is possible to contact our team at info@asrie.org