Seminar “Islam and counter-terrorism strategy in Russia”: summary

On April 4th, 2019 the Department of History, Cultural Heritage, Education and Society of the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy of the University of Rome Tor Vergata hosted the seminar “Islam and counter-terrorism strategy in Russia” in partnership with the association Ricerca Continua with the purpose of underlining terrorist threats in Russia and the Kremlin’s strategy to contrast radicalisation and jihadist propaganda.

Darya Bazarkina, professor at the Department for International Security and Foreign Affairs at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), Maria Giovanna Stasolla, ordinary professor in History of Islamic countries at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, and Alessandro Ricci, co-founder of Ricerca Continua, took part at the seminar moderated by Giuliano Bifolchi, OSINT Unit Director of ASRIE.

As Giuliano Bifolchi and Alessandro Ricci stated introducing the event, understanding the Islamisation process in Russia and the evolution of terrorism is fundamental to elaborate counter-terrorism strategies and narratives. Indeed, Islam in Russia plays an important role because it is the nation’s second most widely professed religion which makes the Russian Federation a ‘Muslim country’ according to the words of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russian society has experienced the rise of different ‘version of Islam’ and in some regions, particularly in the North Caucasus, Islam has become together with the local tribal customary practices the main guide of the populationThe ‘Islamic revival’ experienced in the last decades of the Soviet Union was characterised by the spread of different Islamic ideology such as those of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafiyya and Wahhabism. Since the ’90s, jihadist propaganda has targetted specific regions of the Russian Federation (especially the North Caucasus) and the Russian government has been forced to face the problems of militancy and terrorist attacks in the entire country. Indeed, in 2007 Doku Umarov proclaimed the birth of Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), a terrorist organisation whose aim was to create an emirate in the North Caucasus based on sharīʿa law, while in 2014-2015 the Islamic State created Vilayat Kavkaz (Caucasus Province) in the North Caucasus making the Russian Federation a possible target of terrorist attacks and jihadist propaganda.

Terrorist attacks in Russia and the level of violence in the period 1992-2012 (Source: START)

Professor Maria Giovanna Stasolla focused the attention on the history of the Islamisation process in Russia underlining some important events whose consequences are still visible nowadays. In fact, the Muslim presence in the Russian Federation has roots in the past started in the 7th century when Islam reached the North Caucasus during the Arab conquests. It is possible to say that in the Russian perception Islam is linked to the Mongol invasion and identified with alien and hostile forces against which to fight. The spread of Islam in Russia takes place following the Russian expansion into Muslim regions causing local Muslim populations to perceive the Russians as conquerors. Over the past 500 years, Russian politics has been predominantly characterised by oppression and elimination of ethnic and religious minorities with only a few short periods of tolerance and this has led to the affirmation of an essentially colonial relationship. After the fall of the Soviet Union, various problems emerged in various sectors whose solution seems very difficult to find. It is clear that the Islamic component of Russia is still playing a considerable role both in the internal evolution of the country and in its relations with the outside world.

Professor Darya Bazarkina, the main guest speaker of the seminar, presented to the audience her research titled ‘Counteraction to ISIS in the Social Media: The Russian Experience‘.  She highlighted that Russian law enforcement agencies co-operate with the non-state actors in the countering terrorist social media activity like in the European Union. However when the European bodies are in contact with the leading IT companies – social media owners (Twitter, Facebook, Google etc.), the Russian authorities use the instruments established by the companies specializing in the social media monitoring.

According to Europol, “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 sensational case of blocking Telegram messenger in Russia shows that even in the counter-terrorism struggle the interests of the state and non-state actors may contradict each other. In September 2017, the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) pressed charges in the non-fulfilment of the Yarovaya law (federal counter-terrorist bills 374-FZ and 375-FZ, passed in 2016) to the messenger owners. In October 2017, a judgment was delivered in favour of the FSB, imposing a fine on Telegram in the amount of 800 thousand rubles. The reason was the lack of telegram keys from Correspondence 6 persons accused of a terrorist act in Saint-Petersburg. Pavel Durov, the Telegram founder, answered that messenger could hardly help the special services, “because the mobile numbers interesting to the FSB either never had accounts in Telegram, or their accounts were deleted due to inactivity”. “Neither Telegram nor other messengers could give out keys to decrypt the correspondence of all its users even if they wanted. This is due to the technical features of encryption in 2018”, Durov wrote on his wall VKontakte. This case shows certain rigidity of the censorship system in the Russian counter-terrorism. Against the obvious successes in the operational-investigative work and the counteraction to IS propaganda in the religious institutions, which have become a priority in Russia, the development of solutions for counter-propaganda in social media is significantly behind the world practice.

Despite this case, as it was mentioned already, the private sector is involved in the counter-terrorism struggle: they track down recruiters, block e-wallets and monitor correspondence in offices. In February 2015, Andrey Masalovich, former FAPSI 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. The company had to warn law enforcement agencies about the threats. Avalanche Online is a family of automated Internet intelligence systems to solve a variety of tasks of monitoring online media, fast re-targeting on new topics and processing of the collected information. The system automatically filters the information on subjects.

Research conducted using Avalanche Online titled “Kazan: Operational Environment”

During the social media monitoring initiated by the counter-terrorist bodies, Avalanche Online analyzed and built the structure of relations between the members of the “Chistopol Jamaat” and the IS members. The intelligence engine identified recruiters, opinion leaders and support groups. As Andrey Masalovich said, the collected information was placed in Gephi (mechanism of program visualization and graphs construction). Details of the investigation are operational secret, but as an example, Masalovich demonstrated to the journalist the group “HalifatNews” in VKontakte.

There are examples of the co-operation between the public and private sector in the counteraction to IS propaganda in social media in Russia too. In the summer of 2015, “Sidorin Lab” IT company got a request from the customer interested in the extremist theme, NGO “Combat Brotherhood” (Boevoe Bratstvo), all-Russian public organization of veterans. “Identify and block accounts associated with IS, systematically engaged in our intelligence agencies. And we are in the best way to assist them in this work”, explains Senator Dmitry Sablin, the head of the NGO. The second direction is the ideological counteraction to the terrorists. According to Sablin, “IS propagandists use distrust of bureaucracy, loneliness, frustration, thirst for justice, such a natural among young people. They are excellent psychologists”. The “Combat brotherhood” has a special group that opposes recruiters. It includes the experts in counter-terrorism, Internet security, Arab and Syrian studies. In summer 2015 Dmitry Sidorin, director of “Sidorin Lab”, at Dmitry Sablin’s request participated in the preparation of an analytical report on the IS activity in the Russian segment of the Internet. “In those days the number of references to the IS in social media reached 10 000 references per day”, Sidorin says. According to him, the spread of news and messages about the IS mainly occurred VKontakte and Facebook.

Professor Bazarkina presented also the counter-terrorism narrative spread in Russia through the project ‘Rossiya protiv DAISH’ (Russia against DAISH – @RusAgainstDAESH) whose purpose is to counter the jihadist propaganda using religious argumentation (in particular the Quran) and underlining non-Muslim behaviours and messages of the Islamic State.

“Daesh enemy of Islam”. In this pictures is highlighted the fact that the Islamic State is enemy of Islam because has organised also attacks against Muslims (Source: @RusAgainstDAESH)
‘Daesh – Enemy of Culture”. This picture shows the destruction of the historical and cultural site of Palmira in Syria. (Source: @RusAgainstDAESH)

*Our participation at this seminar and the visit of Professor Darya Bazarkina in Rome are part of our activities of research and analysis on terrorism and counter-terrorism activities under the project Terrorism and Security. For further information about the activities and projects of our organisation, read our page Projects or contact our team at info@asrie.org