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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radical Islam Grows in the Shadows

With his clean-shaven chin and classic blue jeans, 40-year-old Akhmed Magomedov hardly fits the stereotypical image of a Moslem radical -- bearded, brandishing a machine gun and calling for the blood of infidels.

But Magomedov, a Dagestan native who lives in Moscow preaching a fundamentalist brand of Islam called Wahhabism, is part of the growing radical wing among Russia's Moslems.

"Like the Bolsheviks in Switzerland a century ago, Wahhabis find haven in Moscow today," Magomedov joked bitterly in a recent interview.

The chances that the Russian establishment will co-opt Moslem extremists and bring them into a political dialogue are next to none, especially after last week's terrorist attacks in the United States. Instead, experts said, the movement is likely to become ever more marginalized and its potential as a violent threat will continue to grow, especially in overwhelmingly Moslem regions such as Dagestan and Chechnya.

"In coming years, Russia will struggle with them fiercely," Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Center for Caucasian Studies, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "But even if the state totally eliminates [existing] Islamic extremists, the problem will not be solved because the conditions for their proliferation will remain."

Fundamentalist communities are a heterogeneous bunch, but experts agree about their origins. Fundamentalism surfaced in Russia in the early 1990s, when the doors to Moslem communities -- whose religion had been suppressed during Soviet times -- were thrown open to proselytizers from all walks of Islam. The most radical of them met with the greatest success in the south, where poverty and clan conflicts were the norm.

"When Communism ends, when people are ignorant of democracy and are oppressed by local corrupt elites, they turn to the Islamic alternative," said Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center, referring to the model of a Moslem state based on principles set forward by the Prophet Mohammed and his early followers.

"Many young proselytes turned into headstrong purists then," recalled Magomedov, who himself became disillusioned with moderate Islam in the mid-1990s.

The extremist groups have different names: Wahhabis, Salafis, fundamentalists and even Islamic modernists. They live in the Northern Caucasus, in Tatarstan and in major cities with Moslem diasporas.

About 20 million of the world's 1 billion Moslems live in Russia -- with 1 million in Moscow alone -- and, according to experts and insiders, the number of radical groups is rising steadily.

"We don't have any statistics, but the growth trend is absolutely clear," said Dmitry Makarov, a Wahhabi expert at the Moscow-based Institute of Oriental Studies. "Their most talented, educated representatives live in big Russian cities, such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, and disseminate fundamentalist views in Moslem diasporas."

"When I talk to young congregation members at Moscow mosques, I see that most of them are fundamentalists," Magomedov said. "They want to live in a new state based on Islamic principles."

Experts usually cite two reasons behind the increasing radicalization of Islam in Russia: foreign financial aid and Russian officialdom's inept handling of Moslem communities.

"Both traditionalists and fundamentalists received millions of dollars from international Moslem organizations over the past decade," Makarov said. "Of course, they influence communities in Russia and make them more radical."

Makarov and others said it is difficult to determine whether Osama bin Laden, the Afghanistan-based radical Moslem leader suspected by Washington of masterminding last week's attacks, has provided financial or military aid to Russia's Moslems.

Malashenko, however, said this was not of primary importance because aid from abroad only aggravates Islamic extremism in Russia while a greater impact, he believes, was made by the two military campaigns in Chechnya.

"All [Chechnya's first separatist President Dzhokhar] Dudayev wanted was to create an independent secular state," Malashenko said at a recent press conference. "But, by using force, Russia has pushed Chechnya into Islamic extremism."

Magomedov, who frequently traveled to Chechnya during the first military campaign and knew some of the rebel leaders, said dubious media coverage of the conflict also played a role in transforming a secular confrontation into a religious war.

"Shamil Basayev learned that he was leading a jihad [a sacred war against infidels] from NTV television," he said. "Only after being informed of this did he start reading religious books and making some progress in Islam."

After Chechnya emerged from the conflict with de facto independence in 1996, hundreds of enthusiastic young men from the country's Moslem communities went there to learn more about Islam and jihad in militarized camps set up by warlords of Arab origin.

Magomedov visited some of these camps, where newcomers spent two months studying Islam and another two on martial arts and military disciplines.

"The students were real mujahedin, the warriors of Islam," he said. "In the camps they got what they missed in secular life: a common goal, a sense of community and the spirit of masculine camaraderie."

In September 1999, frightened by the rising tide of radicalism, legislators in neighboring Dagestan banned Wahhabism and religious extremism in the republic.

Those, like Magomedov, who refused to acknowledge the authority of the state-backed Dagestani Spiritual Board were either prosecuted or left the republic, but became hardened in their beliefs.

"The bill made us face a choice," Magomedov said. "And many moderate fundamentalists turned into radicals."

There is no unanimity about the future of Islam in Russia.

Mainstream Moslem leaders downplayed tensions between Islam and the larger society.

"For Moslems brought up in the Russian cultural and informational environment, Russians are not infidels," said Farid Asadullin, head of the Science and Public Relations Department at the Council of Muftis. "Moreover, Islam and Christianity have the same ethical base."

Asked about the political future of radical Moslems in light of the U.S. attacks, Abdul-Vakhid Niyazov, head of the Eurasian Party of Russia and leader of the Refah Islamic movement, said President Vladimir Putin "made it clear that ?Islamophobia' will not hinder further cooperation between the state and Moslem organizations."

But Iskandaryan of the Center for Caucasian Studies outlined two possible scenarios for Russia's relationship with radical Islam.

The first, which exists today, is a "conflict of rifles," he said. To neutralize the threat of further radicalization, it must be transformed into a "conflict of politicians."

Although Iskandaryan said there have been precedents for such transformations -- a prominent one being Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- he was skeptical that the metamorphosis could happen, especially since the start of the current campaign in Chechnya.

"Islamic groups, as a protest movement, are not ready for [initiating] cooperation themselves," he said. "But there has been no order from the state for anyone to approach them with such an offer."

Makarov, of the Institute of Oriental Studies, agreed that only the state can turn fundamentalists into a legitimate political force and pull them into a dialogue.

Carnegie's Malashenko said that so-called Islamists -- leaders who espouse Islam not only as a religion but as a political platform -- could gradually edge out the former Soviet elites that hold power in areas with large Moslem populations.

"In a decade, they will replace most post-Soviet regimes in the southern republics and Russia will be surrounded by states that assess current events from the viewpoint of Islam," he said. "I cannot say Russia is ready to meet the new challenge."

Moreover, Malashenko added, after the attacks on New York and Washington -- which have been linked to radical Islamic movements -- fundamentalist groups have little chance of entering into a political dialogue with the state.

Wahhabi proponent Magomedov said that fundamentalists do not have political aspirations and want only to be allowed to live according to the principles of the Koran.

"If the outside world does not invade our routine we can co-exist forever," he said.

Asked about the implications of the U.S. attack, Magomedov said that Abd-El Wahhab, the 18th-century Islamic theologian for whom Wahhabism is named, propagated the principle of "reactivity."

"Our reaction," said Magomedov, "will depend on the actions against us."