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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Religious Extremism Finds Fertile Ground

APSoldiers running along a street in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria.
The indiscriminate suppression of "unofficial" Islamic organizations in Kabardino-Balkaria combined with poverty and historical grievances have created fertile ground for a virulent strain of religious extremism, as manifested in Thursday's violent raids.

The coordinated attacks in the republic's capital, Nalchik, ended a relative lull throughout the North Caucasus region since last year's horrendous hostage-taking drama in Beslan and demonstrated a lasting commitment to trying to destabilize the region in hopes of wresting swathes of it from Moscow's control.

"Unfortunately, this seems to be a continuation of the tactic of staging attacks to destabilize an increasingly number of areas in the North Caucasus," said Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

In the past year, networks of insurgents and terrorists have staged almost daily, smaller-scale attacks on police and other officials in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya and other ethnic republics of the North Caucasus.

Several hours after the launch of the daring multipronged assault on key government facilities in Nalchik, the web site of these networks posted a statement claiming they had been led by the Kabardino-Balkaria-based group Yarmuk.

Yarmuk comprises the Kabardino-Balkaria part of the North Caucasus network of Islamic militants who are often, but not always correctly, referred to in Russia as "Wahhabis." Yarmuk, which has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks on police in the republic since 2004, coordinates it actions with Shamil Basayev, the most notorious terrorist of the North Caucasus.

Thursday's claim of responsibility was confirmed by Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov, who accused Anzor Astemirov, a Yarmuk leader, of having organized the Nalchik attacks.

Much of the responsibility for the rise of Yarmuk must be borne by the longtime leader of Kabardino-Balkaria, Valery Kokov, who tolerated no political or religious dissent in the mostly Muslim republic. Using a tactic employed by other strongmen running North Caucasus republics, he labeled all alternatives to the local branch of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Russia as Wahhabis and harassed them.

Kokov resigned in September and was replaced by Arsen Kanokov, a pro-Kremlin State Duma deputy and businessman.

The 15 years of Kokov's strong-handed rule radicalized "unofficial" Muslim organizations to such a degree that some of their members have gone underground and taken up arms to fight the local regime in alliance with the insurgent and terrorist networks operating across the North Caucasus, experts on the region said.

"Kokov had been applying strong pressure, indiscriminately harassing even the moderates. The situation would not have become so explosive if the authorities had established a dialogue instead," said Akhmet Yarlykapov, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology.

Yarlykapov singled out the Jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria as a showcase of how a moderate alternative to official Islam had been marginalized and pushed underground. The jamaat, which was registered under the name Islamic Center in 1993 and then renamed in 1997 after failing to renew its registration, united those unhappy with the Spiritual Board of Kabardino-Balkaria, which operates the only officially open mosque in Nalchik.

The organization did not preach violence and its leaders even managed to convince the most radical followers to refrain from the use of arms, Yarlykapov said. But mounting pressure forced its leader, Mussa Mukozhoyev, to go underground, while several dozen of the local radicals slipped away to fight on the Chechen rebels' side in the second Chechen war. They also reportedly trained in late Chechen warlord Ruslan Gelayev's camp in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and then formed the Yarmuk organization in 2002, according to Kabardino-Balkaria's Interior Ministry.

Yarmuk, which consists mostly of ethnic Balkars, launched its first attack in Kabardino-Balkaria in August 2004 when it ambushed policemen in the republic's Chegem district. Its most devastating attack was carried out in December 2004, when Yarmuk members seized a drug police office in Nalchik, killing four and seizing caseloads of guns and ammunition.

Basayev maintains such close ties with Kabardino-Balkaria extremists that he has trusted them with his life, slipping into the republic's town of Baksan to rest there for more than a month in 2003. Failed Chechen suicide bomber Zarema Muzhakhoyeva lived in Nalchik in the house of local Wahhabis before setting out to detonate a bomb in downtown Moscow in the summer of 2003. Also, it was former Nalchik resident Murad Shuvayev who housed the alleged organizer of the Rizhskaya metro station bombing in Moscow last year.

The leader of Yarmuk, Muslim Atayev, was killed during the storming of an apartment in Nalchik in January 2005, but his organization has continued to operate, periodically staging attacks under the leadership of his successor, Rustam Bekanov.

Local police claim to have killed seven members of this organization since the beginning of 2005 and uncovered several of its caches of guns and explosives, but it continues to attract recruits.

Both Kabardins and Balkars participate in the local insurgency, but it is mostly the Balkars who fill the ranks.

Balkars have a historic grievance against Russian rule, stemming from the forceful conquest of their lands in the 19th century and the forceful separation from their Turkic-language "cousins" when Kabardino-Balkaria was formed in 1922, where they became a minority. They were deported in 1943 because of Soviet suspicions that they would collaborate with the invading Nazi troops.

When Soviet authorities allowed them to return in 1957-59, the Balkars found themselves at the same disadvantage, as only the third-largest group, after the Kabardins and Russians. Balkars now account for less than 12 percent of the republic's population of 901,000, according to the 2002 census.

Other factors contributing to the radicalization in Karbardino-Balkaria -- which Wahhabi recruiters took advantage of -- were poverty and disproportionally high unemployment among the youth, Malashenko and Yarlykapov said. The local unemployment rate hovers above the national average.

Additionally, the Soviet collapse created an ideological vacuum as Islam was all but wiped out in the republic during the Soviet years, and there was not a single functioning mosque when the Soviet Union fell apart, said Karine Gevorkyan, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies. Radical-minded leaders quickly saw an opportunity to fill this vacuum by preaching militant forms of Salafism in Kabardino-Balkaria, she said.

There were about 2,000 followers of "radical Islam" as of 2004, according to the republic's Interior Ministry.

Most practicing Muslims were moderates, however, and their radicalization could be reversed if the new leader of the republic discontinued Kokov's policies and begins to allow some political and religious dissent, Malashenko and Yarlykapov said.

At his inauguration, Kanokov made signs that he may soften the tough policy of his predecessor and reach out to such organizations as the Jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria, Malashenko said.