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St Petersburg omen

By its outreach to jihadist rivals of the IS, Moscow risks perpetuating the problem it faces — not solving it

By: Editorial |
Updated: April 5, 2017 12:05:20 am
While it is true that the United States had not a little to do with financing and arming the global jihadist movement in the 1970s, there is precious little evidence that the Islamic State is a Western creation.

Beslan, Dubrovka Theatre siege, the Moscow apartment bombings: In a country that has seen terror rip through its heart so often, and waged savage wars of reprisal that have claimed the lives of tens of thousands, this week’s bombing of a train in St. Petersburg may count as no more than a macabre footnote. Yet, if policy-makers in Moscow are paying attention, there are lessons to be learned. For months now, Russia has been reaching out to enemies of the Islamic State, in an effort to isolate the jihadist formation it sees as its principal adversary in West and Central Asia. Last month, the country’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, infuriated the Afghan government by backing the Taliban’s calls for the withdrawal of western troops from the country — a move that comes on the back of credible reports that Russia has been giving covert assistance to jihadists fighting the Islamic State, but also the Afghan military, in the country’s north. In Moscow’s eyes, its actions are self-defence. The rise of the Islamic State in West Asia, its diplomats argue, was part of a well-conceived western strategy that has sown chaos in Russia’s near-neighbourhood.

While it is true that the United States had not a little to do with financing and arming the global jihadist movement in the 1970s, there is precious little evidence that the Islamic State is a Western creation. Though the destruction of nation-states by ill-conceived Western policies created an enabling environment for the Islamic State to flourish, there is nothing to show the IS is the product of some kind of diabolical conspiracy. Moscow’s paranoia is, interestingly, part of a well-established great-power pattern. Great Britain’s expansion into Tibet, Afghanistan and Central Asia was founded on the belief that Russia was headed for the Indian Ocean — a belief that rested then on precious little evidence, and is now known to be pure fantasy.

Perhaps more important, Russia’s problems with jihadism long predate the rise of the Islamic State, and will not be addressed by opportunistic deal-making with rival jihadists. Islamist terrorism in Chechnya, as well as the Central Asian Republics, has proved relatively durable arguably because it remains the only surviving medium of dissent against the brutal, authoritarian regimes that Moscow backed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The bombers who carried out the strike in St. Petersburg may have been driven not by a distant jihadist network, but unresolved problems at home. The use of force, Russia’s counter-insurgency experience shows, can do only so much to solve these problems. Through its outreach to jihadist rivals of the Islamist State, Moscow risks perpetuating the problem it faces — not solving it.

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First published on: 05-04-2017 at 12:05:17 am
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