New report on Russian-speaking Foreign Fighters

‘Russian-Speaking’ Fighters in Syria, Iraq and at Home: Consequences and Context

Existing data on Russian-speaking groups and individuals linked to the Islamic State is often inaccurate, according to CREST Researcher Cerwyn Moore and ESRC-funded PhD Student Mark Youngman. They have released a substantive report on Russian-speaking foreign fighters and Islamic State’s influence in the North Caucasus.

Despite its early and spectacular successes in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State (IS) has, over the last year, suffered repeated setbacks that have weakened its ability to control captured territory and implement its state-building agenda. A key aspect of IS’s strategy has been the mobilisation of supporters across Russia and the former Soviet Union. Other rebel groups in Syria have also attracted support from these areas, illustrating the need for a proper understanding of the Russian-speaking militant milieu, beyond IS’s territorial claims.

Funded by CREST and an ESRC Impact Accelerator grant, our report is an authoritative and rigorous piece of research on Russian-speaking militants linked to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

We show that mobilisation to these conflicts has occurred in unprecedented levels. Although a significant portion of volunteers came from Dagestan, Russian citizens have also travelled from across the North Caucasus – including from areas that have not been the focal point of domestic insurgent violence – as well as from Russia. Those who travelled were not just fighters, but also women and families who performed a variety of support roles. Many of the factions and groups in Syria and Iraq retain an anti-Russian agenda, and Russia’s support of the Assad regime and indiscriminate use of violence may have exacerbated long-standing animosities.

Our work illustrates that existing data on Russian-speaking groups is often inaccurate, and that expertise on these issues – and the threats that might emerge from them – is lacking. Islamic State has established a patchy toehold in Russia, in particular by linking up with a much-weakened domestic insurgency – leading to a wave of incidents, including an attack in Derbent, Dagestan in December 2015, and an attack in December 2016 in Grozny, Chechnya. Other incidents attributed to IS have occurred across Russia, but many of these have been rudimentary attacks, and the terrorist threat facing Russia is not reducible to IS. This is particularly pertinent given the bombing in St Petersburg in 2017, and the wider threat associated with actors from post-Soviet countries who have carried out attacks in parts of Europe and, most recently, in the US.


Russian speaking fighters full reportThis report is available to download in a variety of formats. The full report can be downloaded here, an executive summary here, and a one-page policy brief here.

Mark Youngman is an ESRC-funded doctoral student based in the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham.

Dr Cerwyn Moore is a CREST-funded researcher and a senior lecturer in International Relations, in the Department of Political Science and International Studies University of Birmingham. He leads CREST’s Actors and Narratives programme.

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