Two jihadists were killed and at least three members of the security forces injured following an operation in Nizhny Novgorod (Russia’s fifth largest city, located 300 kms east of Moscow) on 23 October. The violence occurred after police targeted a vehicle being used by the militants, with some reports suggesting they were in possession of explosive devices. The authorities have asserted that the jihadists were linked to groups in the North Caucasus and Islamic State’s (IS) Amaq media agency has since claimed they were members of the group. Elsewhere the security forces have targeted and killed six IS fighters in the Stavropol and Dagestan areas of southern Russia. During the raids, security officers uncovered plans to target police and military posts in the region.
The incidents follow a limited rise in jihadist activity beyond the North Caucasus region. In August a raid on an apartment in St. Petersburg killed four members of a cell that the Federal Security Service (FSB) claimed had been planning attacks in the city. Elsewhere, in late August, three jihadist sympathisers were killed after attacking traffic police in two low-level incidents in Moscow.
Both IS and the al-Qaeda aligned Caucasus Emirate aspire to strike beyond the North Caucasus, largely because they want the prestige that would stem from being seen to lead the retaliation for the Russian bombing campaign in Syria. Indeed, IS rarely claims responsibility for failed attacks and the fact it has associated itself with the Nizhny Novgorod incident demonstrates how eager it is to be seen as operating in Russia’s heartlands.
Nonetheless, the Caucasus Emirate has been severely weakened by the security forces in recent years and the regular elimination of its leadership suggests it has been well penetrated by the FSB. The local IS affiliate is itself an offshoot of the Caucasus Emirate, having been established by defectors from the group and likely faces similar challenges. Consequently it remains highly difficult for either group to operate successfully away from the North Caucasus region.
That said, as the Russian-backed assault on Aleppo intensifies, both North Caucasus based groups will likely intensify their efforts to retaliate. IS may even try and send small numbers of its North Caucasus fighters back to Russia to launch attacks, although it will want to hold most in Iraq and Syria as they are highly-valued for their fighting prowess. Moreover, if the Kremlin’s air raids inflict large numbers of civilian casualties in Aleppo this may radicalise some of Russia’s 18 million Sunni Muslims and lead to an increase in low-level sympathiser attacks against the security forces, similar to the August assaults on Moscow traffic police.