Islamic State not just a Western problem, says top Russian spy

The head of Russia's FSB security agency said today that some 1,700 Russians are in Iraq and Syria fighting for IS forces – and that Russia and the West need to work more closely together to deal with jihadis.

Musa Sadulayev/AP/File
Special Force officers are seen in front of Chechen parliament complex after an insurgent attack in Grozny, Chechnya, southern Russia, in October 2010.

The self-declared Islamic State isn't just a Western or Mideast problem, Russia's chief spy said today in Washington. It's a Russian problem, too – and in more serious ways.

As many as 1,700 Russians are currently fighting in Iraq alongside the extremist group, Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB security service, told journalists after a security conference in the US capital, "and this number almost doubled over the past year."

Mr. Bortnikov, who was part of the Russian delegation to the Obama administration's Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, said it's time to create a special antiterrorism center under UN auspices and for intelligence services of all countries to pool their efforts. "We are interested not only in information exchanges, but also in joint work."

Bortnikov has frequently brought up the likelihood that members of Russia's 17 million strong Muslim minority might have volunteered to join the swelling war against IS in the Middle East.

His main point, as it has been in the past, is to stress that when it comes to the war on terrorism, Russia is in the same boat as Western countries, most of whom also have citizens who have gone off to join the jihad. Some 20,000 volunteers from 100 countries are currently fighting alongside IS, he said.

The Caucasus

The problem is arguably more worrisome for Russia than for much of the West, however. Bortnikov made no mention of Russia's seething North Caucasus region, where a low-level Islamist insurgency has been under way for almost two decades. Most of the purported Russian volunteers serving with ISIS would likely be from that region, or from the mainly Muslim central Russian republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortistan.

In his speech to the same conference, President Barack Obama stressed that the US is fighting against extremism, and not against Muslims.

Russian experts say that while the Kremlin rhetorically agrees with that, in practice it has burned its bridges with much of the North Caucasus population through exceedingly harsh measures taken to prevent any terrorism in the runup to the Sochi Olympics a year ago.

"It's pretty hard to have dialogue and reconciliation after the tough actions before Sochi. And nothing has really changed," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of the online security journal Agentura.ru.

The measures include punishing whole families of terrorist suspects, including a recent episode in Chechnya where authorities ordered the family homes of people implicated in a recent attack to be demolished.

Bortnikov's warning that jihadi veterans might return to spread mayhem in the North Caucasus or Volga regions of Russia is serious, say experts.

"People here frankly hope most of them won't come back at all," says Georgi Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "If any do return, of course they will have to be watched closely."

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