MOSCOW - Hundreds of thousands of Muslims vented their anger in unison, shouting, “Allahu akbar!” as their leader condemned supporters of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo after militants murdered five of its cartoonists.
The protest against caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad and the policies of the U.S. and its allies was organized by the state and televised live across the country for more than an hour. But it wasn’t in Iran or Pakistan. It was in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin came to power vowing to “wipe out” Muslim extremists, even “in the outhouse.”
Fifteen years later, Putin is now seeking to turn Muslim anger to his advantage by pushing for a united front against what he considers to be a U.S.-led conspiracy to dominate the world.
Putin is also trying to neutralize the threat posed by the return of Russian jihadis who are currently fighting for the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq — a task complicated by his growing isolation over the war in Ukraine, officials and analysts in Moscow say.
“The protest was an attempt to meld Muslim opinions with Russian-wide views about the Western world, a lever to unite the population around Putin,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
The rally was held in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, where tens of thousands of people died in Russia’s two wars against separatists. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin loyalist who runs the region, told the crowd “Western agents” probably organized the Charlie Hebdo killings to trigger a “new wave” of Islamic State recruits for their war on Islam. Last year, Kadyrov, 38, said the U.S. secretly controls the Islamic State.
Chechnya is the only one of the seven regions in the North Caucasus Federal District where the death toll from battles with extremists rose last year, to 52, according to the annual review of violence in the area compiled by Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based analysis and news group. Almost 10 million people, mainly Muslims, live in the district, which borders Azerbaijan and Georgia and is closer to Syria than Moscow.
Radicals from Chechnya have claimed credit for some of the most brutal acts of terrorism in Russia. They include the 2002 hostage-taking at a crowded theater in Moscow, which led to 170 deaths; the 2004 seizure of a school in Beslan, which resulted in more than 380 fatalities; and the dual suicide bombings in Moscow subway stations in 2010, which killed at least 40.
Putin is facing the threat of resurgent radical Islam on Russia’s southern flank at a time when his security forces are focused on Ukraine and the economy is reeling from sanctions and plunging oil revenue. The ruble has lost almost half its value against the dollar in the last year, adding to the strain.
The issue became more urgent after militants staged the deadliest attack in Chechnya in four years in December, when they stormed a police outpost and seized buildings in Grozny, culminating in a shootout that left more than 20 dead. The operation coincided with Putin’s annual address to the nation’s political elite inside the Kremlin.
“These rebels have showed up in Chechnya again,” Putin said in his speech that day. “I’m sure local law enforcement authorities will take proper care of them.”
Russian officials are bracing for an upsurge in violence across the North Caucasus now that the Islamic State has declared Russia an enemy for arming Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has been locked in a civil war for four years.
About 1,500 Russians, most from the North Caucasus, have fought for the Sunni extremist group, and many of them are starting to return, according to the government’s Anti-Terror Committee.
“Russia is the Islamic State’s new target,” Caucasian Knot chief Grigory Shvedov said. “The process has begun.”
The Islamic State, sometimes referred to as ISIS or ISIL, declared itself a global caliphate with authority over all Muslims last June after killing thousands of people en route to conquering vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. The U.S. and its allies have been bombing its forces since August and President Barack Obama is seeking new authority to widen the campaign.
The group, which has tens of thousands of fighters in Syria and Iraq, is establishing militant affiliates in countries such as Algeria, Egypt and Libya, according to U.S. officials. At least three “emirs” in the North Caucasus have pledged allegiance to the movement in the past few months.
“It’s the most economically powerful and self-sufficient terrorist entity we’ve ever seen,” Ilya Rogachev, who runs the Russian Foreign Ministry’s office of new challenges and threats, said in an interview.
“And now they’re bearing heavy losses, so the outflow of militants is increasing. These people are coming back with warped psyches, ready to solve problems through violence.”
The Islamic State’s media arm last month released a video in which a boy appears to execute two men accused of spying for Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). One said in an alleged confession that he was gathering data about fighters from Russia, while the other said he was sent to locate the residence of the group’s leader.
In November, Kadyrov said the Islamic State commander known as Omar the Chechen had been killed in Syria after threatening to strike Russia. He didn’t elaborate.
Leonid Reshetnikov, who ran the information and analysis directorate at Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service from 2005 to 2009, said the video looks fake because there is no blood and the confessions aren’t convincing.
Still, the Islamic State’s message is real. “We will be as merciless with your agents as we are with the Westerners,” Reshetnikov said in an interview.
Putin visited Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, for the first time in a decade on Feb. 9 to discuss the Islamic State and other issues with his counterpart, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. While the group poses an “unprecedented” threat, the U.S. and its allies should bear responsibility for creating the conditions for its success, Putin told Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.
Even so, Rogachev of the Foreign Ministry said it is imperative that Russia, the U.S. and the European Union rebuild ties and work together to neutralize the Islamic State. Russia and the U.S. used to share intelligence on terrorist threats, most recently during preparations for the Sochi Olympics, but those ties have been severed over the festering war in Ukraine.
Now Russia isn’t always invited to the international meetings the U.S. convenes to discuss the issue, according to Rogachev.
Without such cooperation, attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo will only increase in severity and frequency, according to Anatoly Kulikov, a former interior minister who commanded Russian troops during the first war in Chechnya in the 1990s. Kulikov now heads the Club of Russian Commanders, an advisory body uniting more than 1,000 retired senior military officers.
“That was a very serious signal that we should stop quarreling and join efforts,” Kulikov said in an interview.