The changing face of Islamic terrorism

Vera Mironova, writing in Foreign Policy, says that in 2019, the terrorists menacing the west will not primarily be from the Middle East. Look to Russia's Muslim provinces for the "New face of terrorism."

The threat posed by Middle Eastern terrorists has been shrinking for some time. Even during the war against the Islamic State, Russian speakers from former Soviet countries were already committing many of the major attacks in the West. Those included relatively simple lone-wolf events, such as the 2017 truck strikes on pedestrians in New York and Stockholm—both conducted by Uzbeks—but also more complicated operations, such as the 2016 suicide bombing of Istanbul’s airport—which was allegedly organized by a Russian national—and the 2017 attack on a nightclub in the same city, led by an Uzbek.

There are several reasons for the relative increase in anti-Western terrorism coming out of the post-Soviet world. For starters, in recent years Middle Eastern jihadis have been too preoccupied with local conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to head elsewhere. The pull of the Islamic State, meanwhile, has faded after its almost total defeat in Iraq and Syria.

At the same time, the wars in the Middle East have transformed militants from Russian-speaking areas, who previously focused on fighting repressive governments at home, into global terrorists. By 2017, at least 8,500 fighters from former Soviet republics had flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. That experience gave many of these jihadis their first taste battling U.S. and NATO troops, and it left them looking for vengeance, convinced that future operations should be aimed at the West.

As a practical matter, this means that US and the west must change their strategies. Muslims from the old Soviet provincies can travel to the west far easier than a terrorist who uses passports from Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. 

Having escaped the reach of the U.S. military, they may find it easier to bring their plots to fruition. Local sympathies will help. Government neglect and outright repression have made religious Muslims in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan attractive targets for radicals looking for new recruits. Several popular sheikhs from the Middle East, including the Saudi cleric Abdulaziz al-Tarefe, now have significant Russian- and Arabic-language followings on social media.

As the locus of terrorism changes, the United States and its allies will have to update their strategies for fighting it. Over the last two decades, Washington built up a huge bureaucracy around Middle Eastern terrorism. Untold millions of dollars were poured into finding and training Arabic-speaking researchers and analysts. According to data from a critical language scholarship program run by the U.S. government, out of 550 university students who will be admitted in 2019, 105 will be studying Arabic and only 60 Russian. 

Another likely place where terrorism will originate is in Chechnya, where thousands of radicalized Muslims - many of them ISIS veterans - could threaten western targets in addition to Russian targets. The Tsarnev brothers who carried out the Boston bombings in 2013 apparently had a personal beef with the US, but others may see attacking Americans a better way to publicize their cause.

Letting down our guard is not an option.