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Radical Islamists stoke Russian anxieties

Russians have deep-rooted anxieties when it comes to Wahabis. The country’s media claim that there are hundreds of thousand of radical Islamists in Russia. But are they all Wahabis?

Emir Ibn al-Khattab was the big bogeyman in Russia in the 1990s. The Saudi Arabian field commander was fighting on the side of Islamic separatists in Chechnya. Because of Khattab, just about every Russian learned the word "Wahabi." Since then, most Russians have deep-seated anxieties about this conservative Saudi brand of Islam; more so than any other threat, according to opinion surveys.

These fears were most recently reflected in an article published in one of the leading weekly magazines, Russkiy Reporter, headlined "Project Caliphate." The cover story speaks of a "Wahabi holding" which it claimed was "building a new empire" in Russia.

How many Wahabis are there in Russia?

Journalists at Russkiy Reporter claim that there are "Wahabi cells" and many secret weapons depots in every Russian province, with the exception of two areas in the far north. They base their claims on an analysis by the Kremlin-financed Institute for Strategic Research. Some 700,000 "Wahabis" live in Russia, the authors say.

Chechen rebel commander, Emir Ibn al-Chattab

Khattab became a symbol of radical Islam in Russia

The noted Russia Islam scholar and a co-author of the analysis, Roman Silantyev, says there are even up to one million radical Islamists in Russia.

But are there really that many? It depends on your viewpoint. In Russia, anxieties over the Islamist threat have divided the country into two camps.

Those sounding the alarm - of whom Silantyev is one - come up with this huge figure by using a very broad definition of the term Wahabi. Silantyev defended his choice of words in a DW interview, explaining that "we associate everything evil that we know about Islam with Wahabism."

However, to the Russian Academy of Sciences' Caucasus expert, Achmet Yarlikapov, Wahabism is just one of the pan-Islamic ideologies that found its way to Russia some 20 years ago. "We do not have one single Wahabi community registered in the Caucasus," Yarlikapov told DW. Underground Islamist fighters should not be equated with Wahabism, he said.

The term "Wahabi" is often mixed up and misused, says Vitali Ponomaryov from the human rights organization, Memorial. He defends immigrants from central Asia, who are often accused of being Islamic extremists. The fight against Wahabism is frequently exploited by the authorities to get state funding, eliminate unwanted rivals, or get a job promotion, Ponomaryov told DW.

Volunteer fighters in Dagestan

Insurgents are active throughout much of Russia's Caucasus region

For those warning against it, Wahabism stands for all Islamic religious persuasions that are not part of traditionally practiced Islam in Russia and whom they suspect of having political ambitions to set up a caliphate, or religious state: Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others.

The Sochi Winter Olympics

It is clear why Russia has intensified its campaign against radical Islamists in recent months. Every effort is being made to prevent a terrorist attack during the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

According to estimates by Russia's FSB intelligence service, there are more than 400 Russians in Syria fighting the regime of Bashar al Assad.

"Syria's Grand Mufti talks of 2,000 Wahabis from Russia. Many of them say they want to continue the struggle at home," explains Rais Suleymanov, an Islam scholar in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a predominately Muslim republic some 750 kilometers (460 miles) east of Moscow.

Palm trees and mountain peak - Sochi, the scene of the 2014 Winter Olympics

Radical Islamists have threatened to disrupt the Winter Olympics in Sochi

Saudi influence

There is no doubt that radical Islamists are active in Russia, but what connection do they have to Wahabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia? All the experts questioned by DW agreed that, today, Saudi Arabia has no direct, measurable influence on Islamists in Russia, either ideologically or financially.

This is in stark contrast to the 1990s, when several thousand young people went to Saudi Arabia to study Islam. Many Saudi Arabian humanitarian foundations were allowed to work in Russia at that time and propagate their form of Islam. During both wars in Chechnya, numerous mercenaries from Saudi Arabia fought alongside Chechen insurgents. One of them was Ibn al-Khattab, the field commander, who was killed by Russian agents in March 2002 and whose Wahabi faith is a synonym in Russia today for radical Islam.

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