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Militant attacks in Dagestan: A new generation of radicals?

Mikhail Bushuev
June 26, 2024

Public discontent, archaic authorities and officials that lack accountability: three experts discuss the underlying tensions that gave way to this weekend's attacks in Russia's autonomous republic of Dagestan.

An emergency worker stands before a fire-hit synagogue
Sunday's attacks saw at least 20 people die, including all five assailants and at least four civilians. One of them was an Orthodox priest.Image: Gyanzhevi Gadzhibalayev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

On June 23, supposed Islamist militants staged attacks in the cities of Makhachkala and Derbent in Russia's southwestern region of Dagestan. The media showed shocking images of dead bodies and shootouts, alongside footage of heavy weaponry and a burned-down house of worship.

At least 20 people were killed in the attacks, most of them police officers. At least 46 people were injured, some severely.

The assailants targeted a Christian Orthodox church and a synagogue in Derbent, as well as a church and a police station in the state capital of Makhachkala. Following the attacks, Dagestan, an autonomous republic of Russia situated in the North Caucasus, declared three days of mourning.

Police investigations into the series of what appear to be coordinated attacks are now underway.

Gunmen attack religious sites in Dagestan

What motivated the attacks?

Harold Chambers, a freelance analyst who studies political science at Indiana University Bloomington in the US, said he believes the attacks were "Islamist in nature," and thereby also connected with antisemitic and anti-Christian sentiments — alongside political motives.

"It was pretty clearly an Islamic terror operation," he told DW. "I mean, the drawing on the doors of the synagogue and church with references to verses from the Quran that are commonly referred to by jihadis."

Looking back at the antisemitic riots at Makhachkala Airport last fall, Chambers added that he hadn't been surprised to learn that a synagogue had been targeted during the attacks.

"Some of those underlying tensions with desires for violence amongst a relatively broad swath of society were very apparent," he said in reference to the crowd that had beset the capital's airport.

Elke Windisch, a German journalist and expert in the Caucasus region, disagrees. She said antisemitic sentiments made no sense in this particular region, as she estimated that most of the Jewish community that had once lived in Dagestan had left by now.

Who was behind the attack?

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), an Afghan affiliate of the so-called Islamic State, praised Sunday's attack, which authorities are now investigating as an act of terrorism. They posted their support on social media channels associated with the same group that carried out the Moscow concert hall attack earlier this year. 

Meanwhile, Dagestan leader Sergei Melikov sought to link the attacks to Russia's war in Ukraine, saying "the war has come home to us." He did not provide evidence for this claim.

Dagestan's leader Sergei Melikov grimaces while speaking with the press
Dagestan's leader Sergei Melikov failed to provide any supporting evidence for his claim that Sunday's attacks were linked to Russia's war in UkraineImage: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/IMAGO

Observers are not convinced by these attempts to link Islamist militant attacks to the war in Ukraine.

"Only a small majority would believe that this whole affair has ties to Ukraine or the US," said Abbas Gallyamov, political analyst and self-exiled former speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The majority knows that Islamism exists independently of the West," he argued. "Do Islamists not conduct terror attacks in the West? Just think of September 11th."

Radicalized by the state?

Experts said Russian authorities are at least partially to blame for the rise of Islamist sentiments in the North Caucasus. According to Gallyamov, authorities increasingly lacked accountability, and simultaneously contributed to ossifying archaic social models, which was leading to a rise in Islamism among Muslims.

"The state is creating the conditions for this. It isn't modernizing society, but archaizing it," he said.

Chambers said public protest, even in support of the regime, was discouraged, which in his opinion pushed any public discourse online.

"Your only space to really do anything is online," he explained, "where you have more chances of engaging with radicalized actors."

He also believed there was a new generation of insurgents growing in the North Caucasus region.

"They didn't experience the Soviet Union. They are fully in this period of relative religious revival and freedom — even though it's not actually freedom if you're Muslim in the North Caucasus at this time," he said. "Their starting point is a significantly different place. You have a lot more overlapping of nationalism and national identities with religion."

Public discontent adds to tensions

Dagestan is one of Russia's poorest regions. Despite the republic's high economic potential as well as opportunities for high living standards, Windisch explained that even the most basic public services — such as running water — were at times limited. 

She also said Dagestan was the most religious republic in the North Caucasus. Home to nearly a hundred different ethnic groups, Dagestan has seen ethnic tensions broil for decades, she added.

This is why Windisch believes it's problematic that Moscow occupies leading positions in Dagestan with political proteges instead of local elites.

The current governor Melikov is one such example, she said. "People don't believe he can manage understanding the whole situation in Dagestan down to its smallest detail in order to make the right decision," she said, adding that locals considered such foreign representatives as "alien."

Windisch is confident that the shock of last weekend's attacks will soon wear off. "I think people will soon return to business as usual," she said. "But that won't reduce the risk of another attack at a seemingly harmless occasion."

Public discontent was simply too high to think that.

This article was originally written in Russian.