The Islamic State group announced the creation of its northernmost province this week, after accepting a formal pledge of allegiance from former al Qaeda militants in the North Caucasus region of Russia. An Islamic State wilayat, or province, in the autonomous republics of the country’s south may seem far-fetched, but the militant group has been preparing to announce its branch in the Caucasus for months.
With the addition of what it calls Wilayat Qawqaz, or Caucasus Province, in a heavily Muslim region of Russia, the group formerly known as either ISIL or ISIS has now declared it has provinces in nine countries outside Iraq and Syria. Militants in the North Caucasus region initiated the allegiance process as early as last December, and fulfilled all the requirements Wednesday, when an Islamic State leader or sheikh, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announced that the militants had been accepted into the group in an audio statement circulated through social media.
In the past, the Islamic State group has been cautious when announcing its new wilayats, choosing areas where affiliated organizations were certain to succeed. Target countries are usually those with pre-existing sectarian tensions, a marginalized Sunni population and a large number of fighters who had already joined the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
Wilayat Qawqaz fulfilled those requirements. Chechens make up a large proportion of the foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, where they are reputed to be the so-called caliphate’s toughest combatants. The number of militants in the new Wilayat Qawqaz is unknown, but experts believe most of them have not trained in Iraq and Syria. While it is too soon to tell, it’s likely militants will focus on local attacks.
In the short term, however, “this may have little immediate practical consequence for Russian security,” according to a report by the Soufan Group, a security-services company based in New York.
The creation of a province in the area will help additional fighters make their way to Iraq and Syria, experts said.
“People who would have left, people who feel like they need to fight in Iraq and Syria, will continue to do that, but the pledge came from militants who felt like they needed to stay and wage jihad from within the Caucasus,” said Harleen Gambhir, counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a military-focused think tank headquartered in Washington. “It will definitely make it easier for people who want to go Iraq and Syria to get in touch with ISIS networks in the area.”
Despite these factors, it still took months for the Islamic State group to accept the militants’ pledge of allegiance. The extremist group has a strict pledge-of-allegiance process for those interested in recognition from so-called caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The basic requirements for any hopeful organization are to have a unified leadership and a strong base of fighters, and to have consolidated other organizations in the area under an emir, or leader, who has had previous contact with Islamic State leaders.
The first pledges of allegiance from the Caucasus came last November, and they were celebrated (but not accepted) in the January edition of the Islamic State propaganda magazine Dabiq. By that point, the militant group had announced in the magazine that the process of creating this new wilayat was “under way.”
During the past month, media outlets affiliated with the Islamic State group have increased their propaganda output in the Russian language, signaling the announcement was coming. The miltant group’s main media outlet al-Hayat launched a Russian-language magazine at the end of May, presumably targeted toward militants in what is now Wilayat Qawqaz. The magazine contained statements by Chechens serving with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria about their recent operations and the military skills they’ve acquired while fighting with the militant group.
This month, the leader of one of the most powerful branches of the official al Qaeda affiliate in the area, the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, released an audio statement pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group.
This recent pledge “may have been the catalyst for [the] ISIS leader to say, ‘OK, now we have enough support, we can go ahead and do this,’” Gambhir said.
A so-called Islamic emirate has been active as an official al Qaeda branch in the North Caucasus region since 2007. It did not pledge allegiance to Baghdadi entirely. However, leaders and militants with four of its six divisions defected from al Qaeda and joined the Islamic State group, according to a statement by former members circulated via social media last week.