This is the second article in the three-article investigative series in which I analyze the 2016 press releases published on the official FSB website. As I already pointed out in the first article, in the period from January until the last week of December, there have been 52 press releases in total. Eight of them dealt with the issue of counterespionage and I discussed them in detail in the first article. Now I will turn my attention to the releases that dealt with counter-terrorist and counter-extremist operations conducted by the FSB in 2016, including those that directly concerned the activities of the Islamic State operatives. All in all, there are 10 press releases of this type, seven of which focus, more or less specifically, on the Islamic State (banned in Russia; in Russian press, the designation is written in quotation marks – the “Islamic State”).
The Islamic State Operatives in Russia in 2016
The first FSB press release dealing with the arrest of the IS operatives in Russia was published on February 8. It reported that 7 members of the group, which included both Russian citizens and the citizens of Central Asian ex-Soviet republics, were arrested in Ekaterinburg, the fourth-largest city in Russia located in the Urals. The head of the group, according to the release, arrived from Turkey and, under his direction, the group allegedly planned terrorist attacks in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the region around Ekaterinburg. The FSB seized a large quantity of self-made explosive devices, weapons, ammunition as well as “extremist” materials and books. In the course of the investigation, it was discovered that, after committing terrorist acts, the group intended to escape to the territory held by the Islamic State in Syria. They were all charged under Articles 205, 222, and 222.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (dealing with terrorism and illegal possession of weapons and explosive devices).
Ten days later, on February 18, there was another FSB press release dealing with the alleged IS operatives. This time, 14 individuals were arrested in the Moscow region. They were suspected of making false documents and passports for the IS operatives entering Russia as well as for the Russian and other ex-Soviet republics’ citizens recruited to fight on behalf of IS in Syria. In addition, the FSB reported that many fake identification cards, passports, stamps, and printing equipment were also seized. This appears to have been a significant blow to the subversive activities of the IS operatives in Russia.
It is not clear whether the arrests in Ekaterinburg and Moscow were operationally connected, but there is no doubt that these FSB actions were a part of the large-scale counter-terrorist effort spearheaded by the Russian government to coincide with its increasing military involvement in Syria. In fact, one of the main reasons frequently cited by the Russian officials to justify the military intervention in Syria on the side of the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad has been precisely that without confronting and rooting out the IS terrorists in Syria, so many of them would turn into a clear and present danger for Russia itself.
The third FSB press release dealing with the IS operatives was published on April 8. The release reported the arrest of 5 “radical Islamists” in the town of Pallasovka in the Volgograd [formerly Stalingrad] oblast in southern Russia. They were members of the so-called Pallasovka’s Jamaat organized with the aim of recruiting the fighters for the Islamic State in Syria. The FSB also seized a large quantity of ammunition and explosive materials. According to the release, those arrested were charged under the articles of the Russian Criminal Code dealing with terrorism and illegal possession of weapons.
The fourth FSB press release, published on July 29, reported that the high military court in the city of Tver, near Moscow, convicted four individuals - G. Atahanov, G. Zhumaev, D. Kalmadinov and A. Kohorov - of serious crimes connected to the activities of the Islamic State and sentenced Atahanov to thirty and the rest to twenty-eight years in a maximum security penal colony. More specifically, the group was convicted of the recruitment and transport of terrorist fighters to Syria, the murder of a family in the Moscow region "in order to confirm their loyalty to the leader of the Islamic State" (which sounds like something from Dostoyevski's novel The Possessed), and the production and distribution of counterfeit currency in central Russia.
All individuals were the citizens of one Central Asian state (not named). According to the release, Atahanov was sentenced to a longer prison term because he acted as the leader of the group and also had an international search warrant on the charges of terrorist activity on the foreign soil. This is the only FSB press release in 2016 which reported the court conviction and sentencing of the IS operatives.
The fifth FSB press release dealing specifically with the Islamic State was published more than six months later, on December 15. According to the release, the FSB arrested 2 “associates” of the Islamic State in the Kirov region near the city of Samara in southern Russia. Born in 1992 and 1995, the two were the citizens of an unnamed Central Asian state and worked in the furniture business. They used their business as a cover for obtaining legal status for some of their compatriots in Russia, one of which, presumably, recruited them for the IS.
In searching their living quarters, the FSB found a self-made explosive device carrying one kilogram of TNT. It appears that the device was constructed out of the materials accessible in the open market. The press release noted that the investigation was still in progress. It did not report anything on where and when the device was supposed to be detonated. Typically, the targets of terrorist attacks in Russia have been big regional centers, such as, for instance, Volgograd in December 2013.
On the same day, the FSB published another press release, this one dealing with the arrests in Moscow. It reported that 4 individuals, the citizens of Tajikistan and Moldova, have been arrested under the charges of being members of a "terrorist-subversive" group which planned a series of terrorist acts in Moscow and the Moscow region. The group functioned under the direct command of an Islamic State representative, who, according to the release, is a Tajik citizen living in Turkey. The FSB also seized weapons, ammunition, and self-made explosive devices. As I argue in more detail later in the article, it is very likely that this arrest came about as the result of close collaboration between the Russian and Turkish intelligence agencies.
The seventh and last FSB press release concerning the Islamic State was published on December 29, just as I was writing this article. It reported the arrest of a group of 7 secret followers of the Islamic State in the Russian republic of Dagestan. The group was suspected of planning a series of terrorist acts in Moscow under the direction of one of the Islamic State leaders based in Syria. It appears that these acts were to be committed as acts of revenge for the Russian military intervention in Syria. According to the release, the FSB also seized a large quantity of weapons, ammunition, and self-made explosive devices.
The Non-ISIS Terrorist Operatives in Russia in 2016
The first FSB press release dealing with the terrorist operatives not specifically named as belonging to the Islamic State was published on May 4. The release reported the arrest of a group of the citizens of the Central Asian states (it was not noted which) in Moscow. The group allegedly planned a series of terrorist acts in Moscow during the May 1 holidays (International Labor Day, celebrated in Russia as a state holiday). According to the release, the group was directed by the organizations active on the territories of Syria and Turkey.
It is very curious that Turkey is mentioned in this context. The FSB published this press release several weeks before the public learned about the beginning of the Russian-Turkish reconciliation process in late June. However, it stands to reason that the rapprochement began somewhat earlier and that perhaps the Turkish intelligence informed the FSB of the existence of this group. This may be the reason why the Islamic State is not specifically mentioned: the arrested group may have had ties with some other anti-Russian terrorist organization active in Turkey. This unnamed organization, if it is in fact based in Turkey, may also have had something to do with the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov. I am sure that these leads will be thoroughly scrutinized by the Russian and Turkish investigators searching for the planners of this brutal murder.
Just two days later, on May 6, another press release reported that the FSB stopped a planned terrorist act on public transport (the same model as in Volgograd) scheduled to take place during the May 1 holidays in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Once again, the arrested group consisted of the citizens of the Central Asian states (left unnamed). Although the report did not say so, it appears reasonable to conclude that this group was connected to the Moscow group arrested two days earlier. This means that its foreign mentors were likely the same organizations active in Syria and Turkey and that these arrests were also the fruit of the collaboration between the Russian and Turkish intelligence agencies.
On August 11, the FSB published a press release dealing with the international Islamic internet organization "Rohnamo ba sui davlati islomi," which in translation from the Tajik language means "a guide to the Islamic state." The FSB arrested several members of this organization in the coordinated activities in three regions in the Urals - the Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, and Tyumen regions. According to the press release, the "Rohnamo" has more than 100,000 members in Russia, the Central Asian states, and the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Egypt) and its aim is to collect financial resources and recruit fighters for the Islamic State and other similar organizations.
The FSB raided 27 residences of the members of the "Rohnamo" and seized a great quantity of weapons, ammunition, explosives as well as computers, cell phones, and credit cards. This appears to have been an operation of major scale which will no doubt have a court epilogue sometime soon.
Conclusion: FSB Counter-Terrorist Activities in 2016
Putting the first and second article of this investigative series side by side, we come to an interesting conclusion. It appears, generally speaking, that most spies who enter Russia come from the former Western Soviet republics (Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine), while most terrorists come from the former Southern Soviet republics (the Central Asian states, Tajikistan in particular). This perhaps has something to do with the political systems in the countries in question. The Central Asian states appear to be more corrupt and disorderly and more easily penetrable by the "terrorist" ideology and its foreign sponsors than the states in the West. Ukraine is here the only exception, but it is also a country that has a war raging on its territory which should explain most of the nefarious undertakings of its quasi-legitimate government.
What is also noticeable is that there is definitely an increase in the activities of the Islamic State operatives since the early months of 2016. This is no doubt a direct result of the defeats that the IS has suffered in Syria at the hands of the Russian-coordinated anti-terrorist military campaign there. The desire to exact revenge appears to be the top IS motivation. What is encouraging, however, is that, judging from the scope of the arrests and the biographies of the individuals arrested, the FSB seems to have established a solid line of communication with the Turkish intelligence agencies, which was not the case in the past. This is why we may expect that even more terrorist attacks intended for the Russian soil will be thwarted on time. The only winning long-term counter-terrorist strategy in the Middle East is the institutionalized military and intelligence collaboration of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
Filip Kovacevic, Newsbud-BFP Analyst, is a geopolitical author, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro. He received his BA and PhD in political science in the US and was a visiting professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia for two years. He is the author of seven books, dozens of academic articles & conference presentations and hundreds of newspaper columns and media commentaries. He has been invited to lecture throughout the EU, Balkans, ex-USSR and the US. He currently resides in San Francisco. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
 As I was writing this article, the FSB published two more press releases. The first one was published on December 26 and dealt with the crash of the Russian military plane TU-154 near Sochi. The second press release was published on December 29 and concerned the operatives of the Islamic State. This press release will be covered in the article.