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De-radicalisation tactics in the North Caucasus can serve as a lesson and a warning

Article by Lana Estemirova

February 12, 2020

De-radicalisation tactics in the North Caucasus can serve as a lesson and a warning

As Britain was shaken by its third terrorist attack in as many months, the Conservative government was quick to respond by calling for tougher sentencing for all those convicted of terror offences.[1] Michael Gove suggested that terrorist should be ‘jailed indefinitely’[2]– while opposition politicians and academics have emphasised the total inadequacy of rehabilitation programmes running in prisons[3]. Waiting lists are long, even when offenders ask for help, with programmes woefully underfunded and unable to meet demand.


This is not a problem isolated to just the United Kingdom (UK). Unexpected terrorist attacks carried out using primitive weapons, single-handedly or in small groups have become a part of reality across the world. As the UK contemplates these moves, it is worth looking at the example of Russia’s North Caucasus region where we can see the results of both punitive and preventative approaches to dealing with the issue of domestic Islamist terrorism.


Roughly 3400 people, mostly from Russia’s Muslim Northern Caucasus republics, have left Russia to join ISIS since the start of the conflict.[4] In response, local governments alongside the Federal Security Service (FSB) have designed a series of soft and punitive measures to tackle extremism. While many tactics (especially Chechen) involve violent threats, illegal imprisonment, torture and intimidation[5], there is also a less-known pool of constructive approaches with a focus on preventing radicalisation.


While some methods to counter-violent extremism are similar across republics, they vary depending on regional context. Chechnya’s complicated political landscape, shaped by two wars with Russia and pro-Kremlin Ramzan Kadyrov’s iron fisted rule, requires a separate look. The underlying causes of radicalisation are similar across the regions – ethnic conflicts, police brutality, corruption, unemployment and a general lack of prospects are among the external factors. Internal factors often include a personality crisis, low self-esteem, an inability to fit in and a desire for adventure.[6] Compassion for the victims of Assad’s regime was also an important motivator for people to go to Syria. According to Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director at Conflict analysis and prevention centre, a single ‘terrorist’ type doesn’t exist, radicalisation depends on a range of individual factors that can equally affect people from London to Grozny.


A big focus across the predominantly Muslim republics, is an emphasis on prevention, with a lot of recourses poured into programmes that are aimed at averting the radicalisation of the youth before it occurs. There are ‘heavy weapons’ such as mandatory seminars and presentations for students carried out by government officials, accompanied by slideshows and reports. This counter-radicalisation state propaganda is largely ineffectual, often deemed dull and boring; there is a general sense of fatigue amongst young people when it comes to the topic. Other state-sponsored religious programmes, whereby state-affiliated imams attempt to use theological arguments to dissuade against extremism also fail to resonate due to their close association with the authorities. Many officials handling counter-extremism programmes in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic are beginning to accept that repetitively hammering in a blunt anti-radicalism message is not the most effective method at prevention – and at times can even spark interest in the forbidden fruit.[7]


Other more successful state-funded programmes aim to channel young minds towards other pursuits. The range is quite diverse; it involves volunteering, summer camps, sports, military training for teenagers and even expeditions to recover relics from the Second World War. The overall aim is to divert young people in a more patriotic direction.[8]


An abundance of government grants for counter-extremist initiatives encourages competition between NGOs, who have produced a range of nuanced and creative approaches to capturing the minds of young people. The high levels of unemployment and corruption in the North Caucasian republics provide gloomy prospects for young people, leaving some of them more prone to radicalisation. One approach is the ‘Own business’ [9] programme, which helps people get their small enterprises off the ground, whether that’s developing a business plan or providing them with a microcredit. It also offers a range of courses and seminars that attract entrepreneurs from different regions, giving them an opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other. This is an example of a positive initiative that focuses on developing skills and bringing like-minded people together.


Ingushetia seems to have one of the most thought-out series of programmes targeting extremist ideology – one of them is ‘DISlike extremism’ that targets high school and university students. Unlike other programmes, ‘DISlike…’ has a Q&A session in the end that gives young people an opportunity to express themselves, explore topics that are relevant to them and tell the organisers how it could be improved.


The obvious pattern here is that creatively engaging young people in activities where they can prove themselves and be treated with dignity is a more successful strategy than simply patronising and lecturing them. Multi-targeted approaches that encourage cooperation and cross-cultural dialogue are crucial in a highly volatile region with raging inequality. It’s also vital to have an open, democratic discussion that is open to the public’s suggestions and constructive criticism.


This appears to have worked for a time with those groups deemed most at risk. ‘At risk’ groups, which can be defined as those who have showed an active interest in radical ideas and non-traditional strands of Islam such as Salafism, receive a very different treatment from local government and security officials. Salafism is an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam that preaches the return to a purer form of Islam as shown by the first three generations of Prophet Muhammad. The followers of Salafism are treated with suspicion by the security officials but in Ingushetia and Dagestan (up until 2012 Sochi Olympics) Salafi mosques were allowed to function alongside others. The overwhelming majority of Salafis do not show interest in joining ISIS or carrying out jihad at home. Khamzat Chumakov, a popular Salafi preacher from Ingushetia used religious arguments to dissuade his followers from even considering going to Syria. He claimed that a true believer should not put himself in the place where there is fitna (disagreement) between Muslims, providing examples from religious texts to prove his point. That appeared to be very effective in deterring people from going to Syria.[10]


Unfortunately, Russian security services have greater faith in more repressive methods for tackling radicalisation. In an attempt to wipe out any sign of insurgency before the Sochi Olympics in 2012, massive ‘cleansing’ operations were carried out throughout the North Caucasus, especially in Chechnya and Dagestan. Hundreds of people suspected of holding radical views were illegally detained, beaten, tortured and even murdered. In Dagestan, the authorities had introduced ‘profuchet’ (a preventative register) for Salafis, with regular police check ups and interrogations, merely because of their religious beliefs. Those who ended up on the list struggle to find a job and often find themselves in social isolation. The ‘profuchet’ had become a tool of repression, often used unjustifiably to make innocent people’s lives difficult. Despite significant pressure, the ex-president of Inguhsetia, Yunus-Bek Evkourov refused to shut down the re-integration programmes for ex-militants and did not support the crackdown on Salafis prior to the 2012 Olympic Games. That possibly explains why Ingushetia has one of the lowest radicalisation rates in the Northern Caucasus.


Unlike most of the European states, Russia has been surprisingly willing to allow the wives and children of ISIS fighters[11] to return from Syria. The calculation behind this move is that leaving those children to grow up in conflict zone will make them more prone to future radicalisation. However, no easy life awaits them back home: many women are arrested and interrogated by the police. Families receive barely any psychological support and rehabilitation upon their return. The treatment of ISIS women and their children varies depending on the republic, for instance in Chechnya and Ingushetia their re-integration in society is allowed and welcomed, whereas in Dagestan they often end up on the notorious ‘preventative registry’ list.


Driving Salafis underground does not stop their beliefs but rather strengthens it. Religious crackdowns, arrests and persecution is a quick-fix that doesn’t tackle the root problems causing radicalisation. In Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkarya, where officials act within the law and don’t use heavy-handed repression, the numbers of radicalised individuals is much lower, as measured by the low numbers of attacks on policemen and government officials.[12] There has been a steady decrease in radicalisation over the past several years, as demonstrated by decreased terror attacks across the republics. However, as ISIS is largely defeated on the ground in Syria and Iraq, it is difficult to predict how exactly this will affect domestic radicalisation levels across the country.


Tackling any anti-social and criminal behaviour, ranging from religious radicalisation of youth, to knife crime and the drug trade requires a complex approach that should focus on prevention, not only punishment. Radicalisation is often a symptom of a deeper societal malaise, often perpetuated by inadequate, corrupt local government and law-ignoring security officials. A ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ approach to terrorism ignores the multi-faceted influences that lead to radicalisation. Leaving offenders to languish in prison, without targeted and well-funded interventions leaves them prone to even deeper radicalisation and commitment to act upon their beliefs – a point poignantly underscored in the UK by the recent terror attack within the walls of a prison itself. A patient, nuanced approach focused on prevention that seeks to learn from effective de-radicalisation programmes across the world will produce more effective outcomes – closing the gaps through which fundamentalist ideas often seep with devastating consequences for the population as a whole.


Lana Estemirova is a graduate in International Relations from London School of Economics. She writes on Chechnya and human rights issues in Russia and is working on her first book.


[1] Peter Walker, London attack: PM says terrorism sentence changes may be applied retrospectively, The Guardian, February 2020,

[2] Simon Murphy and Rowena Mason, Terror offenders should be jailed indefinitely if necessary, says Gove, The Guardian, February 2020,

[3] Pen Mendonca, The London Bridge attack must not stop our vital work to tackle terrorism, The Guardian, December 2019,

[4] Program: Hotspots, Experts discussed the prospects for radicalisation in the North Caucasus and measures to prevent it, ‘Memorial’ Human Rights Center, January 2019,

[5] Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Will new waves of radicalisation in the North Caucasus be prevented?, Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, January 2019,

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Caucasian Knot, Own Business and reality shows as methods of preventing extremism, Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, December 2018,виктория-гуревич-свой-бизнес-и-реалит/

[10] Ibid

[11] Andrew E. Kramer, Raised by ISIS, Returned to Chechnya: ‘These Children Saw Terrible Things’, The New York Times, February 2018,

[12] Ibid

Photo by President of Russia. No modifications to photo and under creative commons licence.

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