Russian-Speaking Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria
December 29, 2017
Together, Russia and the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia have seen more of their citizens and residents travel to Syria and Iraq as foreign fighters than have any other parts of the world. Although numbers vary from source to source, roughly 8,500 individuals from these six countries1 have traveled to join a host of Salafi-jihadi factions—most predominantly the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).2 Among these individuals are many militants from Russia’s north Caucasus, some of whom bring with them experience in asymmetric and insurgent warfare learned from their involvement in the first and second Chechen wars of independence and the insurgency that has torn apart the North Caucasus region since those wars. These battle-hardened and competent fighters serve important roles within ISIS and Al Qaeda as bombmakers, propagandists, and field commanders. They are joined by Russian speakers who quickly build that experience in combat in Syria, sometimes in groups dominated by North Caucasian and Central Asian leaders and members.3
A new report by the CSIS Transnational Threats (TNT) Project and the CSIS Russia Eurasia Program (REP), entitled “Russian-Speaking Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria: Assessing the Threat from (and to) Russia and Central Asia” assesses these trends, and is available on the CSIS website at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/180726_Russian_Speaking_Foreign_Fight.pdf
A team composed of CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program (REP) and CSIS Transnational Threats Project (TNT) research staff traveled to Russia and Turkey to investigate Russian-speaking foreign fighters. In these countries, REP and TNT staff interviewed members of host-nation security services, family and community members of Russian-speaking foreign fighters, nongovernmental agencies, political officers, clergy, academia, and private business owners to gain a better perspective of Russian-speaking foreign fighters. Having carried out roughly 30 interviews, supplemented by a review of the existing literature, CSIS identified the following key takeaways:
- The recent history of state-sponsored repression of Muslims in Central Asia left a small but possibly significant number of individuals susceptible to radicalization, including recruitment by ISIS and Al Qaeda (AQ);
- Some Central Asian migrants living in Russia have also proven susceptible to radicalization, and have gone on to fight in Syria;
- From 2011–2016, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and local officials facilitated the movement of highly radicalized Russian-speaking foreign fighters from the North Caucasus to Turkey, and eventually Syria;
- Large Russian-speaking diaspora communities in Turkey have both facilitated movement for fighters to the battlefield and discouraged individuals from joining the fight against Bashar Assad;
- In the early years of the Syrian civil war, Turkish intelligence services facilitated the movement of Russian-speaking foreign fighters, from both preexisting radicalized diaspora populations and new immigrant pools, to Syria to use them as a pro-Sunni fighting force capable of removing Assad;
- As a result of domestic terror attacks and increasing international pressure, Turkey has transitioned toward a policy of detaining and facilitating the unofficial “deportation” of Russian-speaking foreign fighters (and Russian speakers suspected of radical ties and interests). Many have left for Ukraine, not Russia, and the movement to new countries, such as Egypt, is on the rise;
- Foreign fighters from the North Caucasus have played an outsized role on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, serving in leadership positions for both ISIS and AQ.
Out of the estimated 8,500 individuals who have traveled from Russia and Central Asia to the battlespace, roughly 900 have returned to their countries of origin.4 However, among the rest are an unknown number of Russian-speaking militants that have gained skills and credibility in the battlespace, many of whom may seek refuge in large Russian-speaking diasporas in Turkey’s Istanbul, Ukraine, and across Europe. Some are also finding themselves in Egypt, among other destinations. As the physical caliphate comes to an end, these countries must now address this security concern and prepare to deal with an outflow of individuals that can easily blend into, influence, and potentially launch attacks from these communities.
 Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan.
 Richard Barrett, Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees, The Soufan Center, October 2017, http://thesoufancenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Beyond-the-Caliphate-Foreign-Fighters-and-theThreat-of-Returnees-TSC-Report-October-2017.pdf.
 Joanna Paraszczuk’s blog, “From Chechnya to Syria,” www.chechensinsyria.com, tracks data regarding North Caucasus fighters in Syria and Iraq and is the best source of regularly
updated information regarding this topic.