By the end of the Soviet Union, Caucasian Muslims were re-discovering their previously suppressed religious identity, an identity that was completely denied by the soviet social engineering. Folk Islam was legitimized as “traditional”, an integral part of their ethno-cultural identity, but also vital for self-identification. During the 1990s Caucasus witnessed a growing number of young Muslims attending mosques regularly, observing fasts and performing daily prayers, travelling and studying Islam abroad, thus expanding individual knowledge and understanding of Islam. Notwithstanding, the social and political impact has been different in each region of the Caucasus. It was more intensive in the North-East (Dagestan-Chechnya-Ingushetia), due to the strong Sufi presence which withstood the decades of soviet atheism, and less intensive in the North-West (Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaev-Circassia and Adyghea), where the mosque-centered Islamic tradition had been suppressed. However, the First Chechen War triggered an Islamization of politics throughout Caucasus, sparking memories of Islamic resistance to Russia and attracting Muslim volunteers from abroad. Nowadays, not only are people more conscious of their Muslim identity, but religiosity is also increasing. A 77 per cent of the youth of Dagestan identified themselves as “strict believers” in 2010, whereas in 2000 only 53 per cent did so.
However, Islamic revival in North Caucasus included the encounter with other, non-traditional strains of Islam, such as Wahhabism, which was becoming popular among Caucasian youth. Organized in their own, largely non-violent, congregations (jamaat), Wahhabis were eager to purify Islam and restore the tawhid (monotheism) in Caucasus, and therefore criticized rites of non-Islamic origin and the worship of saints and sheikhs, prominent in the Sufi tradition. In response, Muslim elders branded critical younger Muslims as extremists; this created a dichotomy between “official”, traditional Sufi Islam and the “untraditional”, “imported” Wahhabi-Salafi Islam, which characterizes Caucasus till today.
In the last decade, the jihadi insurgency spread across North Caucasus, while the focus gradually shifted from Chechnya to the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. This originated from the clashes between state authorities and Wahhabis, where all forms of Islamic dissent were cracked down; identification of such dissidents often relied on religious garment, untrimmed beards or frequent mosque attendance. The brutality of the state authorities towards these suspects, coupled with popular disillusionment of the judicial process, led to the escalation of Islamist-inspired violence, as new, more radical, jamaats emerged or moderate ones were radicalized. As Islamist groups are viewed with suspicion by all local governments in the North Caucasus, and as the authorities are still repressing any form of opposition, more and more young Muslims are drawn to fundamentalist, Islamic resistance groups in order to elude repression. The unsatisfactory social conditions in the North Caucasus, mainly high unemployment, and widespread corruption, are another explanation that lead young people to believe that an Islamic state will restore social justice and equality. Many jamaats promise to reduce criminal violence, impose law and order and end corruption, while in Karachaev-Circassia jamaats provided assistance and employment to those losing their jobs. However, it is important to note that, despite the widespread militancy, radicalization came primarily in the form of peaceful and non-violent enclaves that emphasized on education, and only a small, yet extremely active part of the youth is finding its way to the forests among the fighters.
The situation in North Caucasus is currently characterized as a protracted, low-level insurgency. Some of the newly-radicalized groups, having espoused the Global Jihadi ideology, resolve in terrorist and guerilla tactics, although anti-Western sentiments were not as intense.  Until recently, these various factions had pled allegiance to Doku Umarov, leader of the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz). The latter was founded in 2007, and for years it was the main source of radical Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, albeit not strictly following the Salafi-Jihadi ideology, was linked with al-Qaeda. However, the Russian authorities have managed to target many of its groups and kill its commanders. Doku Umarov himself was killed in 2013, and his successor, Aliaskhab Kebekov, one year later.
Yet the Caucasus Emirate is rapidly losing its prestige, as four of the six commanders of the Emirate’s powerful divisions have pled allegiance to ISIS, after the latter announced in June the creation of “Wilayat Qawqaz”, or Caucasian Province.  It is believed that recruitment is the primary focus of ISIS in North Caucasus. It is estimated that there are already 15,000 combatants of Wilayat Qawqaz, in addition to around 2,400 fighters from Caucasus, especially Chechens, who have joined ISIS ranks in Syria and Iraq. ISIS affiliated groups have carried out their first attacks in North Caucasus, such as the attack in southern Dagestan in December 2015.  It seems that the Caucasus Emirate is becoming irrelevant to those combatant radicals who want to be part of a transnational Islamic project. However, many local commanders still refuse to join ISIS and submit to foreign leadership. While some believe it is unlikely that the ISIS will fully supplant the homegrown Emirate, the switching of allegiance by many fighters may entail employing ISIS methods. Arguably, in the next months, it is possible for a different type of Caucasian Jihad to develop. 
On the other hand, in Chechnya there is a different form of political Islam in place that might be called pro-state. President Ramzan Kadyrov has suppressed all opposition, and is actively promoting Qadiri Sufism as the official religion and central component of Chechen national identity, therefore creating his own version of an Islamic society. Shari’a norms are applied, such as dress code and ban on alcohol consumption, while issues like polygamy or honor killings are officially endorsed, in violation to the Russian Federation’s Constitution. In 2008, the largest mosque in Europe was built in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and the Republic has generously invested on restoring Sufi holy sites and the creation of new ones. Thus, by allegedly creating an Islamic order, Kadyrov projects a moral dilemma which makes many non-belligerent, potential supporters of the insurgents complacent. In terms of insurgency, Chechnya is going through a period of relative calmness; however, one cannot talk of genuine pacification in Chechnya, first due to the repressive character of the regime, and second, because terrorist attacks continue to take place, albeit being limited in number and mainly occurring on symbolic dates.
In conclusion, political Islam is gaining more ground in North Caucasus. However, it is not used only by Wahhabi groups or radical Islamic insurgents, but also by the “official” Muslim leaders, like Sufi Sheikhs, who seek to interfere in social and political life, relying on Islamic laws as their strongest arguments. Moreover, in Chechnya, a different version of a pro-state political Islam, based on Sufi tradition is in place. Therefore, both traditionalists and Salafists are proponents of the Islamic way of life, including Shari’a as the main regulator of life, despite the wide gap between them. If the deterioration socio-economic situation in Caucasus continues, as well as the repression by the authorities of any dissident of the “official” Islam, it is very likely that society will continue to strive for more Islamic solutions. Yet, as the Caucasus Emirate is losing its legitimacy as a radical Islamist umbrella organization, it is evident that many commanders are willing to stir the Islamist radical opposition towards an even more violent, transnational, path.
All links accessed on 05/02/2016
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