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WASHINGTON – With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, less than five months away, Russian officials are raising major alarms over the number of Islamists from the North Caucasus now getting urban warfare experience in Syria.
They’ll be returning home, right in the shadow of the international sporting events, of course.
The games, which are to take place from Feb. 7-23, 2014, have been threatened with destruction by the leader of the Islamist militants, Doku Umarov, who has called for “maximum force” to ensure that they don’t take place.
These North Caucasus fighters now in Syria come from such southern Russian provinces as Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia.
They are closely aligned with the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which has sided with the rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad but wants to establish Syria as an Islamic caliphate, a goal opposite of what the Syrian rebels have in mind.
Sources add that Islamist militants from Russia include from 400-500 Chechens, 600 Dagestanis and 200 Tatars and Bashkirs, all of whom are fighting in Syria.
In all, Russian officials believe there could be as many as 1,500 Russian Islamist militants fighting in Syria on the side of the Syrian opposition against the government of Assad.
Russian officials have expressed concern that these fighters who are battle-hardened in urban warfare will return in time to launch attacks on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which is located next to the contentious Muslim provinces.
Russian officials say that Chechens, for example, travel to Azerbaijan and then head for Turkey, which is next door to Syria. They leave their regions under the pretext that they are going to undertake Islamic studies when, in fact, they head to Turkey.
Turkey has been a harbor for the Syrian opposition, including foreign fighters, in an effort to topple the al-Assad regime.
“They will come back and that, naturally, is posing a serious danger,” according to Sergei Smirnov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.
This development has posed a particular problem for Moscow-picked Ramzan Kadrov, leader of Chechen province.
He previously has denied that Chechens were fighting in Syria. But now he’s alleged that foreign security services have been recruiting North Caucasians to fight in Syria.
The fact that Kadrov can’t seem to rein in Chechens from going to Syria and coming back to Russia with urban warfare experience has particularly irked Moscow.
The North Caucasian fighters now have formed their own group called the Al-Muhajireen. It is affiliated with al-Qaida and is based in the region of Aleppo in northern Syria.
Most of them had prior military experience in the North Caucasus before heading for Syria.
They are led by a Chechen commander, Abu Abdurakhman.
“People here know that the Russian government supports Bashar Assad’s regime, so participation in the hostilities against Syrian authorities is for them a continuation of the war with Russia,” one Chechen source said. This is a reference to the two Russian-Chechen wars that began in the 1990s.
To underscore the militancy of these fighters, one from Dagestan was videotaped slitting the throats of two Christian priests in Syria. Before becoming a militant, this fighter belonged to Dagestan’s anti-extremism special police unit. Then he switched sides and joined the Islamist fighters.
If and when these fighters return to Russia after fighting in Syria, they are expected to join Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, which he has declared to encompass the predominantly Muslim Russian provinces.
Last June, Umarov made a video calling on his fighters to disrupt the Winter Olympics in Sochi with “maximum force.”
In the video he took credit not only for the deadly attacks on Moscow’s subway in 2010, which killed 40 people, but also Moscow’s Domodedovo airport attack in 2011 that killed 37 people.
“Today we must show those who live in the Kremlin that our kindness is not weakness,” Umarov said. “They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as mujahideen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us.”
The Russians, along with technical help from the United States and Britain, have invested heavily in security. However, Russian officials are suggesting that what has been done to date may not be enough.
The Olympics have seen terror before. In 1972 in Munich, nearly a dozen members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually murdered. The attackers were identified as the Palestinian group called Black September.