How dangerous does a group have to be to get included on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list? In the wake of the Times Square attack, the omission of the Pakistani Taliban from the FTO list revealed a gap in understanding of the threat posed by a violent Islamist network that consists of al-Qaeda franchises and affiliates. But there are other cases where terrorist groups that pose a clear threat to American interests have been omitted from the list. For example, according to a recent report, the State Department will not include the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (IEC), a group based in the North Caucasus region of southern Russia, on the FTO list. Why not?
To be classified as an FTO, a group must (1) be foreign, (2) “engage in terrorist activity” (which, according to this section of U.S. Code, can include any activity involving a firearm or explosive not undertaken for monetary gain), and (3) “threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security . . . of the United States,” where “national security” includes defense, economic, and foreign-policy interests. The third requirement is critical to a group’s potential designation, since the first two conditions apply just about any group of thugs.
What explains the IEC’s absence from the FTO list? It could stem from the notion that the group is essentially local, representing a response to regional tensions and long-simmering conflicts between Chechens (and other ethnicities in the Caucasus) and the Russian government. The conflict in the region does date back hundreds of years, and includes such events as Imam Shamil’s insurgency against the Russian empire in the 1830s and Stalin’s deportation of Chechens in the 1940s. Modern-day grievances, including those arising from the autocratic reign of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (whom reports recently connected to the murder of a Chechen human-rights activist), also figure into this perception of the IEC.
Yet while the IEC may act locally, it is thinking globally. The presence of legitimate local grievances should not obscure the threat that the IEC poses to U.S. interests through its role in the international al-Qaeda and Associated Movement (AQAM) network. AQAM elements use local grievances as force multipliers to advance their global campaign, allowing the network to manipulate entrenched local conflicts to its advantage. The current FTO list includes many al-Qaeda groups and affiliates that have implemented such a model: Somalia’s al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, to name just a few.
The IEC has focused its attacks on Russian territory, as in the recent Moscow subway bombings. But rhetoric and other ties align it with the AQAM network, which seeks to harm American interests. IEC leader Doku Umarov stated during the formation of the IEC in November 2007:
. . . after expelling the kuffar [infidels] we must reconquer all historical lands of Muslims, and these borders are beyond the boundaries of Caucasus . . . Today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Palestine our brothers are fighting. Those who have attacked Muslims, wherever they are, are our enemies, common enemies. Our enemy is not Rusnya [Russia] only, but also America, England, Israel, and anyone who wages war against Islam and Muslims. And they are our enemies because they are the enemies of Allah.