Russia and Foreign Fighters: from import to export

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: European Studies


Terrorism in Russia is primarily associated with separatism
and jihadism in the North Caucasus (NC). Despite being
home-grown, it had an international dimension. Russia
became a significant destination for foreign fighters (FFs),
coming to the NC attracted by the separatist struggle and
post-Soviet religious revival in this Muslim majority area.
Today, Russia turned from a destination for mainly Arab FFs
to a country of origin as Russians themselves are now
becoming FFs.The puzzle this project investigates is why and
how this change occurred. A concurrent development was
the intensification of Russia's counterterrorism (CT) efforts in
the NC. This project focusses on the potential role of these
CT policies as an explanatory variable based on suggestions
in the literature. In this context, 'the state' mainly relates to
the Russian national security institutions (siloviye strukturi).
When compared to FFs coming from other regions but
participating in the same conflicts, studying the case of
Russian FFs allows us to propose a revision to the broader
theory on FFs, conceptualising and contextualising the role of
the state, which can then be extended to and tested in other

This leads to the research question: In how far did the
Russian state and its CT policy influence the shift towards an
outflow of FFs? The project suggests three alternative
explanations drawn from recent scholarship that have not
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been systematically researched. These factors are not
mutually exclusive for the whole phenomenon of Russian FFs,
but for individual FFs.First is the hard-line Russian CT
approach and its success at reducing terrorist activity in the
NC and across Russia. Russian FFs joining ISIS were said to
transfer the struggle against the Russian state to fighting the
Russian military presence in Syria (Souleimanov 2017). This
suggests displacement, as domestic terrorists are forced
abroad without giving up their fight, and a failed/absent deradicalisation strategy. However, increased Russian military
presence abroad provides a pull factor.Second, reports
suggest that Russia is facilitating the outflow of radicals to
support its NC pacification efforts (ICG 2016). Indeed, the
literature highlights that despite official policies, states can
provide vital assistance to FFs (Malet 2015).Third, the
Russian state might recruit potential, former or even current
domestic terrorists to fight in foreign endeavours. Findings
on youth radicalisation suggest that below superficially
displayed religious or nationalist motivations (Joffe 2016), lie
underlying cultural factors like masculinity roles (Kimmel
2002) and the local warrior ethos (Hegghammer 2013). The
state can use this as an outlet valve to reduce domestic
terrorism and redirect these cultural factors towards other
endeavours. There are suggestions about recruitment by
Russian secret services in the case of Syria and Ukraine (ICG
2016; Kavkaz Uzel 2014).The null hypothesis would be the
absence of a state role. Thus, the project remains
exploratory to consider individual factors in each FF case. For
example, one should take into consideration successful ISIS
recruitment (Joffe 2016), e.g. through the personal
recruitment power of homecoming veteran FFs
(Hegghammer 2013).There needs to be clarity about who is
considered a FF. Disagreements in the literature pertain to
the role of the state (Mendelsohn 2013) or of payments
(Hegghammer 2013; Malet 2015). Policy-makers developed
alternative terms like "Combatants on Foreign Soil" (COFS)
USHSC 2015) or "foreign terrorist fighters" (FTF) (UNSC
2015) even though these have been challenged in academic
studies (Moore 2015; Schmidt 2015).To operationalise the
target group, this project considers Russian Muslims who
fought as volunteers (i.e. not directly for the Russian armed
forces) in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2285668 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2022 Annamaria Kiss