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Keep your terrorists close: Why Russia treats some Islamic fundamentalists as friends and others as enemies

Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan has publicly endorsed the actions of a Russian security officer who cut off the ear of a detained suspect following the Mar. 22 Crocus City Hall terrorist attack outside of Moscow. “This isn't Norway,” she said while highlighting the fact that her country does not follow a European standard in the treatment of suspected criminals — “If you want to go to Norway, then go to Norway.” Indeed, with each passing year Russia drifts further from Norway and aligns ever more closely, in its practices and in its ideology, with fundamentalist terrorist organizations. It's no wonder that Moscow has cultivated warm relations with many of them. This analysis sheds light on which terrorists are considered allies by the Kremlin, and which are seen as adversaries.

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Content
  • The Shiite Axis: Hezbollah and the Houthis

  • Hamas

  • The Taliban

  • ISIS: no friendship forged

On Russian federal TV channels, daily calls for the mass killing of peaceful Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian cities reverberate. Security forces openly subject suspects to torture and mutilation on camera, while the state media do not hesitate to broadcast these recordings. This brazen state terror is not only aligning Russia with the likes of North Korea and Iran, but also with non-state terrorist organizations. Many of these groups have indeed become official allies of Russia.

The Shiite Axis: Hezbollah and the Houthis

In 2015, Russia entered the war in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad's forces. The government side under the dictator’s control had been worn down by years of fighting, and also by rampant desertions. Consequently, various Shiite formations sponsored and armed by Iran became Russia's key allies in the fight to maintain Assad in power. A victory for the rebels in the Syrian civil war would have threatened Iran with the loss of its main ally in the Arab world. Therefore, Tehran spared no expense, deploying Iraqi Shiites influenced by Iran's religious propaganda, Shiite refugees from Afghanistan forcibly turned into cannon fodder, Iranian volunteers brainwashed by their own regime’s official ideology, and professional soldiers in the fight to sustain Assad's Tehran-friendly regime. The most prominent among these Shiite formations was the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Hezbollah militants exercising
Hezbollah militants exercising

While recognized as a terrorist organization in many democratic countries, Hezbollah is considered a reliable partner in Moscow. The group engages in assassinations of diplomats, hijackings of planes, bombings in crowded places, hostage-taking, and likely even drug trafficking, Hezbollah established close ties with Russia from the start of the Russian military presence in Syria — ties that now extend far beyond purely military cooperation and include joint operations with a shadow tanker fleet distributing sanctioned Russian and Iranian oil worldwide, money laundering from criminally obtained funds, and other outright mafia-style activities.

The decal on the car window depicts Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Latakia, Syria, May 2014.
The decal on the car window depicts Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. Latakia, Syria, May 2014.
Reuters

And it’s not only in Syria that Russia has partnered with pariah Shiite organizations. The Yemeni group Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, is funded through monetary transfer schemes created by Russia and Hezbollah. Ansar Allah engages in abductions, deportations, torture, and executions of unarmed individuals, glorifying its terrorist acts as part of a stated belief in their supposed special mission. Russia traditionally blocks UN Security Council resolutions aimed at imposing sanctions on the Houthis, and even attempted to challenge the inclusion of the group on an American-made list of terrorist organizations.

At the UN, Russia even attempted to challenge the inclusion of the group in the American-made list of terrorist organizations

These unsavory relationships began well before Russia’s Feb. 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but as Moscow’s military aggression has further isolated the country from the civilized world, its ties to rogue regimes and non-state actors have only grown closer. The Houthis have already been designated by Russian propaganda as one of Moscow’s main allies in the supposed “struggle for a multipolar world.”

Part of that “struggle” involves the Houthis’ asymmetrical response to Israel's military actions against Hamas. In an attempt to pressure Western nations into withdrawing support for Israel, Iranian-supplied missiles fired from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen have targeted several commercial ships transiting the Red Sea. However, the group has pledged not to target Russian vessels, once again demonstrating the depth of their bond with Moscow. Notably, China has also found itself included on the Houthis' “white list,” likely due to its overtly neutral stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Hamas

Starting in Soviet times, Moscow provided extensive military, economic, and diplomatic backing to Israel's Middle Eastern adversaries, including to key players on the Palestinian side of the conflict. Soviet officials viewed the Jewish state as a conduit for Western expansion into Arab territories and thus deemed it hostile.

The USSR supplied Syria and Egypt, Israel's primary regional rivals, with thousands of tanks, aircraft, and artillery. Support in the form of small arms, explosives, propaganda materials, and military training also flowed to the Palestinians, who lacked a formal army but operated underground militant factions. After Israel’s victory over Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi forces in the 1967 Six-Day War, Moscow broke off diplomatic ties with Israel and did not resume them until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

However, the warming of relations with Israel did not spoil Moscow’s friendship with Jerusalem’s Palestinian adversaries — Hamas foremost among them. Not even revelations of the group's support for anti-Russian activities in the North Caucasus. or Hamas leaders’ encouragement of Russian Muslims to engage in jihad against their country of citizenship, could break the bond.

Hamas militants
Hamas militants

Despite condemnation of Hamas's terrorist activities, Russia refrained from categorizing the group as terrorists. Since the mid-2000s, Hamas delegations have made regular visits to Moscow, and during his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev personally met with the organization's chief politburo member, Khaled Mashal, in Damascus.

Russia has refrained from categorizing them as terrorists

According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russians supplied weapons to Hamas that were later used in the October 2023 attack on Israel; these included Western arms seized as trophies on the battlefields of Ukraine. Additionally, Hamas representatives claimed that, with Moscow's permission, the production of Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition was established in Gaza.

The Russian delegation to the UN regularly blocks anti-Hamas resolutions in the Security Council and generally advocates for the terrorist group on the international stage. For Russia, a state almost officially obsessed with anti-Americanism, the anti-Western Hamas is a natural ally. Just as it did in the mid-20th century, Moscow is now willing to support any opponent of the United States, regardless of how ruthless that opponent may be or of how problematic cooperation with them might become.

Moscow is now willing to support any opponent of the United States, regardless of how ruthless that opponent may be

It is possible that the Russian leadership would like to increase its influence over Hamas, aligning the terrorist group’s interests with Moscow’s own — for instance, by fomenting conflict in the Middle East in order to divert attention from Russian actions in Ukraine. However, Hamas is certainly not a puppet of Moscow. This is evidenced, for example, by the failure of Moscow's efforts to reconcile Hamas with other Palestinian factions, Fatah chief among them. The most recent such attempt occurred at the end of February and ended without any resolution.

Sergei Lavrov and Ismail Haniyeh, Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau
Sergei Lavrov and Ismail Haniyeh, Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The open conflict between Fatah and Hamas began in 2007 when Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip. Since then, the competing Palestinian organizations have been locked in a cold war with each other. It is worth noting that Moscow also maintains warm relations with Fatah, which also have a lengthy history. The current chairman of the organization, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, defended his doctoral dissertation on the topic “The Secret Connection between Nazism and Zionism” in Moscow in the 1980s. The contents of this dissertation remain undisclosed.

The Taliban

When Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Taliban group had not yet come into existence. At the time, its founders and ideologues were mostly located in neighboring Pakistan studying in Islamic schools (the term “Taliban” itself translates to “students”). Unlike the mujahideen who fought against the Soviets, the men who eventually formed the Taliban harbored no animosity towards Moscow, nor had they ever done so. In fact, it was largely Moscow's actions that inadvertently provided the Taliban with the opportunity to rise to power.

Effectively, it was Moscow that facilitated the Taliban's rise to power

Ultimately, the Soviet invasion led to the collapse of Afghanistan's fragile peace and the emergence of numerous armed factions that continued to fight amongst themselves following the USSR's departure. Throughout the 1990s, these various groups vied for influence but proved unable to withstand the challenge posed by the formidable and highly motivated “students,” who systematically dismantled or dispersed all rival mujahideen groups.

Until 2001, the Taliban controlled nearly all of Afghanistan's territory, with their regime falling only after the American invasion. The temporary demise of the Taliban did not provoke strong emotions in Moscow. For years, Russia had paid little attention to Afghanistan — a distant country with minimal influence on global affairs and the site of a humiliating military defeat for Moscow. This indifference may explain why Russia eventually followed the lead of the international community in designating the Taliban as terrorists. However, it didn't preclude Moscow from engaging in negotiations with them in 2018.

Taliban militants
Taliban militants

Those negotiations may have been more for show than substance. After 2014, following its annexation of Crimea and hybrid occupation of the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region, Russia had been keen to portray itself as a reliable and indispensable partner on the world stage. It signaled willingness to join the American-led anti-ISIS coalition and offered to mediate in Afghan peace talks. Yet at the same time, Russia hoped the world would turn a blind eye to its actions in neighboring countries.

This charade continued until the Western coalition forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, swiftly followed by the Taliban's lightning takeover of the country. For Russia, this collapse of the Western-backed project in Afghanistan was a boon. Firstly, it fostered the belief that the U.S. would no longer play the role of a global policeman, a perception that may have nudged the Kremlin towards its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Secondly, during the American presence in Afghanistan, it became evident that the country was rich in valuable minerals simply awaiting extraction and export. The Taliban now control land potentially worth trillions of dollars, but they lack the means to exploit it. Russia is keen to secure concessions from the Taliban for the development of Afghanistan's mineral resources — and Russia is not alone in this pursuit.

The Taliban now control land potentially worth trillions of dollars but lack the means to exploit it

Neighboring countries including China and India have their sights set on the mineral reserves in Afghanistan, and they are scrambling to win favor with the Taliban in hopes of securing the most lucrative contracts. Delegations from various governments are making their way to Kabul, inviting the Taliban to conferences and intergovernmental meetings. Once-shuttered embassies, closed after the fall of the former Western-backed democratic regime, are reopening. Amidst all this activity, it is easy to overlook the fact that the Taliban have always been — and continue to be — a terrorist organization, known for extrajudicial executions, prisoner shootings, and persecution based on religious and gender criteria.

ISIS: no friendship forged

The Taliban's main adversaries in Afghanistan are dissatisfied with them not because the Taliban are excessively brutal or fanatical. Rather, they believe that the ruling regime lacks the necessary cruelty. These adversaries are known as “Wilayat Khorasan,” or ISIS-Khorasan. Khorasan refers to a vast historical region spanning Central Asia and the Middle East, including parts of modern-day Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan. ISIS-Khorasan emerged several years ago when jihadist groups operating in some of these countries pledged allegiance to ISIS leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, who in June 2014 declared the establishment of a worldwide caliphate before dying in a U.S. special forces raid in 2019.

The goal of ISIS-Khorasan is to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law. However, the Taliban are not allies in this endeavor. Despite the fact that many ISIS-Khorasan militants were once members of the Taliban, they have distanced themselves from their less radical former comrades.

ISIS militants
ISIS militants

Much of this conflict stems from the Taliban's collaboration with foreign governments and their pursuit of international recognition (currently, no country in the world has recognized the Taliban government). In the value system of ISIS, there is no need for international acknowledgment of the caliphate. They consider only their Islamic state to be legitimate and, therefore, worthy of existence. In their view, all other nations must ultimately submit to the authority of the caliphate by abolishing their governing bodies and replacing their laws and constitutions with the Sharia code.

The Taliban not only seek recognition from those whom ISIS followers believe should not exist, but also actively engage with them. The Taliban's choice of international partners — atheist China, along with predominately Hindu (and therefore “polytheistic”) India — is completely unacceptable to ISIS. Then there's Russia, which targets Muslims (including ISIS members) in the North Caucasus and Syria, ranking high on ISIS's list of enemies.

Unlike the terrorist organizations Russia cooperates with, ISIS is driven solely by ideology. This places it in a separate category from Hezbollah, which not only amasses rockets to target Israel, but also participates in elections, appointing its deputies to the Lebanese parliament and ministers to the government. It differs from the opportunism of Hamas, ostensibly radical Sunnis who readily accept funds and weapons from non-Muslim Russians and Iranian Shiite heretics. It also contrasts with the calculated actions of the Taliban, who are willing to collaborate with “polytheists” for financial gain.

But there is one unifying principle. At the heart of modern Russia's ideology, along with those of all the terrorist groups listed above, lies one key trait: hatred. For some, it's hatred towards Ukrainians. For others, it’s hatred towards Israel specifically, or towards all non-believers in general. Still, only ISIS follows the path of pure, undiluted hatred, undistracted by any other motivation.

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