Credit James Hill for The New York Times
BEREKEI, Russia â?? A handsome, new, white brick house, still lacking windows, sits deserted in the middle of this quiet agricultural village in Dagestan, the homeowner having slipped away midconstruction with his wife and three small children to join the Islamic State.
He was not the first. That came in January, soon after leaders of the long-running Islamist insurgency here in Dagestan, Russiaâ??s southernmost republic, began pledging allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Around 30 men and women, townspeople say, have melted away this year.
Experts Explain How Global Powers Can Smash ISISNOV. 17, 2015
Russia Allies With France Against ISIS, Saying Jet That Crashed in Sinai Was BombedNOV. 17, 2015
ISIS Claims Responsibility for Blasts That Killed Dozens in BeirutNOV. 12, 2015
â??When they lived here they were all followers of one extremist line of Islam, so when one left, he became an example and the others left, too,â? said Capt. Abbas Karaev, 27, the village policeman, sitting in Berekeiâ??s squat municipal building, a structure so dilapidated and dusty it appeared abandoned. â??They were told it was a jihad in Syria, and they would go to paradise if they died in this war. That is all they had in their heads.â?
Much like the disaffected Muslim communities in Europe, the Caucasus region and the swath of former Soviet republics across Central Asia have become a vital recruiting ground for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Law enforcement officials estimate that there are at least 2,000 fighters from the Caucasus among up to 7,000 recruits from Russia and the former Soviet Union now in Syria and Iraq.
At the same time, the Islamic State is steadily establishing a foothold in the Caucasus. It is tapping into the rage and resentment over Russiaâ??s constant, brutal and arbitrary security presence in order to foster a new crop of homegrown, fanatical opponents to revive the insurgency that the Kremlin suppressed.
The majority Sunni population in the region has been further inflamed by the Russian militaryâ??s intervention in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of a Shiite sect who has killed tens of thousands of his Sunni opponents.
For the Kremlin, the ever more pronounced links between the Islamic State and the Caucasus provoke anxiety.
More than a decade ago, Russians were terrorized by a devastating series of attacks on schools, airplanes, a theater, the Moscow Metro and other public targets mostly at the hands of Chechens. The prospect of thousands of battle-hardened, Russia-hating jihadists returning under the banner of the Islamic State, or of a new group of native, fanatical fighters fanning out across Russia, is alarming.
To date, with what radicalized Muslims view as jihad still raging in Syria and Iraq, there is scarce evidence of blowback in the Caucasus. In Dagestan in 2015, for example, only 95 people died violently through September, compared with 208 in 2014 and 413 in 2011, according to the Caucasian Knot website, which tracks the conflict.
Nevertheless, the Islamic State is known for biding its time, carefully building local structures and military ability before striking. It remains active in the Caucasus region, releasing a stream of sophisticated propaganda videos and promising to return to exact revenge for Russiaâ??s actions.
Certainly, President Vladimir V. Putin is concerned. When he announced in September that he would deploy the Russian Air Force in Syria, part of his stated rationale was to destroy the militants there before they could strike at home. Then just weeks later, on Oct. 31, a bomb exploded on a charter jet bringing mostly Russian vacationers back from