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Dagestan political elite to be vetted for links to radical Islam after shootings

By Thomson Reuters Jun 25, 2024 | 9:38 AM

By Andrew Osborn

(Reuters) – The Kremlin-backed head of Dagestan on Tuesday ordered background checks to be carried out on the Russian republic’s political elite to make sure nobody had links to radical Islam after a weekend attack in which 21 people were killed.

Sergei Melikov, the governor of the majority-Muslim southern region where gunmen attacked churches and synagogues on Sunday evening, said he was also opposed to local women wearing a niqab face veil after reports that one of the gunmen had planned to escape in a niqab disguised as a woman.

The attack, at least the third serious incident inside Russia this year linked to Islamist militants, is a headache for President Vladimir Putin who says the country needs to focus its resources on winning the war in Ukraine, something Moscow calls a special military operation.

“I’ve given an order for the personal affairs of all those who occupy leadership posts in Dagestan to be studied and checked, including deputies of the people’s assembly (local parliament). We’ll do it in several stages,” Melikov told lawmakers.

Melikov’s decision reflects fears that Dagestan’s political elite has been infiltrated by radical Islamists after two of the gunmen were identified as sons of a local official, another as having a past affiliation with a pro-Kremlin party, and another gunman identified as the relative of a former senior official.

Former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov has alleged that the attack had shown that Dagestan’s elite had been “infected” by radical Islam.

STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE

Located 1,600 km (1,000 miles) south of Moscow, Dagestan, though poor, is strategically important for the Russian military which is having a naval base built there for its “Caspian Flotilla.”

To its west lies Chechnya, also a majority-Muslim region, where Moscow has fought two wars with separatists since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

The RBC news outlet cited Melikov as referencing Magomed Omarov, the head of a district in eastern Dagestan whose two sons he said were among the attackers.

Omarov has since been fired from his post, excluded from the ruling United Russia party, and was jailed for 10 days on Tuesday on charges of petty hooliganism after being questioned by investigators, the Russian news agency TASS reported.

The Baza news outlet, which is known for its law enforcement sources, reported Omarov as saying he had not spoken to his sons for a long time but was aware of their Islamist views.

“How could a district head run a municipality if he couldn’t bring up his own children? Maybe we have more district heads where sleeper cells (of Islamist militants) operate?” RBC quoted Melikov as saying.

The gunmen had all come from well-off families and had good prospects, Melikov added.

Reports that one of the gunmen had planned to escape wearing a niqab veil played into an ongoing debate across Russia about whether such items of clothing should be banned, with Konstantin Malofeyev, a prominent Russian Orthodox businessman and nationalist, arguing in favour of such a move.

Residents of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s regional capital, on Tuesday reported tighter security measures with more heavily-armed police patrols and vehicle checkpoints as the city observed a second official day of mourning.

(Reporting by Andrew Osborn, Editing by Timothy Heritage)