Small Wars Journal

The Lesson of Russian Jihad

The Lesson of Russian Jihad

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Recently, groups of people in Russia, most of them people from Central Asia, engaged in a killing spree near Moscow. They placed iron spikes on a road and waited until a lone car was damaged. When the driver got out of the car, he was killed. This was a killing for the sake of killing since the attackers took no money or the car. The extremists were able to kill at least ten people before they were apprehended. There were no visible signs of any external connections or influences. One might assume that these people were self-radicalized and engaged in terrorism because they were Muslims and were influenced either directly or indirectly by radical Islamists. Still, radicalization is not necessarily related with Islam as Russian examples clearly demonstrate.

In 2010, groups of Russian youngsters in the Maritime Provinces—all of them ethnic Russians, and not converts to Islam—murdered several local policemen for political reasons. Killings such as this indicate that what is called a “lone wolf” or “lone wolf groups” could well emerge even in an authoritarian society with strong control over society and could engage in violence for a long time before they could be apprehended.

One might ask why the American public should be concerned with these events. The answer can be found in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, two Chechens from Russia who engaged in the Boston marathon bombings. Most people in law enforcement, home security and other government agencies concerned with protecting the American homeland were clearly convinced that the Tsarnaevs were influenced from abroad. It was assumed that this drive/intention to engage in terrorist activities was due to Islamist influence from the Northern Caucasus. The notion that the outside influence, if any, might be minimal and that the brothers were radicalized by the conditions of American society was basically discarded. Still, both in the case of recent Moscow terrorists, “Maritime guerrillas” and the Tsarnaev brothers, the root of radicalization was mostly internal and might not necessarily be related either with external influences or even radical Islam.  Understanding this is essential to understanding the possibilities of such scenarios in the United States. It must be understood that the “lone wolf” or “lone wolves”—the very small groups of homegrown terrorists—could emerge from a variety of groups in American society. And these groups hardly fit any public or law enforcement profile. One could also assert that the U.S. is more predisposed to the emergence of “lone wolves” than any other society, and these groups hardly fit any public or law enforcement profile. One could also add that “lone wolves” could create many more problems in the U.S. than in other societies, such as, for example, Russia.

American Society as a Breeding Ground for the “Lone Wolf”

America is a big country; and Americans––diverse, racially, culturally and socially––have, of course, different views about their country.  Still, most of them would agree that Americans are, in most cases, a friendly and compassionate people and the U.S. in general is a humane society. They also, would add that most Americans believe that political/social and other conflicts should and could be solved through legal mechanisms, e.g., elections, courts, etc., Thus, acts of terrorism, such as September Eleven, and any chance emergence of a “lone wolf” or “lone wolves” is essentially due to external influences and harmful propaganda, mostly related with radical Islam. It is this explanation that is quite popular among conservative pundits, who often, follow the conservative variation of “postmodernism,” which is related to the rise of any phenomenon with “hegemonic discourse.” Such negative discourse has led to fascism, communism, Islamic extremism and similar totalitarian movements. Consequently, negative discourse should be confronted with positive discourse demonstrating the goodness of Western democratic capitalism.

The problem, thus, is a problem of propaganda warfare. Some blame is also attributed to law enforcement officials who are not able to prevent Americans going to the Middle East where they are radicalized. It is worth noting that people in Washington sound quite similar to people in Moscow. Those in the Kremlin, for example, proclaim that what they usually call “orange revolutions,” those that have overthrown regimes in the post-Soviet states, were the result of the conniving influence of outside forces, EU and the U.S. This is, of course, a rather primitive explanation of events related to serious cases of violence.

Still, any serious historian who studies the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution or the Nazi Revolution would not ignore the social context of the events. One, of course, should not be over simplistic. It is possible to argue that Lenin was crucial for a Bolshevik victory. Still, Lenin’s and a few others of his supporters’ desire to gain power would have no implications for the actual course of events caused the collapse of Russian society due to the hardships of WW I. This could also be said about Hitler. One could hardly imagine his success without the Great Depression. This could also be said about Russia and America where peculiar social conditions and cultural makeup make the rise of the “lone wolf”/“lone wolves” possible. Our focus would be on the U.S. And, here, I would argue that “lone wolves” could emerge in the U.S. easier than in any other society. Those who regard most Americans as peaceful, kind and generous, and American society in general as peaceful, ignore the fact that the U.S. has experienced in recent years, a spate of bizarre and brutish attacks, from the Columbine school massacre (1999) to the recent (2014) shootings at Florida State University. Of course, murders occur in any society. Still, in most cases, those who are attacked in other societies fit into two major categories. First, is a person against whom the assailant has some grudge or who prevented the assailant from reaching his goal, e.g. to rob, loot, rape, etc. Second is a person who is seen as a symbol of a threat to him or a particular group. For example, Muslims could hate Jews even if their society has no tradition of European anti-Semitism. In this case, Jews are seen as an abstract symbol of the evil that befell this group. The problem with the recent attacks on America is that they did not fit in any of these categories. Indeed, neither young children nor any student group had made any moves against the killers or were related in any way with those who might harm the assailant. By killing them, the assailants did not want to achieve any goal. The victims were just abstract individuals, and one could imagine that the attackers could have opened fire on anyone in the crowd. The targets were apparently absolutely random, and, in a way, the attacks were suicidal, for the assailants either committed suicide or were well aware that they would most likely be killed on the spot. The attacks looked like a jihadist-type action. Still, the assailants demonstrated no interest in Islam or any other religion or cause.

Such attacks are extremely rare in other countries, and the frequency of such in America indicates the depth of alienation that some ordinary Americans feel toward society in toto. This sense of the absolute alienation, deep hostility to the entire society, could be especially strong for those who come to the U.S. from different cultures with different cultural/existential narratives. For some, alienation from society in toto could be extremely strong. This could be seen by the fact that one of those who took part in the September Eleven attack was a person who had lived in the U.S. for many years. One commentator noted that he engaged in the suicide terrorism only because he had lived in the U.S. for such a long time. For such foreigners, the hate is deep because it is due to personal experience. For most of those who hate the U.S. and who never visit it, the feeling is not so intense because their hate is theoretical.

The deep alienation of many foreigners on American soil can also be the case with some Americans. We ask, “Why did this happen?” It seems that it should not have happened in the U.S., and many Americans have noted that Americans are quite generous people giving to charity more than anybody else. They also admit foreigners in their midst more easily than people from any other culture. However, there is another aspect of American society that in a dialectic way is connected with Americans’ openness and willingness to engage in charity. Americans give easily give to organizations to which he/she has no connection. They could give money for some abstract cause, such as saving exotic animals in a distant land. Yet, they might be completely oblivious about the needs of their co-workers, those with whom they have worked with for years and shared smiles, talks, food and occasional outings. The average American could easily accept the stranger in his group and after a few minutes treat him as a person he has known for years. Still, the average American could easily forget the people with whom he worked and lived with for years. He could easily forget even the U.S. as a matter of fact; thousands of Americans have decided to live in foreign countries only because life in such a place is cheaper than in the U.S. Thus it seems that excessive sociability, the “groupishness” of average Americans goes along with extreme existential closeness. In this specific social/cultural narrative—the product of the peculiar history of American capitalism with its Calvinistic and Social Darwinistic culture—is everybody  “us” and everybody “them.” As a result, the person who falls from the social niche, e.g., loss of job or family problems, etc., becomes alienated not just from a particular person or group but society in toto. This total alienation from society could well turn to violence and the rise in cases of violent and what seems to be a motivated crime might well indicate the increasing general tensions of the “collective subconscious” and the readiness of increasing numbers of people to commit what looks like unmotivated terrorism. Individually or collectively, they become candidates for the “lone wolf” behavioral model regardless of their religion or ethnic/racial affiliation and hardly fit the scenario of Muslims radicalized in foreign lands,


One could imagine that the “lone wolf” or “lone wolf” groups would survive for a long time. They could do some harm but this should be miniscule, even in comparison to regular crime. The number of people who died in September Eleven might not be much more than the number of homicides in big American cities in a year. The economic losses are much smaller than those caused by smoking. Thus, one could wonder why the authorities became concerned with the “lone wolf”/“lone wolves” scenario. To understand their concern, one should remember the nature of the American capitalist society with the great importance of the public’s attitude toward financial institutions and social-economic stability. Visible terrorist attacks or a combination of attacks on the electric power grid, attempts to poison the water or food supply, spectacular attacks in supermarkets, universities, banks, the murder of important people—businessmen, politicians etc.,––could lead to panic, with unpredictable consequences for the stock market, the economy and society in general. In fact, the recent event in Ferguson, Missouri demonstrates that, unfortunately, still isolated, violent encounters can lead to nationwide repercussions. And for this reason, the very existence and long survivability of a “lone wolf”/ “lone wolves” in Russia should be taken seriously, for the same could well happen in America and with results much more destructive than in Russia and similar societies where damage from terrorist attacks could be reduced just to physical destruction of property and loss of life.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh is an Associated Professor in the Department of History, Indiana University-South Bend. He is the author of several books and more than 100 articles, the newest of which is titled Global Russia: Eurasianism, Putin and the New Right (Tauris, 2013, forthcoming). Dr. Shlapentokh holds master’s degrees from Moscow State University (Russia) and Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in Russian/European history from the University of Chicago.


Dr. Shlapentokh,

I not only agree with much of what you've noted… I think most American readers are probably not aware of the link between "Nihilism", and "Terrorism" and the historical and political contexts associated with these concepts that developed in mid to late 19th Century Russia, and which cumulated in the assassination of Czar Alexander the II.

To be honest, I only accidentally stumbled on the relation myself whilst reading a (lengthy) definition of 'Nihilism' in the Century Dictionary (which I'd link, but requires it's own downloadable reader to access on line). Moreover, I'm not well educated enough in 19th century Russian philosophy to know the referenced Russian writers or their various factions or fates… but it seems likely that you will. It's a fascinating and clearly overlooked link between modern concepts and tactics of 'terrorists' and those of the past.


A. Scott Crawford


Wed, 01/14/2015 - 3:18am

I found support for your arguments in John Mackinlay's "Insurgent Archipellago".
As a comment: Oftentimes I find the society tends to search for culprits abroad. Self-radicalaization might be the reason in more cases than we tend to realize. My hypothesis is that the function of "global jihad", is more as a catalyst, rather than as a facilitator.
Many thanks for a great article.