Islamic fundamentalism and the antisemitic airport riot in Dagestan

The Bell

The recent riot at Makhachkala airport, which involved 1,500 people chanting antisemitic slogans and waving Palestinian flags, continues to be a major topic in Russian-language media eight days on. The Bell has looked into how anonymous Telegram channels orchestrated the events that led to a mob storming the airport in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority region close to Russia’s southern border with Azerbaijan, in search of Jewish and Israeli passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv.

  • Immediately after the riot, reports started spreading around the Russian-language internet that the “Utro Dagestan” (Morning Dagestan) Telegram channel coordinated the events. The channel was created on March 30, 2022 by an anonymous account. For many weeks, the channel had no more than 1,500 followers. It adopted a critical stance towards Russia’s federal authorities and its authors continue to express anger over government policies and the war in Ukraine.
  • During Russia’s September 2022 mobilization drive, the channel’s audience swelled to 130,000 followers and it became a vehicle for protest in the region. Utro Dagestan called for and organized a public demonstration in Makhachkala on Sep. 25. The channel’s author clearly knew the city well and was able to quickly track the movements of security forces deployed to manage the crowds. As a result, protests continued in both Makhachkala and Khasavyurt for several days, as people blocked roads, chanted anti-war slogans and fought off the police. In the six months after the anti-mobilization protests, the channel lost around half its followers.
  • In regional Dagestani chats there were two widely-debated theories as to the identity of the Utro Dagestan admins. Some believed former Russian parliamentarian Ilya Ponomarev, who now lives in Ukraine and is a vocal anti-war critic and activist, was the author. Others spread rumors that the channel is controlled by the security services. Pro-Kremlin media were among those that linked the channel to Ponomarev, including Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. Ponomarev himself made contradictory statements, describing himself as both an “investor” in the channel, as well as its owner. Ponomarev’s money certainly helped to create a network of regional oppositional Telegram channels, including Utro Dagestan, Fyodor Klimenko, the editor-in-chief of one such channel, said in an interview with Meduza. But by the summer of 2022, Ponomarev stopped paying the salaries of his staff working on these regional channels, who were unhappy with him putting pressure on them regarding content and editorial stances.
  • Aside from these two theories, there is a third which has also gained traction. Islamic preacher and Salafi theologian Abu Umar Sasitlinsky may also be connected to Utro Dagestan. Russian authorities have described him as a “recruiter” and fundraiser for ISIS. Investigative outlet The Insider also wrotethat there may be two other Salafists among the admins – Arslan Mirzayev and Hasan Gadzhiyev. 
  • Salafism is a fundamentalist tendency within Islam that advocates sharia law and has inspired several radical movements. Among fundamentalist movements, Salafism is one of the more widespread in Dagestan, and experts believe it could have played a role in recent events. Mountain Jews have lived in Dagestan for hundreds of years — with a huge wave arriving during the 19th century after they left Persia for the Caucasus. Given these factors, there are grounds to consider the role Islamist antisemitism could have played in the riot at the airport. Experts have also pointed towards a trend in the region of depriving Jews of self-determination. In an interview with Meduza, Velvla Chernin of the Institute of Euro-Asian Jewish Studies said: “The rioters shouted: ‘Remember Khaibar!’ This was a seventh-century Arabian state where, according to the Koran, Muslims killed Jews. Moreover, it's no coincidence that graffiti on the walls of a cultural center in the city of Nalchik read ‘Death to the Yahuds.’ It was written in Russian, but instead of the [Russian] word ‘Yevrey’ they wrote ‘Yahud’, using the Arabic word for ‘Jews.’”

Why the world should care:

If Salafists were involved in coordinating the riot, we are looking at a deeper level of antisemitism. Islamist anti-Zionists see Jewish resistance as illegitimate since Jews, like Christians, are only permitted to live under the laws of their conquerors, according to their worldview. As the war continues between Israel and Hamas, it can be assumed that there is nothing preventing fundamentalists inside Russia from launching further riots and carrying out other anti-Jewish acts. It also appears that none of those involved will face serious punishment. Only administrative — not criminal — punishments of fines of short jail sentences (a few days) have been given to the handful of rioters who have had charges pressed against them.


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