TALLINN, Estonia, March 9 (UPI) -- In what may presage a broader Russian crackdown against Islamist groups, a regional Federal Security Service, or FSB, head says that Islamic extremists in have moved from the "first" to the "second" level of activity, one level short in the Federal Security Service's classification of the point at which such groups will organize "mass disorders" and try to "seize power."
On March 2, Aleksandr Krivyakov, the chief of the Chelyabinsk oblast FSB, told the Interfax news agency that there now existed "definite preconditions for the manifestation of extremism on an ethno-confessional basis" among "persons who profess Islam" in that predominantly Russian region.
According to the FSB officer, such a development would not have been possible "without organizational and financial support from abroad," a fact that he said had been confirmed by the Chelyabinsk courts last fall when they convicted representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir from Central Asia of "extremist activity."
Despite those convictions, however, "the basic channel for the 'export' into the region of radical tendencies [up to now] consists of missionaries, many of whom belong to Islamic extremist organizations" which are based in countries beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.
Such charges by regional FSB officers are nothing new. Indeed, there has been a rising chorus of statements by such officials in the Russian Federation about the growing threat that Islamist groups now represent in the Russian Federation, commentaries that ever more people in the Russian Federation and the West are now prepared to accept.
But it was what Krivyakov added that makes his comments on this point both disturbing and potentially important.
He told the Russian news agency that "it is well known that the expansion of Wahhabism in Russia is taking place stage by stage, according to a definite plan. We already over the course of several years have noted cases of distribution in the region of literature and leaflets of Wahhabi content."
"At the present time," Krivyakov continued, "the second stage of this so-called expansion is taking place: the formation of missionary groups among the members of which is being disseminated an anti-government ideology."
And unless something is done and done quickly, he insisted, these Islamist radicals will move to the final, third stage in which there will be "a sharpening of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional relations," "the activization of national radicals," and even "the organization of mass disorders and the seizure of power."
Three years ago, FSB analysts first began to talk about what they called the "three-stage process" of the Islamist threat to the Russian Federation. At that time, these analysts and others close to them in Moscow said that they had learned of this plan from captured Wahhabist documents.
But over the last 18 months, few FSB officers either in Moscow or in the regions have made reference to it. Instead, most have preferred to focus on the specific actions of Islamist groups rather than suggesting that the actions of the latter are part and parcel of a much larger and more threatening plan that the Russian authorities have been unable to disrupt.
Now, however, Krivyakov has explicitly revived this idea. On the one hand, of course, his comments may be nothing more than normal bureaucratic politics, an effort by one regional official to extract more resources from Moscow by suggesting -- accurately or not -- that the threat he and his officers now face is much greater than it was only a few months ago.
But on the other hand, Krivyakov's suggestion that Islamic extremists supported from abroad could destabilize at least one Russian region and even threaten to "seize power" there may mean that the Russian government is considering a sweeping crackdown and is using the remarks of a regional FSB officer to gauge public reaction.
To the extent that the latter interpretation is correct, the number of references in the coming days and weeks to this Islamist "three-stage process" may provide a useful measure of both the state of the debate within the Russian government over how best to respond and the possibility that Moscow will come down harder on Islamist groups than ever before.
(Paul Goble teaches at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)