MOSCOW (Reuters) - Al Qaeda is providing Russia's Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus with increasing amounts of money and vocal support, according to a lengthy report by a prominent Washington think tank.
The mainly Muslim regions along Russia's southern frontier are beset by near-daily shootings and bombings, carried out by rebels fighting for a separate Islamic state in an insurgency underpinned by two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya.
The rebels, whose goal is a state called the Caucasus Emirate stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian, receive growing patronage from al Qaeda-linked groups, said the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Underestimating the danger posed by the Caucasus Emirate -- which is also the name of the insurgency -- "only increases our vulnerability to attack", author Gordon Hahn said, adding that global and U.S. national security were also under threat.
"Al Qaeda has played an important role in proselytising jihadism and providing financial, training and personnel support to the mujahideen in Chechnya and the Caucasus," said Hahn, also a senior researcher at the U.S. Monterey Institute for International Studies.
Around half of Russia's 20 million Muslims live in the North Caucasus.
The al Qaeda online magazine Ansar al Mujahideen began appearing in Russian last year, adding to the dozen or so Russian-language sites that either represent or are affiliated with the insurgency.
With increasing regularity, these sites carry statements of support from leading jihadists such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who inspired al Qaeda in Iraq and is now behind bars in Jordan, Hahn said in the report.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called the insurgency the country's main security threat in the year before the March 2012 presidential election, which will see Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seek a return to the Kremlin.
Although the Kremlin has poured billions of dollars into the poverty-wracked region, the violence -- especially in the Dagestan region -- does not abate and is even on the rise, causing critics to say Moscow's policy there has failed.
Citing Spanish police who arrested a Moroccan man last year accused of being the webmaster of the al Qaeda magazine, Hahn said: "The website was already being used to raise money for terrorists in Chechnya as well as Afghanistan."
There has also been a rise in recent years in the number of militants killed by Russian security forces in the North Caucasus whom authorities say come directly from al Qaeda.
Though Russian officials have long said the militants depend on financing from the Middle East and al Qaeda, analysts and Western diplomats disputed this, saying Russia did not want to face up to a homegrown insurgency.
Hahn pointed to the arrest by Czech police in May of eight individuals in Prague suspected of plotting attacks in the North Caucasus as possible proof of ties to al Qaeda. Police said the group, which included a Chechen and Dagestanis, had trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He also emphasised repeated calls by Chechen-born rebel leader Doku Umarov, Russia's most wanted man, for the Caucasus Emirate to be integrated into global jihad, most recently in February.
The United States has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Umarov, who claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport that killed 37 people in January, as well as the twin metro attacks last year that killed 40.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Tim Pearce