CAIRO - A string of sectarian killings amid escalating violence threatens to destabilize a fragile peace in the restive Caucasus region of Dagestan, with some analysts seeing the attacks as reflecting ongoing war between rival source of religious authority in the country.
There have been 57 Islamic spiritual leaders killed in Russia over the past 15 years, but last year was a record, Roman Silantyev, religious scholar and associate professor at Moscow State Linguistics University, told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta in the article published by The Telegraph.
These most recent killings involved child victims and a mosque being burnt to the ground. This didn't happen before.
In the latest string of attacks, Imam Said Atsayev was killed at the end of August when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in Dagestan.
The suicide attack killed the 79-year-old influential Sufi cleric along with six others.
The slain imam, who is also known as Said Afandi al-Chirkavi, was widely viewed as one of Dagestan's most revered religious teachers whose funeral drew vast crowds only hours after the killing.
The Interfax news agency estimated that up 150,000 people attended the imam's funeral.
The imam's death increased tension in Dagestan in particular, prompting an official day of mourning locally, though attacks occur almost daily.
The killing came days after masked gunmen opened fire in a mosque in Dagestan, killing one person and injuring several others.
Seven police were also killed in a suicide bombing in August 2012 in Ingushetia, another province in the turbulent North Caucasus.
Last month, the mufti of Russia's largely-Muslim region of Tatarstan was injured and his deputy was killed in a rare attack on Muslim leaders in the oil-rich republic.
In April, a Russian Muslim activist was found dead with his throat slashed in Moscow.
This isn't anything new. Many religious figures have been attacked in the past 10 to15 years, Aslambek Paskachev, the chairman of the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus, said.
Whenever some semblance of peace returns to the Caucasus, some new attacks happen. This shows that there are serious forces that are not interested in a lasting peace.
Some analysts said that the recent attacks reflected an ongoing war between religious authorities in Dagestan.
Afandi had been targeted because he was a rival source of religious authority to the Wahhabis and challenged the legitimacy of their Manichean world view, security expert Mark Galeotti wrote in his blog, In Moscow's Shadows.
He added that the attack showed a growing Muslim civil war was developing in the region.
"The Wahhabis are getting stronger every year... If they destroy their ideological opponents, Islam in Russia will radicalize and we'll be able to forget about the religious peace that we're so proud of, the religious scholar, Silantyev, said.
The only person who managed to effectively combat the Wahhabis is [Chechen President Ramzan] Kadyrov. The authorities have a chance to continue his work, he added.
Others disagreed, confirming that the attacks were stirred by social problems and people's need for justice.
We need dialogue," Nikolai Svanidze, chairman of the Interethnic Relations Committee of Russia's Public Chamber, said.
The reasons behind the conflict are social: inequality and strange court decisions, Svanidze added.
Paskachev, the chairman of the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus, called for enforcing laws to end the tensions.
The situation will depend on how efficiently our law enforcement bodies will work, he said.
If they do their job [and punish the perpetrators], tensions will decrease.