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Interview: Terror in Russia

08/03/2011

The attack on Moscow’s Domodevo airport earlier this year was the latest in a long litany of terrorism in Russia emanating from the troubled Caucuses region. While it is a subject I follow, I do not follow it in nearly enough detail and have in the past turned to Ces Moore of Birmingham University for more detailed analysis. In the wake of the recent attacks I have been sharing emails with Ces on the subject, and he kindly accepted to answer a few questions on the subject for this site – for Ces’s complete bio, please see his site at Birmingham. My questions in italics:

1. Who do you think might be responsible, and why did it take them so long to claim it?

In the past, groups involved in launching suicide operations in Russia have claimed responsibility in statements, in the days and weeks following attacks. As such, it is not surprising that two statements were released in quick succession in February by the leader of the Caucasus Emirate – a loosely connected group of militants fighting in the North Caucasus (for more on the ‘third wave’ of attacks). In recent years Doku Umarov has vowed to launch attacks in Russian cities. The video statements suggested that the leader of the Emirate, Umarov, and his supporters played a role in the Domodedovo attack, although that must be read in the context of ongoing operations by the militant underground across the North Caucasus.

Obviously it is difficult to ascertain which faction from the North Caucasus, if indeed any, were responsible. Significantly, although Al Qaeda have offered endorsements for attacks, they don’t have a track record of launching operations targeting Russia, so, as the statements indicate; it likely that indigenous groups with the willingness and capability may have been involved in the attack. Given the target – a key transport hub and symbol of Russia – and the nature and form of the attack – a suicide operation – it is likely that Umarov and his supporters were involved in the airport bombing.

These groups often wait a few days before issuing statements, partly in order to ratchet up pressure on the Russian authorities and partly because their systems of communication, command and control are a being closely monitored by the Russian authorities, making it difficult for them to operate. For example, in the past, rebel websites have been subjected to cyber attacks. It may well be that this attack is only loosely linked to the core of the insurgency – many attacks in the past were launched almost as independent operations – under the framework of a loose network of affiliates. For instance, in the wave of terrorism between 2002 and 2004 called Operation Boomerang, groups approached rebel leaders for funding to launch attacks – almost as a franchise operation – while other attacks were launched independently, as acts of retaliation. The claim of responsibility will shed some light on the groups involved, and help unpack if there is a link to the North Caucasus.

2. This is not the first time this airport has been targeted: is this in part a message to the outside world? What is the message if it is? Should other countries be concerned about these groups going international?

This again, is a very interesting set of questions. The airport itself has not been attacked in the past, although its security was breached when two female bombers boarded domestic flights in August 2004. They detonated their explosives destroying two planes, killing scores of people. These attacks were part of the aforementioned campaign of terrorism called Operation Boomerang, by Shamil Basayev, and were followed shortly afterwards by the hostage-taking tragedy in the Ossetian town of Beslan. These attacks were all designed to demonstrate the weakness of Russian security measures, and occurred against the background of political normalisation and elections in Chechnya proper. In 2004 then, breaching security measures at Domodedovo not only caused embarrassment for the Putin administration, it also posed a security dilemma for the Russian authorities.

On this occasion, the explosion occurred in the part of the airport terminal itself. Given that the explosion caused mass casualties, and given that many of those who died or were injured had recently arrived on international flights, it is likely that the attack was designed to garner international news coverage. In short then, yes, in part the attack appears to have been designed to send a message to both the Russian authorities but also to the outside world – that is that the Russian authorities most secure transport hubs could be attacked; that mass casualty attacks have returned to Russia, and more particularly to Moscow and its environs; and that the continued statements about the elimination of rebel groups in North Caucasus has by no means been successful.

In 2010 the Russian authorities had a series of notable successes, killing and capturing key members in the militant underground. In the simplest terms, the attack appears to have been timed to coincide with a trip by the Russian President, Dimtri Medyedev to Davos, at which he was tasked with giving a keynote speech. Meanwhile the attack also occurred against the backdrop of increasing inter-ethnic tensions in Moscow between Caucasian gangs and Russia youth groups.

Whether the international community should read more into the attack then these more localised messages – and whether these groups could adopt a more international agenda – is something of a moot point. The Russian authorities repeatedly claim that rebels in the North Caucasus are intimately linked to Al Qaeda – although little if any evidence of these links has ever been provided. That is not to say that groups in the North Caucasus have not adopted increasingly radical agendas – or indeed, that Chechnya and the North Caucasus have not been viewed by radicals as one focal point in a broader Jihadi movement. Indeed, very small splinter groups and factions from the North Caucasus may well have become involved in a Turkic militant movement – known as the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – which maintains links to Afghanistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and parts of Europe. But the aim of this group – and its outlook are international – while the aims of those fighting in the North Caucasus remain focused on a set of localised, indigenous issues. Indeed, the IJU is responsible for radicalisation in the Islamic community in Germany, and may have played a background role – radicalising Islamists and members of the Turkic community in Germany for example in the recent ‘lone wolf’ attack on American pilots near Frankfurt. Importantly though, like the militants in the North Caucasus, the IJU needs to contextualised, if attacks attributed to them are to be properly

3. How come these attacks continue in Russia? Is it a question of a lack of security or a determined force being deployed against them?

I would say it is a bit of both. These attacks have re-emerged in Russia as a new generation of volunteers have come to the fore in the North Caucasus – and while Russia, and the Russian-backed administrations in Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria maintain a measure of control and security, rebel factions will use attacks against a broader range of targets across Russia. Targets – given Russia’s size – which will be difficult to secure, and which therefore creates a dilemma for the Medyedev administration. These attacks continue in Russia because of internal radicalisation within the movement in the North Caucasus; because a new generation of militants appear to be coming to the fore; because the groups behind the attacks have a willingness and capability; and because it is incredibly difficult to ensure security across such as vast area.

4. One hears more about Dagestan than Chechnya these days when thinking about insurgent extremist movements in Russia: what is behind this shift?

Dagestan is certainly one of two focal point of the insurgency at present (the other being Kabardino-Balkaria). Throughout 2010, a number of audacious attacks occurred in Chechnya, but the form, targets and relentless nature of attacks have wracked Dagestan. On the one hand this results from years of violent pacification and repression in Chechnya – including, of course, two brutal wars. This has done much to destroy any vestiges of the separatist cause which flared up in the early 1990s. On the other hand, poverty and the systematic abuse by the elites in neighbouring republics – in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan have created the conditions in which a nascent underground movement could not only gain a foothold, but which could also undergo a process of internal radicalisation.

While brutal, the security measures in Ingushetia and Dagestan were piecemeal in 2008 and 2009, compared to the counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya. Corruption, inter-ethnic and inter-clan rivalries, alongside the fact that Dagestan has always hosted a radical militant movement, has meant that it has once again become the centre of the regional insurgency. Freedom of movement has also facilitated this growth in the militant underground in Dagestan. Tellingly, groups in Dagestan and small factions in North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria were relatively quick in pledging allegiance to Dokku Umarov as he sought to reo-organise the militant underground following the death of the Chechen leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev. Umarov integrated a host of different commanders into the hierarchy of his movement, shifting the focus of the militant underground away from separatism in Chechnya, to a more radical regional narrative of anti-Russian resistance. This included the adoption of a regional agenda, and gave Umarov a measure of influence over the groups in Dagestan. The slightly younger generation of commanders in Sharia Jamaat in Dagestan pledged allegiance to Umarov, while in Ingushetia the militant underground was led by Emir Magas (Ali Taziyev), a seasoned militant, and Emir Astemirov in Kabardino-Balkaria, a respected scholar and charismatic leader. In Chechnya, seasoned fighters – notably the jamaats led by the Gakaev Brothers – remained in control of the militant underground. Thus, while all pledged some allegiance to Umarov (known by the nom de guerre – Emir Abu Usman), his influence was at its most marked in Dagestan – the groups elsewhere operated in a loosely connected fashion largely orchestrating their own campaigns of resistance, drawing on their own jamaats. In fact, in 2010 a split of sorts also occurred when the jamaats in Chechnya sought to wrest control of the movement from Umarov, in what some experts have labelled a ‘palace coup.’ The relationship between Umarov and the small militant underground in Chechnya remains problematic.

The federal authorities captured Emir Magas and killed Emir Astemirov in 2010, making Dagestan an even more important front in the regional insurgency. In recent months there has also been a shift in tactics by groups in another republic in the North Caucasus – Kabardino-Balkaria. While the former leadership of the jamaats operating in KB advocated the creation of a clandestine support network, launching sporadic attacks, statements by the current leadership have called for a more systematic and violent campaign – which has been borne out by a real upsurge in attacks in the republic.

Dagestan continues to be a focal point of the insurgency at present – the two bombers who struck in Moscow in March 2010 came from Dagestan, and targeted suicide attacks have also continued in the republic, including twin attacks on the 14th of February. Sweep operations targeting militant strongholds continue in Dagestan, while the jamaats therein continue to pose a credible threat to the ruling elite, given that poverty and corruption is rife in the republic.

5. What kind of a role does Islam play in Caucasian groups thinking?

The question of religious influence in the movements in the Caucasus remains something of a moot point. By this I mean that different factions have variously deployed radical Islam – as a rallying cry; as an alternative to Sufi norms; as a way of countering the poverty and corruption in the region – but each group has been sensitive to local conditions. Emir Astemirov retained support because of his theological education, but also because he was a descendant of nobility in Kabardino-Balkaria; Emir Magas, sought to encourage support from the youth in Ingushetia, whether Sufi or if they had a radical agenda, in response to the harsh measures adopted by the Ingush authorities, the poverty and corruption; the jamaats in Chechnya, while radical, retain a focus on fighting in the republic; whereas in Dagestan, the radical strain of Islam has a deeper lineage. And so Islam plays a variety of roles unifying some factions of the resistance; it provides an overarching narrative which has been used to re-organise the insurgency, creating a regional social movement which had its genesis in the inter-war years in Chechnya.

6. Is there a role being played by outside actors in this violence, or is this purely an internal Russian question?

This is perhaps one of the questions which has received the most attention – along with readings (and in many cases mis-readings) of suicide attacks linked to the North Caucasus – but which are largely misunderstood by commentators. Outside actors have always played a role in the violence – although the vast majority have been linked to the broader Diaspora community. As aforementioned, Chechnya became a focal point for jihadis in the latter part of the 1990s, although many foreign jihadis were not accepted, nor became integrated into Chechen military formations. By 2000 many foreign volunteers had left Chechnya, although a staunch group of Arab fighters – numbering a few dozen – did remain in the region and did continue to operate in support of the insurgency. This included Jordanian, Saudi, Kuwati and Yemeni individuals, amongst others. The majority were linked to Ibn Khattab – and included a number of North African militants – although the ranks of the jihadi volunteer movement, including members of Khattab’s inner circle were decimated by 2000. As I have argued elsewhere, a fissure existed in the Salafi-Jiahdi movement in radical circles in the Middle East; in one sense groups in places like Saudi Arabia variously supported foreign fighters in Chechnya, placing Khattab as a traditional jiahdi volunteer fighting the ‘near enemy’ while others, such as the group linked to Bin Laden, targeted the near enemy (See Moore & Tumelty, 2008; Moore & Tumelty, 2009). Although the foreign fighter movement numbered around a few dozen by 2002 (Moore & Tumelty, 2008 & 2009), it has to be contextualised in the context of a broader Diaspora community, which included radical elements that overlapped with the Salafi-Jihadi movement and the indigenous militant movement.

Turkish volunteers also provided active manpower, in support of the then nascent military jamaats. The vast majority of volunteers did, however, come from the ethnic and sub-ethnic groups in the North Caucasus, although again, the number of volunteers remains unclear. The fact that the violence has continued, in varying degrees of intensity for nearly twenty years, indicates that the movements in the region have a social base – and are largely indigenous. Since 2007, the movement has adopted a more regional character – but can only exist through local support.