Terrorism in Russia took on horrifying proportions in August and early September when more than 400 people were killed in four separate incidents in a span of less than two weeks.
The first in the series of terrorist attacks came on 24 August, when two airliners were downed simultaneously hundreds of kilometers apart after flying out of the same Moscow airport.
As Russia was still reeling from the twin attacks that killed 90 passengers, a suicide bomber detonated herself on 31 August outside the entrance to a Moscow subway station, killing 10 and injuring about 50.
Credit for the three attacks — the first two coming in the run-up to presidential elections in Chechnya, and the third just two days after pro-Moscow candidate Alu Alkhanov won the 29 August poll — was taken by a virtually unknown group claiming ties to Al-Qaeda and calling itself the Islambuli Brigades.
In a message posted on the Internet taking credit for the subway attack, the obscure group stated: “This heroic operation, as we have warned you, is an extension of a wave of support and assistance to the Chechen Muslims….
“…The targeting of Russia is only the beginning of a fierce and bloody war in the face of those who have devoted themselves to the eradication of Islam and the murder of its faithful,” the message continued. “And this war will serve to dissuade the criminals in the Russian government from killing Muslims and violating the honor of the Muslims in Chechnya, and the rest of the Muslim countries in the region.”
The attacks and the Islambuli Brigades’ messages immediately led many to conclude that if the authenticity of the group’s claimed connections and deeds panned out, it could only serve as evidence to prove an argument that Russia has been making for years.
“If one of the terrorist organizations has claimed responsibility for this and it is linked to Al-Qaeda, that is a fact that confirms the link between certain forces operating on the territory of Chechnya and international terrorism,” Putin said condemning the airline bombings.
But just as the Russian government prepared for the next phase of what Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called “a war where the enemy is invisible and there are no front lines,” the fourth and most gruesome of the spate of attacks took place.
The three-day hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia, began when 32 militants stormed a secondary school on 1 September, a day when the school would be filled with students, parents, and teachers assembling for the first day of classes.
The siege would culminate in a bloody and fiery end that would cost the lives of 336 people, including 150 children, prompting President Vladimir Putin to tell the nation on 4 September: “We are dealing with direct intervention of international terrorism against Russia, with a total, cruel and full-scale war in which our compatriots die again and again.”
The recent terrorist attacks in Russia, while the most disturbing and shocking in their boldness, were by no means isolated incidents and serve as the latest examples of a trend that has grown despite Russia’s efforts to contain them.
In 2003, 561 acts of terrorism were registered in Russia, an increase of 55.8 percent compared to 2002, Rosbalt news agency reported on 20 January, citing figures provided by Russian Interior Ministry Yurii Demidov. Four hundred of the attacks that took place in Russia in 2003 took place in the Southern Federal District, including 386 in the Chechen Republic, Demidov said. “This is due to the ongoing subversive and terrorist activity of rebel groups, who gave up the struggle for an independent Chechnya a long time ago,” he claimed. “Now they are just carrying out the plans of international terrorists.”
Demidov added that more than 200 people were killed as a result of terrorist attacks in 2003 and more than 600 were wounded.
The U.S. State Department’s 2003 Report on Terrorism lists some of the measures implemented in 2003 by the Russian government to combat terrorism:
“Russia passed several new antiterrorism laws, began implementing previously passed legislation, and facilitated effective interdiction of terrorist finance flows by becoming a full member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). In February, the Russian Supreme Court issued an official government list of 15 terrorist organizations, the first of its kind in Russia and an important step toward implementation of counterterrorism statutes. Following the promulgation of the list, the 15 organizations were prohibited from engaging in any financial activities.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Anatolii Safronov, was quoted by ITAR-TASS on 7 May as saying that while he agreed with the State Department’s report in general, he disagreed with some of the evaluations it contained.
The news agency noted what it called Safronov’s “awkward attempts to dwell on the theme of the ‘Chechen separatist movement,'” as the basis of terrorism emanating from the southern republic.
“To a considerable extent, these are attempts of routine nature. One would like to see signs of real and substantial progress toward overcoming certain stereotypes that still interfere with the Russian-U.S. antiterrorist cooperation,” Safronov said.
What Safronov apparently meant was that “progress” in their relationship will only be achieved if the West agrees with Russian authorities that the conflict in Chechnya is not linked to a Chechen rebellion, but is in fact being conducted by terrorist groups aided by Al-Qaeda.
The 2004 offensive
Despite its implementation of new antiterrorism measures, Russia has endured a number of terrorist attacks in 2004. On 6 February, a bomb exploded during the morning rush hour inside a Moscow subway car, killing 40 passengers.
On 9 May, the head of the Chechen pro-state administration, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, along with other top Chechen and Russian officials, was killed by a bomb blast during Victory Day celebrations at a Grozny stadium.
“The timing of Kadyrov’s assassination was almost a slap in Putin’s face, as it came just two days after he was inaugurated for a second term as president in a ceremony the Russian leader used to declare that peace had finally returned to the restless Caucasus region after a decade of violence,” AFP wrote.
On 17 May, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basaev posted a message on the Chechen website Kavkaz Tsentr taking credit for the assassination, dubbed “Operation Revenge,” and hinted at an impending attempt on the life of Putin or his prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov.
Russian observers were quick to downplay this threat. In a report citing Svyatoslav Kaspe, chief analyst at the Russian Public Policy Center, The Moscow Times on 18 May cited the analyst as suggesting, in the daily’s words, that the threat “was a political stunt that won’t materialize, liking it to ‘slinging banana skins.'”
Writing in The Moscow Times on 11 May, defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer gave this assessment of the situation in Chechnya after Kadyrov’s assassination: “Sunday’s attack, which took the lives of other senior officials as well as Kadyrov and severely wounded the Russian commander in Chechnya, General Valerii Baranov, was well prepared and executed. Despite the Kremlin’s claims to the contrary, Chechen rebels seem to have maintained a functional underground network that has penetrated deep into the pro-Moscow political and security apparatus in the region.”
On 21-22 June, the theater of guerilla operations spread into neighboring Ingushetia. A bold attack by Chechen rebels on an Interior Ministry command post left some 54 police officers dead, according to a press release from the Informational Center of Mujahedin posted on 30 June on the website Kavkaz Tsentr. A total of some 950 fighters were alleged to have taken part in this operation.
Among those killed were the acting police chief of Ingushetia, Abubakar Kostoev; the deputy police chief, Ziaudin Kotiev; and prosecutors of Nazran District and the republican capital Nazran.
As in the case of the attack on Kadyrov, Russian forces were caught almost totally off-guard. A hastily assembled rapid-response force was sent into the region to find the rebels, but met with little success.
“Chechen field commander Aslan Maskhadov lauded the operation, code-named Bekkham (Retribution), as proof of the unity and discipline of his resistance forces,” chechenpress.com reported on 27 July, citing a press release issued the previous day by President Maskhadov’s staff. “The press release gives the number of fighters who took part in the raid as 950, of whom only six were killed.”
August and September brought the airplane explosions, the suicide bombing in Moscow, and the hostage-taking massacre in Beslan.
The purge of the military and security leadership
Responding to the debacle in Ingushetia as well as to infighting among his top military men, President Putin sacked three top generals and a high-ranking Federal Security Service (FSB) official on 19 July.
General Anatolii Kvashnin, chief of the military’s General Staff, was fired and replaced by his deputy, Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii.
Also relieved of his command was the head of Interior Ministry forces, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, who earlier in an interview published on 20 April in Nezavisimaya Gazeta gave an optimistic assessment of the situation on the ground. “In Chechnya, the larger bands have been destroyed and constitutional order is being restored by law enforcement methods,” he said. The Ingushetia raid proved him to be very wrong, and cost him his job.
Putin also removed the top military commander in the North Caucasus, General Mikhail Labunets, and the deputy head of the FSB, Anatolii Yezhkov.
Despite this move, there are reasons to doubt that changing the top commanders — apparently without reviewing the root causes of their failures — will have any noticeable positive impact on operations.
Putin apparently remained convinced that his security services would be able to reform themselves.
Speaking to top law enforcement and security officers in the Kremlin on 28 July, The Moscow Times quoted Putin as saying they should “draw the most serious conclusions from these events (the raid in Ingushetia)…and to ensure reliably the security of the country and its citizens.”
But are the security forces always able to draw the necessary conclusions by themselves?
The first concrete step was made by the government on the day before Putin admonished the siloviki. Vremya Novostei reported on 27 July that Russia intends to open a unified antiterrorism center in southern Russia in the near future. But before this center could become operational, the school in Beslan was seized.
After the Beslan crisis, Putin again — this time more forcibly — placed the blame on Russian security services. “We must create a much more effective system of security. We must demand that our security forces act at a level appropriate to the level and scope of the new threats,” he said. “It is vital to create an effective anticrisis management system — including fundamentally new approaches in the activity of the security forces.”
While this was seen as a step in the right direction, specialists in the past had pointed to many other problems that needed to be addressed.
RIA-Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin wrote on 19 July: “In particular, the special operations command has not been created to this day, there are no reliable reconnaissance systems, precision-guided weapons, and the possibility of quickly delivering troops, not thousands of kilometers but at a small distance at any time of day and night and in any weather. We do not have an ideology and principles of using such troops, including placing different troops and resources under a single command.”
The soft underbelly of Russia
Russian homeland security seems to be adrift and leaderless, without any clear guidelines, and in serious trouble. Those agencies designed to protect the Russian state from terrorist attack have shown themselves to be incompetent at best and unprepared to accomplish their mission. As a result of this, Russia has become the soft underbelly of Eurasia with over 1,000 civilians killed since the 2002 Moscow theater crisis.
For Russia to play any type of meaningful role in the international war against terrorism it needs to get its own house in order, and this seems to be eluding its leadership. The Russian legislature refuses to conduct any serious inquiry as to the root causes of why the security agencies have failed to prevent or predict terrorist attacks.
Putin’s initial refusal to allow for a public inquiry into the causes of the Beslan tragedy and then his sudden reversal to allow such an investigation soon came under fire from the international media, which was quick to point out that the Beslan investigation would be handled by a political ally of Putin’s, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov. The Moscow Times on 13 September wrote: “Mironov and his colleagues are unlikely to demand, much less receive, answers to the tough questions about the government’s handling of the Beslan crisis.”
Putin owes his election to bringing the wayward republic under Kremlin control. Thus, outright independence is not on the table.
Putin and his advisers appear to be caught between competing views on which path to chose in normalizing the situation in Russia. There seem to be three views of how to proceed:
1. Putin still seems to be basing his strategy on hopes that the Kremlin’s “Chechenization” policy of transferring power in the breakaway republic to pro-Moscow ethnic Chechens will end the conflict, despite the assassination of Kadyrov and a general feeling among analysts that “Chechenization” is doomed to the same fate which befell “Vietnamization” during the Vietnam War.
2. Some Russian military commanders (Tikhomirov for example) are once again resurrecting the view that the Chechen insurgents are a small, unpopular criminal gang (this was the prevalent view prior to the first war) without any justifiable demands, who need to be exterminated by a reformed professional military using overwhelming force.
The danger in this line of thinking is that even the best equipped and trained professional army in the world will have grave difficulties in combating a well trained force fighting a popular insurrection in difficult terrain.
The first two options hold grave risks and easily could fail. If this were to happen, the war in Chechnya could encompass the entire North Caucasus. Such a spiraling conflict would place a severe strain on Russian military capabilities and leave Moscow and other urban centers open to even more frequent and deadly terrorist attacks.
3. Alternatively, by placing the blame on “foreign terrorists,” which seems to be the favored version of the FSB, the Kremlin is pushing the line that once Al-Qaeda is defeated, the Chechen uprising, which the Kremlin claims is dependent upon Al-Qaeda for manpower and logistics, will end and terrorist attacks on Russian cities will cease. This is a highly unlikely scenario.
The weekly Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie of 6 August quoted Major General Ilya Shabalkin of the Regional Operational Headquarters of the counterterrorism operation in the Caucasus as saying that foreign mercenaries, who are allegedly working for $3,000 or more a month, “comprise the nucleus of illegal armed formations in Chechnya.” The author of the article, Vladimir Mukhin, noted that “local guerrillas are paid only $20 or $30 a month. It must mean that the locals join illegal armed formations not for financial reasons alone.”
Ilyas Akhmadov, the exiled Chechen administration’s foreign minister, recently touched on another possible motivating factor for this when he commented on estimates that 200,000 or more Chechens have died since fighting in the first Chechen campaign began in 1994. “You must agree that the elimination of one-fourth of the population is not the struggle against terrorism,” The New York Times of 6 September quoted him as saying. “On the contrary, it is something that leads to the growth of terrorism.”
Putin, in his address to the nation following the Beslan tragedy, included an intriguing passage. “We showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon,” he said. “Some want to cut off a juicy morsel from us while others are helping them. They are helping because they believe that, as one of the world’s major nuclear powers, Russia is still posing a threat to someone, and therefore this threat must be removed.”
Putin failed to specify as to whom those “others” might be, and these ominous words need clarification.
© 2004 Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. This Analytical Report (Vol. 4, No. 17) was first published on 16 September 2004 by RFE/RL (Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty). Posted with permission. Website: http://www.rferl.org/