Does wave of terrorist attacks in Russia signal an Islamist insurgency?

The Christian Science MonitorApril 5, 2010 

MOSCOW — Five terrorist attacks that killed almost 60 people in a single week have left Russians deeply shaken. The latest attack took place today in the restive Republic of Ingushetia.

Some experts worry that an Islamist insurgent network led by Chechen "emir" Doku Umarov, who took responsibility for the suicide bombings that killed 40 people at two Moscow subway stations a week ago, may be preparing to launch a new wave of assaults against Russia's heartland.

"Doku Umarov is trying to intensify his activities, to draw attention to the situation in the north Caucasus," said Andrei Soldatov, the editor of an independent online journal that specializes in security news. "It's logical that the attack in Moscow would be followed by others in republics around the north Caucasus, because that shows that the actions are coordinated and can happen in several places. Now that everyone is paying attention, it's quite possible we can expect more attacks, perhaps in areas beyond Dagestan and Ingushetia."

Experts said that Umarov, an anti-Moscow veteran of two Chechen wars since 1994, has rebuilt insurgent infrastructure and forged links with like-minded Islamist rebels around Russia's seething north Caucasus region. While Moscow was able to squelch Chechnya's nationalist rebellion, experts say the Islamist insurgency could be harder to quell.

In the week since the twin Moscow metro bombings, insurgents hit a police station in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar with double blasts that killed 12 people, including Kizlyar's police chief. Last Thursday, two suspected insurgents died in an explosion while police were pursuing them. On Sunday, two bombs that detonated 15 minutes apart derailed a freight train near the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala, on the main line between Moscow and Azerbaijan, but no casualties were reported.

The latest blast, which killed two policemen and injured a third, came after a man entered a police station in Karabulak in the violence-wracked republic of Ingushetia. About 50 officers in the town were gathered for their morning briefing. "The man approached two police guards," the official ITAR-Tass agency quoted an Ingush security official as saying. "He seemed suspicious to them, and when they attempted to check his documents, he triggered the explosive device."

In what's become a signature tactic for militants seeking to maximize casualties by catching investigators and onlookers attracted to the scene of an attack, a second explosion detonated in a nearby parked car a few minutes later, but in this case no one was harmed.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made a surprise visit to Dagestan last Thursday, where he laid down a tough message in a meeting with local leaders.

"We have ripped the heads off the most infamous bandits, but it appears that this was not enough," Medvedev said. "We will track them all down in due time and will punish them all, just as we did to the previous ones. We will act only this way."

He also appealed to local Islamic leaders, urging them to renounce the insurgents and push them out of their communities. "We need to help them (Muslim leaders) and in all ways contribute to strengthen their authority, they have to bear truth," Medvedev said.

In January, Medvedev created a single "north Caucasus district" and appointed a can-do former Siberian governor, Alexander Khloponin, to be the Kremlin's special emissary to the region.

At the time, experts hailed the move as a sign that the Kremlin had recognized the failure of raw force to contain the spiraling insurgency, and was looking to Khloponin to pursue a more subtle strategy, including economic investment, outreach to local religious leaders and political reforms.

"Medvedev is very limited in what he can do," said Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "He needed to show his toughness and his decisiveness — hence his harsh words — but he also wants to avoid any escalation in the north Caucasus. The Kremlin very much needs stability there, especially as preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are seriously underway."

Sochi, a Black Sea resort town, sits on the western edge of the turbulent north Caucasus, and is bounded on the south by the breakaway Georgian statelet of Abkhazia - another potential source of instability.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who staked his reputation on the success of the Sochi Games, has offered similarly stern rhetoric, including a pledge to "scrape (the terrorists) from the bottom of the sewers".

However, experts point out that the insurgency has been escalating in the north Caucasus for at least the past two years. In Dagestan, where male unemployment is estimated at around 80 percent, and polls show virtually no support for the Kremlin-installed local leaders, the outlook appears grim.

"There is a civil war going on in Dagestan, basically between the law-enforcement organs and the entire male population," said Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran Russian human rights campaigner. "One violent event leads to another and, unfortunately, the security forces still react indiscriminately — to put it mildly."

The two female "black widow" bombers who struck Moscow's subway last week also appear to have come from Dagestan.

The bomber who struck at Park Kultury metro station was a teenaged militant identified by Russian authorities as Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova, whose husband, a senior Dagestani rebel, was killed by security forces in December.

The opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta Sunday identified the attacker who hit the Lubyanka station adjacent to the headquarters of the FSB security service as Mariyam Sharipova, whose remains were recognized by her father, Rasul Magomedov.

Magomedov told the paper that his daughter, a psychology graduate who worked as a schoolteacher in a small Dagestani village, had no connection to the insurgents.

"She was devout, but she never expressed any radical opinions," he said. "She always lived at home; we always knew what she was up to."

He admitted, however, that Russian security forces informed him in early March that Sharipova was secretly married to a local Dagestan insurgent leader, Magomedali Vagabov.

"I asked my daughter if it was true, but she said she didn't have any connections with the underground resistance and would never marry without my consent," Magomedov told the paper.

In the past, the Kremlin has used terrorist attacks as a pretext for canceling democratic elections and curbing debate. A verbal assault by Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, a close ally of Putin, on coverage of the Moscow bombings in two newspapers, have some experts wondering whether a similar crackdown might be in the offing.

Gryzlov suggested that the mainstream daily newspapers Vedemosti and Moskovsky Komsomolets were siding with the insurgents rather than presenting a united front with the authorities. "The connection between these publications and the terrorists' actions evokes suspicions," he said in a meeting with Medvedev on Friday.

His remarks were mirrored by Sergei Mironov, the pro-Kremlin speaker for the upper house of parliament.

"Neither of these men would say such things if they weren't inspired by someone above," said Petrov of the Carnegie Center. "It may be that the Kremlin, with such limited options, could decide to stop discussion of political reform and put pressure on the media, to make it a scapegoat," and squeeze out critical opinions even further, he said.

Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal, said that over the past week he's detected a new mood in Moscow, one that sees terrorism as an inevitable feature of life; something to be gotten used to rather than defeated.

"We've been fighting separatism and terrorism in that region for 20 years now, and it looks like it will just go on," he said. "Unlike, say, NATO in Afghanistan, Russia does not have the option of withdrawing from the north Caucasus. It's a permanent fixture of our landscape."

(Weir is a Christian Science Monitor correspondent.)

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