The metro bombings in Moscow make clear that terrorism is far from exorcized from Russia. So where has it been hiding these last few, quiet years? The Web.
On March 2, when his hideout in the Ingush village of Ekazhevo was surrounded by Russian special forces backed with armor, Said Buryatsky took out his mobile phone and recorded a final video for his young followers across Russia, the North Caucasus, and Central Asia. The standoff that followed lasted several hours, ending with Buryatsky and five others dead and 11 captured. After the raid, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) retrieved his phone (with the video on it) along with weapons and a substantial quantity of explosives. Then, after a few days of hesitation, the insurgents finally admitted their man was dead. Immediately, the tributes began to flow in by the hundreds on jihadi websites –farewells from Azerbaijan and Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Germany and Turkey. Some were defiant, some from rueful, self-described "Internet mujahideen."
The story of Said Buryatsky, aka Said the Buryat, born Alexander Tikhomirov in 1982 in the western Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, thousands of miles from where he died, illustrates the dramatic speed with which the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus is changing. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still dreams of killing the last guerrilla, the last commander. But as the bombings in Moscow this morning show, that goal might still be far off. Buryatsky’s story is a graphic demonstration that jihad in the North Caucasus has gone viral. In the coming days, the FSB will be looking online, perhaps as much as anywhere else, to figure out what happened on the Moscow subway.
The computer has long played a role in the North Caucasus guerrilla warfare. Ten years ago, Ibn al-Khattab, the Saudi volunteer and former comrade in arms of Osama bin Laden, would deploy his satellite phones and computers when he set up camp for the night in the highland forests of Vedeno, in southern Chechnya. One of his lieutenants used to fret that the Russians would intercept Khattab’s signal sooner or later, as they did when they killed independent Chechnya’s first leader, a former Soviet air force general named Djokhar Dudayev. He was wrong; Khattab was killed by a double agent who infiltrated one of his bases with poison.
Still, until Buryatsky, the computer’s and the Internet’s roles were somewhat conventional. Grim, drawn-faced guerrilla leaders, unaccustomed to public speaking, recorded wooden statements of menace to the regime, usually in Chechen. Jumpy videos, the film always either under- or overexposed, depicted the militants’ successful ambushes on country roads. Buryatsky was different. He was an assured speaker — relaxed, a city boy. He was fluent in Russian, having been educated in Moscow and the Middle East, later performing the hajj in 2007 in Saudi Arabia, where he also recorded lectures.
Buryatsky’s target was an audience yet untapped by the Chechen rebels’ media: The young, well-educated urban youth in the Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union. And he reached them. His teachings are all over the Web; so are his ring tones. His DVDs can be found for sale outside mosques in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. So successful were his recruiting messages that, according to some reports, young Kazakhs have been driven to come to the region to fight, dying in armed clashes with Russian authorities in the North Caucasus. A young gunman shot dead in Dagestan a few weeks ago, for example, was identified as a Kyrgyz. At a trial in Kazakhstan this year, the angry parents of three young men who had just been sentenced for trying to slip into the North Caucasus to join the jihad shouted as their detained children were exiting the courtroom, "Why did the authorities allow Said Buryatsky to come freely to Kazakhstan? Why were his teachings allowed to be distributed here?"
Maybe part of the proselytizer’s success came from how he got into the business in the first place. Buryatsky spent less than two years in the forests. He was already a major Internet personality for young Muslims when, the story goes, an Arab commander in the North Caucasus challenged him to give up his easy life and join them. He did so in the first part of 2008.
After that, he turned his brief career as a guerrilla into a seamless Internet narrative. He admitted his initial apprehension toward joining the guerrillas. Would he be up to it? Was it a trap? In the end, he apparently didn’t hesitate long and quickly emerged as a key face in the movement — "the main ideologue," as Russian officials called him. Buryatsky continued his Internet preaching and groomed suicide bombers. Last June, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, president of Ingushetia, a federal republic in southwestern Russia, was badly injured by a suicide bomber said to have been trained by Buryatsky. In a talk a few months later, Buryatsky disdainfully referred to what he called Yevkurov’s low IQ and "provincialness." In August, more than 20 policemen died when another Buryatsky disciple drove a minibus filled with explosives into a police compound in the Ingush city of Nazran. Buryatsky, wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans with a large handgun tucked into them, contributed an introduction to the film of the attack. His later videos had a more frenetic edge: As he talked of jihad, Buryatsky simultaneously loaded weapons for some unexplained combat.
Now that he is gone, Buryatsky is quickly becoming an online legend, reinforced by his letters, now being selectively released by guerrilla websites. They depict his hatred for "dying Russia" and the "pigs" who serve it, and his own growing obsession — a "wild hunger" as he called it in one letter — to become a shahid, or martyr. It would not be surprising if his last message — the one filmed on his phone and later confiscated by the FSB — surfaces on some guerrilla website, leaked by sympathizers inside the local police.
Even with the absence of what he said in his final moments, however, Buryatsky’s story catches the profound changes that have taken place in the North Caucasus in the past decade. The first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, was largely a secular struggle waged by people who wanted to live independently from Russia. The current conflict is being fought for an Islamist state across the North Caucasus, and ultimately beyond. The soldiers this time are fighters who, like Buryatsky, dream of dying a martyr’s death. Perhaps for this reason, no one on the Russian side — not even those with a personal score to settle — showed much relief at Buryatsky’s death. His old nemesis Yevkurov remarked that another ideologue is bound to emerge to take his place. Maybe next time, he said, it will be "some Said the Chinese." Unfortunately, for the Ingush president, Buryatsky’s message of jihad may well have traveled that far.