Has Russia Brought Terrorism on Itself?

The Domodedovo suicide attack is just the latest sign that 10 years of Russian influence in the benighted region has only made a bad thing worse.


For over a decade, suicide attacks have been a persistent and macabre feature of Russia’s battle with militants in the North Caucasus. The suicide bomber who took the lives of 35 people in the arrival hall of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Jan. 24 provided only the latest chapter in a dark history that, for many Russians, is also the history of Chechnya’s struggle for national self-determination. In reality, however, the violence is no longer political — for the residents of this troubled region, it has become something much more noxious and potentially unsolvable.  

Under Vladimir Putin, whose rise to power was intertwined with Russia’s second invasion of Chechnya in October 1999, Moscow marginalized the nationalist, secular wing of the Chechen rebel movement. The conflict’s unapologetically violent extremists, inspired by the language of global jihad, filled the gap — allowing the Kremlin to plausibly claim that further negotiations were impossible. The current generation of militants is not motivated by the prospect of a realistic political settlement — unless the establishment of an Islamic “emirate” in the North Caucasus can be called realistic.

Indeed, many of those fighting in the North Caucasus today articulate their amorphous list of grievances — corruption, brutal policing, ineffectual local governance, and widespread unemployment, which reaches 50 or even 70 percent in some parts of the region — in the language of Salafism, Islam’s most puritanical religious sect. For most self-proclaimed Salafists in the North Caucasus, Islam offers a salve to the maddening impotency caused by their collapsing economies and broken state structures; for a few, however, religion serves as a gateway to violence. Abuse at the hands of local security forces is often the final trigger for radicalization.

As the conflict in the North Caucasus has evolved, it has also spread, especially into the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Islamist insurgency of today is not a counter-government force, like the Chechen rebel fighters of the 1990s, but something closer to an entire counter-society. The insurgents’ main enemies are not the rulers in distant Moscow but local leaders whom they consider immoral, corrupt, and un-Islamic. A growing number of militant attacks have targeted not Russian officials, but local movie theaters and stores that sell alcohol. That said, these militants still consider dramatic, high-profile attacks in Moscow — like January’s airport bombing — a legitimate means to strike at the country’s political and financial heartland and thus acquire power in the North Caucasus.

Local security forces in the North Caucasus have responded to the rise of militant cells — known as jamaats — with indiscriminate crackdowns, harassing anyone with a long beard or a skullcap. Young men go missing in “disappearances” and wind up dead in extrajudicial executions, further radicalizing a population that is already alienated from the state and has a long tradition of blood feuds.

This past summer, when I traveled to the North Caucasus with researchers from Human Rights Watch, I spoke with the family of Shamil Gaziev, a 22-year-old mentally disabled man accused of helping to plan a suicide bombing in the city of Kizlyar that killed 12 police officers in late March, just 48 hours after two explosions in the Moscow subway left 40 people dead. Masked men with guns came for Gaziev in the middle of the night, taking him to the regional police headquarters. He was held for four days without access to a lawyer or his family being notified. When his lawyer finally saw him, Gaziev had been beaten so badly that he could barely stand, his body was covered in dark, pulpy hematomas, and he appeared to be under the influence of psychotropic drugs. He had confessed to participating in the bombing. At first, he appeared to be the latest victim of Dagestan’s incompetent and overzealous police officers, who are under considerable pressure from their superiors in Moscow to “solve” terrorist crimes quickly.


Yet Gaziev’s confession dovetailed with other details acquired in the investigation. Gaziev was, in fact, a member of the militant cell that carried out the bombing. In the days before the attack, the group’s leaders gave Gaziev three bags of chemicals with which to make the bombs; he spent the next 10 days grinding the chemical into a fine powder in a coffee grinder in a shed at his parents’ house. The police had managed to arrive at the truth, but, in the process, they entirely discredited themselves — and only added fuel to the local hatred and mistrust of both the local and federal authorities.

This, even beyond the countless individual tragedies, is the toll of a counterterrorism strategy that relies on forced confessions and extrajudicial executions. Police investigations and the courts have been made virtually irrelevant tools in the fight against terrorism. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev claims that his campaign against so-called “legal nihilism” is one of the top priorities of his administration, but in the North Caucasus, the rule of law is still a realm of perversion and caprice.

As a result, street violence has become the primary means by which the legions of disaffected young men in the region resolve their conflicts. The North Caucasus, it can be said, is in a state of latent civil war. In early October, Alexander Bastrykin, chair of Russia’s Investigative Committee, estimated that on average five or six local police personnel are killed every day in the region — a rate higher than the losses of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Of course, this assumes that the Kremlin has any idea what is actually happening on the ground in the North Caucasus. In November, Medvedev admitted that law enforcement statistics from the region were “nonsense.”

Just over a year ago, frustrated with Moscow’s seeming inability to do anything about the growing instability in the North Caucasus, Medvedev shifted Moscow’s strategy to focus on social and economic development. He appointed Alexander Khloponin, a businessman and former governor in Siberia, to be his personal emissary to the region. Khloponin was given the task of imparting some order to local governance and delivering jobs and investment. After the suicide bombing in the Moscow metro last March, carried out by two women from Dagestan, Medvedev pointed to poverty and unemployment as the deeper causes of the violence, saying, “People want a normal and decent life, no matter where they live.”

But nothing much changed. Over the summer, officials announced that the organizers of last spring’s subway bombing had been killed in various shootouts or special operations, but no evidence, let alone a trial, was ever produced. Local security forces continue to rely on torture and abductions. For his part, Khloponin put his hopes in quixotic if not ridiculous investment plans, such as a $15 billion project to turn the snowy peaks of the North Caucasus into ski resorts. Unsurprisingly, few investors have shown interest in sending their money to a region so plagued by daily violence.

At a televised meeting in August, Medvedev complained about the lack of tangible progress. Khloponin meekly agreed, calling the situation “miserable.” True enough. In the Russian North Caucasus, misery is the closest thing the Kremlin has to a coherent policy.

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