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31 Mar 2010

Eliminating Terrorists, Not Terror

Railway line, courtesy of Tom Allen/flickr
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Cyclist rides past a partially constructed railway line through the Georgian mountains to Chechnya.

Suicide bombings in a Moscow subway once again illustrate that the elimination of terrorist leaders alone will not end security threats from the North Caucasus. Counterterrorism efforts require a major rethink, Simon Saradzhyan comments for ISN Security Watch.

By Simon Saradzhyan in Cambridge for ISN

Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a downtown Moscow subway during the morning rush hour on 29 March, killing 39 people and injuring more than 70 others.

The bombs, which detonated within a 30-minute interval in trains at the Lubyanka and Park Kultury subway stations, contained explosives that were equivalent to four and two kilograms of TNW, respectively, and were packed with projectiles, according to a statement released by the National Counter-Terrorism Committee (NAK) later that day.

The Lubyanka station has a number of exits directly outside the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB). According to some accounts, the second bomb was to have been detonated at the Oktyabrskaya station, one of whose exits is right outside the Interior Ministry. Such a choice of targets indicates an attempt to undermine the public’s perception of the ability of the Russian secret services and law enforcement agencies to protect them.

In his 29 March briefing to President Dmitry Medvedev, NAK chairman and FSB director Alexander Bortnikov said both female suicide bombers - whose faces had been captured by subway surveillance cameras - were most likely residents of the North Caucasus and belonged to terrorist groups “related” to this volatile region.
As of 29 March, no group had openly claimed responsibility for the attacks, which mark the return of large-scale terrorism to Moscow after a lull of more than five years.

However, in mid-February, Doku Umarov, leader of the self-styled North Caucasian emirate “Imarat Kavkaz,” vowed to take the war from that region to “mainland” Russia, claiming that he had revived the notorious Riyad-us-Saliheen suicide bombing squad. And suicide bombers are a signature of the North Caucasus-based insurgent groups, which have been responsible for the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in Russia.

These groups resumed their campaign of suicide bombings in the region more than a year ago after a lull of several years. There have been more than a dozen suicide bombings in southern Russia since 2009, and it was only a matter of time before this campaign expanded to the "mainland."

In September 2009, law enforcrment intercepted two natives of Chechnya planning a suicide mission in Moscow during City Day celebrations. Subsequently, Ingush members of North Caucasus-based networks managed to bomb the Nevsky Express train en route from Moscow to St Petersburg, killing 27 in November 2009.

Russian special services and law enforcement agencies have recently scored a number of tactical victories over these groups, killing several key figures, including Said Buryatski, who had trained suicide bombers, and Anzor Astemirov, who had headed the networks in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. 

This prompted a number of Russian policymakers and experts, including ex-FSB director Nikolai Kovalev, to speculate that the 29 March bombings were meant to avenge for these killings. That may be the case with Said Buryatski, who was killed on 2 March, but not with Astemirov, who was killed on 25 March, leaving little time to prepare for such a complex operation as a major suicide bombing in Moscow.

Regardless of whether revenge was among the motives, the 29 March bombings once again underscore a number of important facts and assumptions that Russian authorities need to address.

Perhaps, the most important is that the elimination of terrorist network leaders weakens these networks, but does not necessarily put an end to their activities. 

In the past few years, Russian forces have managed to wipe out almost the entire leadership of the Chechen insurgency, excluding Umarov, but including all ‘presidents of Ichkeria’ and most of the warlords that gained prominence during both Chechen wars. Not a month goes by without law enforcement reporting that they have killed yet another self-styled ‘emir’ somewhere in the North Caucasus. Yet, new emirs emerge and insurgency continues to run strong in the region, having expanded from Chechnya to Ingushetia (where it now is even more robust than in Chechnya), Dagestan and other regional republics.

Umarov and his predecessors have already managed to ‘re-invent’ their cause from that of a separatist bid by Chechnya alone to that of defending all Muslims in the region from abuse by Russian authorities, and pursuing a caliphate in the North Caucasus.
Enough people in the North Caucasus appear to either be fanatically committed to this idea or to have been wronged by authorities, or both, to steadily replenish the ranks of suicide bombers in the region - despite the fact that the second Chechen war was declared to have been ended years ago and the regime of continuous counterterrorism operation in Chechnya has also been cancelled. And the hierarchy of ‘traditional’ Islam, which is loyal to the authorities, is failing to stem the rise of the militant Salafiya, whose followers take up arms and die not only to defend their beliefs, but also to spread them in hopes of establishing the aforementioned caliphate. Moscow and other parts of Russia will remain exposed to terrorist threats as long as the recruitment pool for such attacks fails to dry up, as suicide bombings are very difficult to intercept.

A number of laws have been passed to significantly expand the powers of law enforcement and national security agencies in the counterterrorism domain, while their budgets have been increased substantially in the past few years.

Russia’s counterterrorism hierarchy, which emerged in the wake of the hostage-taking tragedies in Moscow and Beslan and which is topped by the FSB, appears to be more adequate than what had been in place before the 2000s. But it will continue to produce the same organizational output unless it is fine tuned for a qualitative change. A thorough and non-compromising review by an independent body (like the 9/11 Commission in the US) could create a full picture of Russia’s response to terrorism, identifying flaws and issuing recommendations. 

Medvedev’s decision to reform the Russian police is a clear sign that the law enforcement component requires further improvement. As part of the reform, plans are in the works to downsize the transport police and consolidate into eight regional directorates. Perhaps the fact that the two latest major terrorist attacks outside the North Caucasus have occurred in the transport system should prompt more thinking on how to reform this force.

Apart from improving counterterrorism capabilities, Russian authorities also need to do more to address the root causes of and contributing factors to terrorism and insurgency. In his first comments on the 29 March bombings, Medvedev vowed that “we will continue operations against terrorists without doubt to the end.”  In reality, there will be no end to these operations until Russian leaders determine whether their counterterrorism course is comprehensive in its approach and effective in its implementation.

Simon Saradzhyan is a Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).


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