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23 December 2010

Russia's North Caucasus, the Terrorism Revival

Shkhara - Tbilisi & Caucasus Mountains, Georgia
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Shkhara - Tbilisi & Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

Terrorism has recently staged a deadly comeback in Russia after a lull of several years. Escalatory logic and rivalry among leaders of the North Caucasus-based terrorist networks combined with landmark events planned in Russia and the dynamics of violence in the greater Middle East may fuel further spikes in organized political violence that Russian leaders should try to preempt.

By Simon Saradzhyan for ISN

The number of terrorist acts has been growing steadily in Russia at least since 2008, according to all publicly available accounts accessed by the author. Government statistics on terrorism in Russia could be misleading because Russian authorities traditionally bundle together terrorist attacks and attacks on combatants, but they all indicate a continuing growth in the number of terrorist attacks in Russia.

According to Vladimir Ustinov, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, militants in the North Caucasus and neighboring provinces carried out 786 attacks in the first 11 months of 2009, compared to 576 in the entire 2008. Such attacks claimed 1,263 lives - troops, law enforcement personnel and ordinary civilians - from January to September 2009 compared with 914 in 2008, according to Ustinov.

Year 2010 failed to be any better. In Dagestan, the number of policemen killed by terrorists and militants doubled between January and August, the leader of this republic, Magomedsalam Magomedov, said on 11 August. The cumulative total of casualties suffered by police in neighboring Ingushetia reached another deadly high in 2010. More than 400 police officers and other law enforcement agents have been killed, and more than 3,000 civilians have been wounded in attacks staged by militants, the leader of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, said in October. In the entire North Caucasus the number of terrorist attacks doubled in the first 11 months of 2010, according to the region's top prosecutor Ivan Sydoruk. Two-hundred-eighteen law enforcers and military servicemen were killed and 536 wounded in that period, Sydoruk said on 8 December.

Particularly worrisome is the comeback of suicide terrorism, since it not only has a strong psychological impact on the public, but also demonstrates that the networks have retained formidable organizational capabilities and a certain degree of support. The number of people killed by suicide bombers in Russia dwindled from some 140 in 2004 to zero in 2006 and stayed at that level in 2007 with one exception of a botched attack, in which only the bomber himself died, according to the author's count. But the 31-month lull in suicide bombings, which began in February 2005, and during which the only two people killed in suicide bombings were bombers themselves, ended in August 2008.

Since then, the numbers of suicide bombings and victims have grown steadily. 2008 saw two attacks in which at least 17 were killed, while 2009 saw nine attacks in which at least 45 were killed. The first half of this year saw a total of at least 70 people killed by suicide bombers, which is more than during all of 2009.

The second half of this year saw such suicide attacks as the bombing of a market in the North Caucasian capital of Vladikavkaz on 9 September, in which at least 17 were killed and 160 injured, and the 19 October assault on the Chechen parliament by three gunmen, two of whom managed to shoot their way into the legislative assembly's building, killing at least four people.

North Caucasus-based networks expand geographical scope

Just as significantly, the terrorist networks have resumed attacks outside the North Caucasus to target 'mainland' Russia, which had seen no major successful terrorist attacks since the suicide bombings of August 2004. The bombing of the Nevsky Express train en route from Moscow to St Petersburg in 2007, which was allegedly staged by the Ingush branch of the network, killed no one. Two years later, however, this branch succeeded in bombing the Nevsky Express to kill at least 39 and injure another 100 in what signaled the return of major terrorism to mainland Russia.

Before and after the bombings, the leaders of the North Caucasus-based networks had repeatedly vowed to resume operations outside the mountainous region. And the horrendous double attack on the Moscow subway in March 2010, in which 40 were killed and at least 100 injured, signaled the return of terrorism to the Russian capital after a lull of several years.

In addition to resuming attacks outside of the North Caucasus, the regional networks have also been establishing ties to Islamist groups and setting up their own cells across Russia in line with Umarov's vows to engage the Muslim population of mainland Russia. The past year has seen Russian law enforcers uncover and dismantle militant salafite cells in the Volga region and beyond, including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and the Chelyabinsk region.

From secular separatism to a pan-Caucasian Islamist project and back?

Soon after taking over leadership of the terrorist and insurgency networks from Russia's most notorious terrorist Shamil Basayev - who was killed in 2006 - Chechen warlord Dokku Umarov vowed to establish an independent Islamist state, named 'Imarat Kavkaz' (Emirate Caucasus). Initially, some of the networks in other republics had a different agenda, including avengers targeting police officers accused of abuses, as has been the case in Dagestan, but eventually most of them subscribed to the idea of a united front against 'infidels' and for an Islamist state in the North Caucasus, if only as a slogan.


The transformation of Chechnya's failed secular bid into a pan-Caucasian Islamist project under Umarov appeared to be completed as recently as this summer. But then a schism opened up between Umarov and a number of Chechen warlords in early August. First, Umarov released a video on 1 August querying warlords of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria to support his decision to step down and recognize Chechen warlord Aslambek Vadalov as the new leader of the umbrella organization he established. But then Umarov released two more videos, first denying plans to step down and then accusing Mukhannad, whom Russian law-enforcers describe as the chief emissary of al-Qaida in the North Caucasus, of driving wedges between him and other field commanders in hopes of unseating him.


These accusations against the Arab emissary did nothing to help Umarov retain the loyalty of Chechen warlords. In October 2001, Vadalov, Gakayev and a number of other Chechen and Ingush warlords rescinded loyalty to Umarov. They then elected Gakayev as the new amir of Chechnya. Chechen law enforcers believe that it was Gakayev and other dissident warlords who organized the 19 October 2010 suicide assault on the Chechen parliament as well as the attack on the home village of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Tsentoroi, on 29 August.

Escalatory logic

Upon taking over leadership of the networks, Umarov initially vowed not to target civilians. However, he then allowed the killing of civilians on the grounds that they were collaborators, revealing that he had obviously been discontent with the results of selective targeting and wanted a change that would produce 'tangible' results. Umarov then expanded the list of targets geographically, vowing to take violence to the streets of cities in mainland Russia.

Given that neither of these changes have brought Umarov significantly closer to his proclaimed goal of establishing an independent Islamist state, it would be logical to assume that he may at one point opt for further escalation: An obvious way of doing so would be to carry out one or a series of catastrophic terrorist attacks that could become real game changers. He may also seek to organize such attacks to outbid the splinter group led by Gakayev. Obviously, Gakayev, Vadalov and fellow dissident warlords may also try to stage spectacular attacks, as demonstrated by the assault on the Chechen parliament and the Chechen leader's home village, in order to outbid Umarov. Another reason behind these two attacks could have been this splinter group's interest in re-focusing Chechnya-based networks on the Chechen separatist cause rather than on the pan-Caucasian Islamist state aspirations preached by Umarov.

The split in the North Caucasus-based networks has weakened Umarov's position, but it may provoke rival groups to up the ante of terrorist attacks in the struggle for leadership. Russian authorities should be mindful of the possibility of such dynamics as they seek to dismantle these networks. They should also keep an eye on a number of other factors, such as landmark international events planned in Russia and the dynamics of violence in the greater Middle East (see, " Chechnya: Divisions in the Ranks", Simon Saradzhyan, ISN, 11 August 2010), while also trying to address the root causes and contributing factors (see, " Uphill Battle for North Caucasus", Simon Saradzhyan, ISN, 25 November 2009).


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

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