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Moscow: Terror from the North Caucasus?

Author: Jeffrey Mankoff
March 29, 2010


During the Monday morning rush hour, two explosions struck the Moscow metro, killing dozens and wounding close to one hundred. According to municipal authorities, the explosions were carried out by a pair of female suicide bombers and were timed to inflict maximum casualties. Though no one has yet claimed responsibility, suspicion immediately fell on Islamic militants from Chechnya and the neighboring republics of Russia's North Caucasus, who have been behind most large-scale acts of terrorism in Russia over the past decade and a half.

Though terrorist attacks in Russia have become less frequent in recent years, the metro bombings recall the early part of the last decade, when the Russian government's military campaign in Chechnya spawned a series of retaliatory attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities. These attacks, including the 2002 siege of Moscow's Dubrovka Theater and the attack on an elementary school in the city of Beslan in September 2004, were both acts of revenge and a message to the Kremlin that its campaign in Chechnya had not made Russians more secure. The most spectacular attacks were organized by Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, who the Russians assassinated in July 2006.

Over the past five years, Chechnya has largely faded from public consciousness as the military operations have given way to the heavy-handed rule of Russian-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, while the deaths of Basayev and former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov at Russian hands deprived the rebels of their most able leaders.

Yet the pacification of Chechnya was never complete. While Kadyrov and his security forces (the so-called kadyrovtsy) have managed to instill a sense of fear throughout the republic--and channeled large-scale federal reconstruction aid into the hands of selected cronies--they have done little to address the underlying political and economic grievances that sparked the Chechen rebellion in the first place.

Moreover, an unintended consequence of Kadyrov's brutal pacification of Chechnya has been to shift the locus of anti-Russian militancy from Chechnya itself to other parts of the Muslim North Caucasus. Even as terrorist attacks inside Chechnya have become less common in recent years, they have occurred with increasing frequency in neighboring regions, particularly Dagestan and Ingushetia. Throughout the North Caucasus, corruption, unemployment (54 percent of Ingush are unemployed), and other ills have fed a growing sense of despair that have made the region a fertile breeding ground for Islamic extremism and militancy.

Basayev's successor as leader of the Chechen rebels, Doku Umarov, has called for the establishment of a Muslim emirate throughout the North Caucasus and for once again expanding the war to Russian cities. By 2008, much of the North Caucasus outside of Chechnya was engulfed in a low level civil conflict. Militant attacks on the police and other representatives of Russian power have become more frequent, while the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service) has stepped up its special operations throughout the North Caucasus. The conflict has been characterized by arrests, summary executions, and "disappearances."

Despite Umarov's call for spreading the war beyond the Caucasus, most Russians have remained insulated from the worsening situation in the North Caucasus. While it remains too soon to reach any definitive conclusions, blame for the attacks is already being assigned to forces loyal to Umarov (the use of female suicide bombers is a tactic Basayev promoted). Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has tried haltingly to improve Moscow's administration of the North Caucasus and address some of the most salient grievances of local inhabitants. Whether or not the attack on the Moscow metro is in fact the work of extremists from the North Caucasus, reforming local administration, promoting economic development, and ending abuses by the security forces even while cracking down on armed extremist groups are among the Kremlin's most urgent tasks.

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