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On Point

Moscow's Silent War Explodes


by Austin Bay
January 25, 2011

The Jan. 24 terrorist attack on Moscow's Domodedovo Airport left some three dozen dead and nearly 200 wounded. Russian investigators have yet to identify the perpetrators, but the attack is all too similar to prior strikes by Islamist militant organizations based in Russia's troubled Caucasus region.

The Russians have good reasons to suspect a Chechen militant Islamist group commanded by Doku Umarov is involved. Umarov refers to himself as the emir of an Islamic republic in the Caucasus. His organization has a record of attacking transportation hubs and routes in and around Moscow that are ripe with political symbolism. He also has a penchant for recruiting and using female suicide bombers.

Russian police linked Umarov's group to a November 2009 attack on the luxury Nevsky Express train, which connects Moscow and St. Petersburg. The passengers on board included Russian nouveau riche and government officials. That attack's message: Elites can't hide, even in the Russian heartland.

Umarov likely sponsored the two March 2010 suicide terror bombings in Moscow's subway system. Both of the suicide terrorists in those attacks were women from the Caucasus region of Dagestan. One bomb exploded in the Lubyanka station, located near Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters. The FSB is the heir to the Soviet Union's notorious KGB.

The Lubyanka attack was a direct challenge to the FSB, which plays the key role in combating the various Caucasian insurgencies. For Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it also had a personal dimension. Putin came from the ranks of the KGB and made his reputation for steely decisiveness battling Chechen rebels in 1999.

The other subway bomb detonated at a stop near Gorky Park. Muscovites got the message: There are no safe zones. We will kill you on a family outing.

This week's bomb targeted Domodedovo's international arrival gate. It sends several messages. Obviously, Caucasian Islamic and separatist militants are quite willing to kill international visitors, including those from nations who might be sympathetic to their cause. The bottom line communication, however, is one of Russian weakness.

The Russian city of Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympic games. Sochi is located in southern Russia, on the Black Sea's Caucasus shore. The Olympic alpine skiing events will be held in Krasnaya Polyana, a resort town in the western Caucasus Mountains. If Moscow can be hit, Sochi is vulnerable -- and the ski slopes are a war zone.

Indeed, the Caucasian militants remain a potent threat to the Russian capital despite Putin's March 2010 vow to avenge the subway attacks and end the terrorist threat. In the wake of the airport attack, both Putin and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev once again insisted they would destroy the terrorists. Medvedev told a television audience that "these bandits -- or whatever they may be called -- must be liquidated."

This year's promises reprise last year's vows. As for next year? Putin may run for president in the 2012 national elections, or back Medvedev. At the moment, both men look weak -- and Russians (whether czar, commissar or democrat) don't tolerate weak leaders.

Last year's attacks, however, did not go unavenged. During 2010, Russian police and paramilitary security units conducted continuous operations in several troubled Caucasus enclaves, including Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. The highly regarded Caucasian Knot website (www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru) reported that there were 112 "acts of terror" in Dagestan last year. A few commentators called it the Kremlin's "silent war," since it received little international attention.

Vengeance is on thing; resolution another. Putin's methods have not destroyed the Islamist militants.

Since 2004, numerous Russians of all political stripes have criticized the repetitive cycle of terrorist attack followed by security clamp-down followed by another horror. This week, opposition politicians openly asked for policy alternatives, such as addressing the legitimate grievances of Caucasian ethnic minorities that terrorists like Umarov leverage. Economic and political development programs would complement the Kremlin's counter-terror operations.

Putin is deft enough to pursue such an integrated strategy and claim it was his idea all along. However, between now and the Winter Olympics, expect the silent wars in the Caucasus to become more deadly. 

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