On Point: Moscow's Silent War Explodes

by Austin Bay
January 25, 2011

The Jan. 24 terrorist attack on Moscow's Domodedovo Airportleft some three dozen dead and nearly 200 wounded. Russian investigators haveyet to identify the perpetrators, but the attack is all too similar to priorstrikes by Islamist militant organizations based in Russia's troubled Caucasusregion.

The Russians have good reasons to suspect a Chechen militantIslamist group commanded by Doku Umarov is involved. Umarov refers to himselfas the emir of an Islamic republic in the Caucasus. His organization has arecord of attacking transportation hubs and routes in and around Moscow thatare ripe with political symbolism. He also has a penchant for recruiting andusing female suicide bombers.

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

Umarov likely sponsored the two March 2010 suicide terrorbombings in Moscow's subway system. Both of the suicide terrorists in thoseattacks were women from the Caucasus region of Dagestan. One bomb exploded inthe 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, whichplays the key role in combating the various Caucasian insurgencies. For RussianPrime Minister Vladimir Putin, it also had a personal dimension. Putin camefrom the ranks of the KGB and made his reputation for steely decisivenessbattling 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 afamily outing.

This week's bomb targeted Domodedovo's international arrivalgate. It sends several messages. Obviously, Caucasian Islamic and separatistmilitants are quite willing to kill international visitors, including thosefrom nations who might be sympathetic to their cause. The bottom linecommunication, however, is one of Russian weakness.

The Russian city of Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympicgames. 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 resorttown in the western Caucasus Mountains. If Moscow can be hit, Sochi isvulnerable -- and the ski slopes are a war zone.

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

This year's promises reprise last year's vows. As for nextyear? Putin may run for president in the 2012 national elections, or backMedvedev. 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. During2010, Russian police and paramilitary security units conducted continuousoperations 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 ofterror" 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 methodshave not destroyed the Islamist militants.

Since 2004, numerous Russians of all political stripes havecriticized the repetitive cycle of terrorist attack followed by securityclamp-down followed by another horror. This week, opposition politicians openlyasked for policy alternatives, such as addressing the legitimate grievances ofCaucasian ethnic minorities that terrorists like Umarov leverage. Economic andpolitical development programs would complement the Kremlin's counter-terroroperations.

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

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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