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
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
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
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
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.