Nearly 36 hours after the attacks in Moscow’s subway system, reports indicate that nearly 40 are dead and more than 70 have been injured. As of this writing, no group has claimed responsibility, though heavy suspicion has fallen on Muslim separatist groups based in southern Russia’s Caucasus region, the primary source of terrorism in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. More on that in a second.
There were two bombings, conducted quasi-simultaneously (about 40 minutes apart) at two busy metro stations in Moscow’s city center. The Lubyanka station is located near the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service (the legacy organization of the KGB), which points to a message the attackers may have been hoping to convey; the second scene at the Park Kultury Station is located a few stops to the south along the same metro line. If you’d like to see some interesting citizen-journalism of the attacks’ aftermath, click over to the NYT’s The Lede blog.
Much has been made of the attackers’ identity — two women dressed in black robes with explosives and shrapnel packed underneath their garments. Female suicide bombers have been used by Chechen separatists dating back to 2002 and are commonly — and disturbingly – referred to as ”black widows.” Furthermore, female suicide bombers are hardly a new phenomenon. If memory serves, they’ve been used as long ago as the early 1990s by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. Terrorist groups — even those with no formal ties to one another — observe each others’ tactical successes and adopt the effective ones. The use of unsuspecting women has made the rounds in terrorist circles, even if Western audiences still find the tactic shocking.
It’s important to appreciate the dynamic nature and motivations of the Caucasus’ separatist groups over the last decade and the Russian government’s response to them. Boris Yeltsin first installed the then-little-known ex-KGB chief Vladimir Putin as prime minister in 1999, and Putin vowed to crush the Chechen separatist movement. In the early-to-mid 2000s, the group was a relatively structured militia that was responsible for mostly large-scale terrorist attacks. The group most famously conducted the 2004 siege at the Beslan school that killed over 300 people, many of whom were school children; it was also responsible for the 2002 siege at a Moscow theater.
In large part, Putin was responsible for successfully dismantling the organizational hierarchy behind those acts, killing leaders like Shamil Basayev and Abdul Khalim Sudalayev in 2006. He used victories like those to consolidate power behind the Kremlin, saying political power-grabs like eliminating the direct election of regional governors were necessary to defeat terrorism. Can you imagine if Bush had eliminated the election of state governors after 9/11? Just a bit of a stretch, right?
But as often happens with insurgent organizations, cutting off their head rarely kills them. Moscow’s success only caused the resistance to morph over the last four or five years from a top-down military-style structure to more of a flat, non-hierarchical, Islamic-based motley crew. Here’s an excellent run-down on the insurgency’s changing nature and motivation from WaPo’s Philip Pan late last year:
Russia has long blamed violence in the region on Muslim extremists backed by foreign governments and terrorist networks, but radical Islam is relatively new here. In the 1990s, it was ethnic nationalism, not religious fervor, that motivated Chechen separatists. That changed, though, as fighting spilled beyond Chechnya and Russian forces used harsher tactics targeting devout Muslims.
In 2007, the rebel leader Doku Umarov abandoned the goal of Chechen independence and declared jihad instead, vowing to establish a fundamentalist Caucasus Emirate that would span the entire region. After Moscow proclaimed victory in Chechnya in April, he issued a video labeling civilians legitimate targets and reviving Riyad-us Saliheen, the self-described martyrs’ brigade that launched terrorist attacks across Russia from 2002 to 2006.
It would appear on the surface that the Kremlin has failed to appreciate this change. In my mind, the new shape and motivations of the Chechen insurgency would call for more of a counter-insurgency style strategy that has been adopted by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, Putin has vowed a continued heavy hand, saying, “The terrorists will be destroyed!” This is of course what any national leader must say to placate a fearful and confused domestic audience, but may begin to ring a bit hollow in light of Putin’s similar rhetoric of 1999:
“Putin said [before these attacks], ‘One thing that I definitely accomplished was this [stopping the Chechen threat],’ and he didn’t,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russian who is a professor at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
“My feeling is this is not an isolated attack, that we will see more,” Mr. Baev said. “If we are facing a situation where there is a chain of attacks, that would undercut every attempt to soften, liberalize, open up, and increase the demand for tougher measures.”
In my next post, I’ll take a look at how the U.S. has responded to the attacks.