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Analysis & Opinion
02.02.11 An Apposite Response
Comment by Sergei Markedonov

At the end of January 2011, Russia again hit headlines across the world. The reason? A terrorist attack on Russia’s largest transport hub, Domodedovo Airport. But to what extent is the new wave of discussion about the terrorist threat in Russia justified? And if it is, what should be done about the unchecked growth of political violence in the country?

At first glance, the terrorist activity at Domodedovo didn’t mark the start of a new trend. It is not the first year that Russia has been waging a war in the North Caucasus (and the link to the North Caucasus in the January event is recognized even by those who are openly opposed to the Kremlin.) As far back as 1960, Russian officer, white guard and eminent military theorist Evgeny Messner defined it as a “rebel-war” (myatezh-voina.) According to Messner, in such a war “the fighters are not an army, they are more of a people’s movement than an army.” In this case the word “people” has neither a positive nor a negative connotation.

In contrast to the classical idea of symmetrical warfare played out between the armies of national governments, “myatezh voina” holds that, instead of a regular army, a group of people oriented around a system of values (in the case of the North Caucasus this is radical Islamism and ethnic nationalism), can become an adversary to the authorities. Living conditions can also provoke participation in a “myatezh-voina” (when realizing one’s potential or personal revenge is impossible.) Messner called this kind of force in opposition to a government a “cryptoarmy.”

Here, more so than in classical warfare, psychological factors are significant. The North Caucasus saboteur-terrorist “cryptoarmy” would never sign any kind of treaty or agreement with the Russian government. Thus it does not feel linked to any particular conditions or demands. What is more, when a “cryptoarmy” does not have a vertical power structure, and is made up of various cells, which sometimes do not communicate with each other, it is difficult to imagine that any (theoretically possible) pledge by the Jihadist underground would actually be fully honored. Even more so since the aims of Islamist terrorists in the North Caucasus are clear: apply pressure on the Russian government from this region, and spread their battle to other corners of the country and post-Soviet space. Our neighbors should have no illusions about this. Azerbaijan and Georgia have been marked on the maps of Jihadists as territories “under occupation by the kafirs and murtads.” Hence, you involuntarily ask yourself after every attack: “When will the next one be?” and “who have the organizers of this terror selected as their target in their new mission?”

At the same time, we cannot simply call the act at Domodedovo the latest “routine” terrorist attack (as everyday citizens have managed to accept.) The terrorists clearly strived to increase their “geopolitical capitalization.” What do we mean here? It has already become a truism to repeat the thesis that “terrorism is the weapon of the weak.” Hardly anyone tries to penetrate the true meaning of this expression. Besides, the terrorist “cryptoarmy” is fighting a government with less financial and political and military resources. In this way, its aim is to minimize its shortfall in resources to inflict a significant and effective attack. We can recall the attacks of Islamist terrorists in Europe whose aim was to force NATO member armies to leave Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of Spain, they were successful. But the terrorist attacks by North Caucasus Jihadists are not “ruining” the Russian authorities, and public opinion in the country is not to go out onto the streets to demand an end to “the occupation of the North Caucasus” or adopt other similar slogans.

It is worth mentioning here that in the post-Soviet period the victims of terrorist attacks have not been foreigners. Further still, in the international section of the largest Russian airport - a symbol of Russia’s way to the world outside, if you will. Add to this the approaching 2014 Olympics and also the World Football Cup in 2018, which Russia is also hosting, and we get the increase of fear and phobias in other governments and societies, which were deeply struck by the loss of human life. It is clear that the United States (which last year placed Doku Umarov on the State Department’s wanted list of terrorists) and the EU are not staunch supporters of the Caucasus “freedom fighters.” This is the case even in the countries of “New Europe” such as Poland and the Baltic Republics. In Great Britain the “romanticism about mountain peoples” has clearly gone into steep decline, although certain experts or NGOs continue to back the old line. However, beyond the issue of the status of the North Caucasus, the problem of the vulnerability of foreigners in the country becomes practically the lead question on the agenda in relations between Russia and the West.

Hence, the task of adequately reacting to growing violence stands before the Russian leadership and society as a whole (as the terrorist attacks were aimed at normal everyday citizens, and not at high-level managers.) And coming up with adequate answers to all the toughest challenges must take place at different levels.

First of all, the political leadership of the country must finally clearly identify the ideology of the bombers. Hiding behind phrases like “bandits” and the “bandit underground” is just not possible. Not one serious foreign investor or politician believes that simple criminals are capable of a long-term saboteur-terrorist conflict. The lack of a distinct identification in many ways defeats the purpose of the fight against the North Caucasus “cryptoarmy.” Moreover, it turns it into a set of disjointed actions (which also ruins the bad PR of promising “to sort out the terrorists” rapidly.)

Secondly, there is the level of the security services. Their tactics are based on their readiness to repel large rebel raids (which there have been in Budenovsk, Kizlyar, Beslan, “Nord-Ost,” and Nazran.) Besides, since the beginning of the 1990s and early 2000s, a lot has changed. The terrorists have regrouped, changed their tactics and stopped fighting in big groups, preferring to find and press pressure points. In the case of the Lubyanka metro bombing they demonstrated the vulnerability of law enforcement structures and in the case of the attack on the Baksanskaya hydroelectric power station the vulnerability of key sites. Moreover, the security services shun the work of independent experts (who also often have critical assessments) on a partnership level.

Thirdly, society should be more active in discussing the issue of terrorism, not only recounting the alarmist version, but also suggesting its own alternatives to the current tactics and strategies of the Russian authorities. Clearly, in a situation where normal people are the predominate victims of terrorist attacks, the struggle against terrorism cannot be undertaken only by civil servants. To a large extent, it must be built on cooperation with activists from NGOs and rights activists.

There is not mistake in this final thesis. It is high time to stop placing the defense of the law and human rights in opposition to a tough fight on terror. Otherwise, even justified action by the authorities will not be accepted as legitimate, and the lack of rights will, on the contrary, equate law enforcers to terrorists. In any case, there needs to be a serious systemic “reset” in the struggle against the terrorist threat, which does not only lead to the punishment of minor “scapegoats” and the appearance of new metal detectors at airports.
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