Andrew Osborn








Moscow bombing: The Kremlin does not know how to win this war, 26th January 2011 10:54

By Andrew Osborn

Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of Moscow’s busy Domodedovo airport on Monday, a cowardly attack that left thirty-five people dead and dozens more injured. Nor have Russian investigators named any suspects.

But it would be astonishing if the origins of the attack did not lie some 1,000 miles south of Moscow in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus area. This area includes not just the Chechnya of terrifying popular imagination, but a patchwork of small mostly Muslim internal Russian republics such as Dagestan and Ingushetia where the rule of law is tested by bombs and bullets almost every day.

The region fell out of fashion with the Western media in the early part of the last decade, when the Second Chechen War began to fizzle out just as the West began to fight its own equally bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet as the world looked away, a growing and powerful radical Islamist insurgency took hold, fuelled by poverty, unemployment, corruption, and heavy-handed Kremlin tactics.

The Islamists’ stated aim, one that the Kremlin cannot and understandably will not acknowledge, is nothing less than the creation of a Sharia state along Russia’s entire southern flank.

Islamist terrorists kill, maim and bomb there each week in attacks that spread sorrow and misery. Beyond being reported on the evening news, such violence ironically has little impact upon non-Muslim Russians, the majority population, who live hundreds of miles to the north.

Indeed, many non-Muslim Russians are weary of hearing about violence in a part of the world that many of them regard as a foreign country with a foreign and hostile culture. It is instead ordinary Russian Muslims who live in such places, Chechens, Ingush, and Dagestanis who have nothing to do with terrorism, who are the ones that suffer.

The Kremlin’s response has traditionally been robust: to meet fire with fire. Russian security forces regularly kill, kidnap and torture terrorist suspects as well as their relatives, operating in a legal vacuum that they believe is justifiable in a part of the world still riven by blood feuds, honour killings, and bride kidnappings.

The result is an appalling and seemingly intractable cycle of violence that occasionally spills over into Russia’s European heartland when the terrorists decide it is time for “a spectacular”. That appears to have been what happened on Monday.

It is hard to understand why the terrorists struck now, almost a year since their last big attack last March when two female “black widow” suicide bombers blew themselves up on the Moscow metro, killing forty people. There are as many theories as there are experts . But in the past, such attacks have sometimes been a desperate, vengeful response to successful “clean-up” operations by the Russian security forces in the North Caucasus.

Unfortunately, there appears to be an endless supply of ill-educated and misguided men and women from the North Caucasus willing to blow themselves up in the mistaken belief that they are booking themselves a place in paradise. With the passing of the years, the Russian security forces have got more adept at hunting down and destroying the terrorists. They will no doubt redouble their efforts in the weeks and months ahead in the wake of this bloody attack.

But the problem is that they are fighting a war that cannot be won by just “wiping out the terrorists in the outhouse” as Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, once memorably said. If Russian citizens are ever to feel completely safe taking the metro, catching a plane, or even going to school, the Kremlin will need to offer this troubled region jobs and hope. At the moment, it has neither.

Kremlin money disappears into the pockets of corrupt officials and, stripped of hope, increasingly desperate young people become susceptible to radical Islamist propaganda. The Kremlin’s latest plan is to turn the area into a giant ski resort. Blessed with stunning alpine scenery and plentiful snow, it is an idea that has merit. But Monday’s suicide bombing at Russia’s busiest airport showed that it is also an idea that is light years ahead of its time.

It is right that the Russian security forces track, arrest and lock up people they suspect of being terrorists. But apart from the obvious ethical and legal concerns, the heavy handed tactics they have used to fight the insurgency have backfired.

If Russia is to modernise, it needs to drag the North Caucasus into the twenty first century with it. That means defeating the terrorists using soft as well as hard power and offering people a future they can believe in. There are some people in the Kremlin who understand that. They have not worked out exactly how to go about it though. Until they do, the risk of such attacks will remain a grim reality of Russian everyday life.