Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Russia's Silent War

E!Sharp, 26th April 2011 13:01

Russian Revelation

A view on the EU’s eastern neighbour by Andrew Osborn

Islamist terrorists operating in Russia have struck metro stations, theatres, schools, buses and trains in the past. But until January 24 they had left the country’s airports alone. On that day, a Monday, they chose Russia’s busiest and best airport to open a new front in their terror campaign.

As passengers streamed off flights from London and other destinations, a suicide bomber casually mingled in the crowd in the international arrivals hall of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport with seven kilograms of TNT strapped to his chest. Thirty-six people died when he decided the time had come to activate his suicide vest in what was the deadliest attack on an airport anywhere in the world to date.

The consequences of the attack have been far-reaching. Security has been sharply stepped up at transport infrastructure nationwide, a hunt is underway in the mountains of southern Russia for the country’s most wanted terrorist, Doku Umarov, and ordinary Russians have been reminded of the fierce Islamist insurgency that continues to unfold almost 1,000 miles south of Moscow.

It is a silent and dirty war that rarely makes international headlines unless blood is spilled on the streets of the Russian capital or the terrorists, who want to create an Islamist emirate along Russia’s southern flank, pull off “a spectacular”. It is a war that the Kremlin and its proxies have repeatedly claimed to have won. But for the seven years I have been working here it has raged on regardless with only an occasional lull.

The Islamists have promised ordinary Russians that 2011 will be “a year of blood and tears”. If the Kremlin is to prove them wrong and make the country safe ahead of the winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018 it needs to get a new counter-terrorism strategy and quickly.

When I decided to go and search for the family of Magomed Yevloyev, the 20-year-old man who blew himself up in the airport, I was a little anxious. He hailed from a village in the volatile internal Russian republic of Ingushetia, 900 miles south of Moscow, where the local authorities do not welcome journalists.

As we drove from the airport I spotted numerous armoured personnel carriers and armed men set back from the road who looked like they were waiting and ready for trouble. Within hours of landing I learnt that a colleague from an American newspaper who had also wanted to speak to the bomber’s family had been detained by the local FSB security service.

The bomber’s village looked quiet enough. Cows grazed in people’s yards, schoolchildren roamed its snow-covered roads, and the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus mountains glistened in the distance.

To my surprise, the bomber’s 73-year-old father agreed to talk. He described his son’s largely uneventful youth and how his behaviour had changed after he broke up with his wife and learnt that his brother-in-law had been shot dead as a suspected terrorist.

What struck me though was how limited the opportunities for people living in this part of the world are. Unemployment in Ingushetia is above 50 percent, the village has virtually no shops or other facilities, and the only way of scratching a living here is by raising livestock or picking wild garlic.

In such unpromising conditions, radical Islam appears to be flourishing. The village has no more than 5,000 inhabitants but boasts two mosques, one of which, a towering red-brick structure, is said to be linked to the Islamists. With little else to fill their days, young people like Magomed Yevloyev appear to be drifting into its forbidding interior and succumbing to extremism. The troubling truth is that southern Russia has many such mosques and many disenchanted youngsters like Magomed.

Russia’s political elite made the right noises about the bombing but in reality has other things on its mind. There are parliamentary elections in December, a presidential election next spring, and it remains unclear whether Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, will return to the presidency or continue on in his current position which seems to afford him just as much power anyway. The country’s elite wants to know – and soon – who if anyone will take over from incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev.

Though most analysts believe the suspense is artificial and part of Russia’s carefully crafted veneer of fake democracy, a genuine shift of power would have far-reaching implications for which clans and oligarchs get to keep which assets. And that is one of the main reasons why Putin is unlikely to retire from frontline politics anytime soon.

As the year progresses, expect to see plenty more of his famous adrenalin-fuelled public relations gambits as he seeks to maintain his already high profile and stellar ratings among ordinary Russians.