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Sochi fans concerned about terrorism in Russia, but it's long been a prime target

Russian riot police observe a protest by Russian nationalist groups in Moscow in November, 2013. Economic and political problems continue to inflame ethnic tensions and exacerbate the threat of terrorism.

MOSCOW — The snow-covered train station appears peaceful, for just a moment, in a grim surveillance video. Then a sudden explosion smashes the station’s windows and shatters that peace, along with the lives of dozens more civilians caught in the crossfire of Russia’s long war against terrorism.

The deadly explosion Dec. 29 in the southern Russian city of Volgograd — made famous during World War II under its Soviet name of Stalingrad — was not the first, nor was it the last, deadly attack in the area.

That blast, set off by a suspected suicide bomber, was followed a day later by another alleged suicide attack on a trolleybus. Together, the two attacks left as many as 34 people dead and dozens wounded, sending the city into shock. Two months earlier, in October, a suicide bomber killed six people on a Volgograd bus.

No group took responsibility, but investigators said the bombers came from the troubled North Caucasus region.

With the start of the winter Olympics in Sochi on Feb. 6, the latest strikes in Russia have been front-page news in the West and have fanned concerns that the games could be a prime target of a terrorist attack.

While the level of media attention may be new, the threat certainly isn’t. By one estimate, Russia has been the victim of nearly 2,000 terrorist attacks since 1992, the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. Volgograd is only the latest in a long list of cities to be targeted.

The messy wars against separatist Chechnya in the 1990s sparked a wave of terror, from bombings in southern Russia to hostage-takings in the heart of Moscow.

This experience in dealing with Islamic terrorism at home is shaping Moscow’s policies regarding Syria, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia — a history that may also define Russia’s relationship with the West for years to come.

An epidemic

When Anatoly Ermolin left his job in 1994 as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB’S elite special operations team, he thought his days in the fight against terrorism were over. In his decade with the unit, he fought in the Soviet Union’s dirty wars, from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan, hunting down people seen as threats to the crumbling communist empire. In the last years of his service, he led an anti-terrorism squad in North Ossetia and Ingushetia, two Russian republics that would soon to become battlegrounds between government forces and militant groups.

After the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, the KGB team was subordinated to Russia’s domestic police service — a move seen as an attempt to strip it of its powers. Ermolin hung up his gun and got a job developing educational policies for a private school funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time oil tycoon who was recently released from prison. Ermolin’s past in the dark world of Soviet special forces faded.

Ten years later, however, he found himself confronting domestic terrorism again. By now he was a member of Russia’s State Duma, where he sat on the foreign affairs committee, observing some of the most devastating terror attacks in Russian history.

About this time, the blowback from Moscow’s brutal campaign in the 1990s to pacify the breakaway republic of Chechnya was reaching the capital with a vengeance.

In late 2002, Chechen rebels held 700 people captive in a Moscow theater until security forces stormed in. Most of the 129 hostages who were killed died from the effects of gas used by police.

The year 2004 saw lethal assaults on the Moscow metro, government buildings and two passenger jets, which were blown up. The most deadly incident occurred at the end of the year, when Chechen rebels seized a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. More than 300 hostages — half of them children — died during the assault and the botched rescue.

Spurred by these attacks and the fallout, Ermolin wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin, also a veteran of the KGB, explaining why he thought the country’s counterterrorism policies had gone off the rails.

As a KGB officer he had used the very same kinds of ruthless tactics that Russia had recently employed in the North Caucasus, but he was now making the case that such methods were counterproductive.

“I was trying to explain the nature of terrorism in Russia, and the main idea was that we have a problem, we have an epidemic,” Ermolin told Stars and Stripes as he sipped tea in his Moscow office. Having left the Duma in 2007, he now works as a project director for the Committee of Civic Initiatives, an organization that tries to boost participation in public affairs.

“One of the most dangerous factors was the way we started to fight terrorism,” he said. “The result is hundreds of people who will fight to the death.”

Putin’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.

The incredible level of extremist violence in Russia is important in understanding the country’s counterterrorism strategy, said Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.

“This has made the Russians — who already are used to a strong state security apparatus — far more willing to empower its internal security forces beyond anything Americans would ever allow,” he said. “While the Russian campaigns in Chechnya in the 1990s were brutal, I think this long ago mutated into a larger civilizational conflict. Terrorism is never justified.”

Fertile ground

Though the North Caucasus have become synonymous in Russia with terrorism, some fear the same combination of economic and political problems that made Chechnya a magnet for religious extremists could make other regions of the country vulnerable to violence.

Kazan, the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan, lies 650 miles up the Volga River from Volgograd, deep in the heart of Russia.

It is known for its ethnic and religious diversity: The population is split almost evenly between ethnic Russians and mostly Muslim Tatars, and the city’s fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features a mosque and a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

Below the surface, however, there are signs of tension.

Local Russian nationalist groups protest over perceived Tatar dominance, and in the city’s recently constructed subway, it’s clear officials aren’t taking any chances. Commuters must have their bags scanned by security guards at every station — a precaution not taken even in Moscow’s crowded transportation system.

The good news, says Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University, is that “the Wahhabi, Salafi, jihadist strain of Islam is pretty alien” to most of the Muslim traditions in Russia. “Although there is some risk of spread into Tatarstan, on the whole I wouldn’t be too alarmist.”

The Council of Muftis of Russia, a leading Muslim organizing committee, condemned the latest Volgograd attacks and opened an account to raise funds for the victims.

“Islam condemns the killing of innocent people and has no relation to the terrible crimes committed by terrorists hiding behind our religion,” the council said in a statement on its website.

While the tensions in areas like Tatarstan have mostly been limited to long-standing political and economic rivalries between various ethnic and religious blocs, events in recent years have raised concerns that the issues could be co-opted by violent extremists.

In July 2012, the city was rattled by its first terror attack, which targeted two pro-Kremlin Muslim leaders who had condemned more radical members of the faith. A few months later one police officer and three militants accused of involvement in the attacks were killed in a gun battle in a Kazan apartment complex.

And last year Russian prosecutors announced they were treating the burning of seven Orthodox Christian churches in the area as terrorism committed by unspecified extremists.

The fears aren’t limited to Kazan. Analysts say economic and political malaise in much of Russia has led to simmering ethnic tensions, in some cases causing riots and other unrest. Russian nationalists, many of whom openly and proudly call themselves racist, rioted in Moscow last year during protests against ethnic minorities and migrants.

Concerns over terrorism have come to a head as Russia prepares to host the winter Olympics next month. Sochi, the resort town in which the games will be based, is just west of the northern Caucasus, on the Black Sea.

Moscow has a lot riding on the event. The Kremlin has invested billions in infrastructure, and it is determined to make a favorable impression. The humiliation of the 1980 Moscow summer games — boycotted by the U.S. and 61 other countries because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — has not been forgotten. Some of the security efforts leading up to the Sochi games have raised eyebrows, however.

After the October bus attack in Volgograd, Russian officials were reported to be collecting DNA samples pre-emptively from religiously conservative Muslim women. And a plan by security services to monitor the communications of everyone at the games made headlines.

While analysts say Russian forces have become better at avoiding the mass casualties that marked counterterrorism efforts a decade ago, they say that Moscow has failed to address many of the root causes of discontent.

Russia’s crackdown in Chechnya “galvanized jihadism in the region,” Galeotti said, but there are a range of economic and political issues that have allowed the area to become a fertile ground for extremists bringing a religious flavor to the unrest in the Caucuses and other regions of southern Russia.

“Heavy-handed security measures continue often to be counterproductive, but in many ways Moscow’s main failure has been not to address the serious and genuine crises of unemployment, corruption and government illegitimacy in the North Caucasus,” he said. “This is what actually provides the jihadist minority with wider legitimacy and popular support.”

Dry wood

The uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East have been watched warily by Russian officials who fear that such revolutionary sentiments could exacerbate the already inflamed North Caucasus and even spread beyond, Ermolin said. Economic and political issues that have not been addressed make the areas potentially ripe for recruitment of fighters engaged in the war against the Moscow-backed Bashar Assad regime in Syria.

For Russian leaders, the calls by some Syrian rebels for the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state in their homeland sound uncomfortably similar to the goals of Doku Umarov, the Chechen leader of the so-called Caucasus Emirate. The stated aim of Umarov’s group, designated by Moscow and Washington as a terrorist organization, is to establish an Islamic state on Russian territory. Chechen fighters like Omar Abu al-Chechen, who leads an expatriate jihadist force known as the Immigrant Brothers in Syria, have sparked fears that the extremists are seeking to make Syria into a base for future operations in Russia.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov talked of police measures to deal with this danger when he spoke to reporters in December.

“For Chechnya this issue is particularly acute due to the fact that Syria has thousands of fighters who, according to Russian special services, are a serious and real threat for our country,” said Kadyrov, a former rebel who has been criticized for his human rights record. “We cannot quietly listen to these threats and wait until this plague will move in the direction of Russia.”

Referring to the threat posed by extremists, Ermolin said: “I think this is one of the most dangerous things for any government. They are very serious and believe they can organize an Islamic state. And this state would be mostly situated here, not in the United States. They consider it to be their territory. We are dry wood; it’s very easy to set fire to the situation.”

Mutual interests

While the disastrous conflict in Syria has divided Russia and NATO-member countries that initially backed the rebel groups, the increasingly extremist nature of Syria’s opposition could see a realignment of international interests.

“There is a fear of it spreading, especially after the fighting stops and militants return to the North Caucasus, perhaps with other jihadist allies, but honestly I think [Russia’s] main fear is regional chaos that will empower Iran,” said Galeotti. The situation in the Caucasus captured American attention last year when the two brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon were identified as having been born to a family from that area.

Analysts contend that the broader counterterrorism effort is one in which Moscow and Washington could collaborate better. The problem, they say, is that other issues keep getting in the way.

“I have argued for many years that Russia and America have a natural interest in anti-terrorism cooperation, and I think it’s unfortunate that so many other issues have interfered in an area where we have a clear coincidence of interests,” Nichols said.

Galeotti agreed: “The trouble is that both Russia and the West tend also to try and turn the conflict to their own advantage. But on an operational level, there is definitely scope for much greater intelligence sharing.”

The threats to Russia are not particularly different from those faced by the U.S., said Alexander Khinshtein, vice chairman of the State Duma’s security and anti-corruption committee.

“Terrorism cannot be a local problem; it is not a problem for just one place,” he said. “It’s not just a problem in Chechnya or Ingushetia, but for the whole world.”

smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

 

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