By Praveen Swami
December 30, 2013
A police officer guards a main entrance to the Volgograd railway station hit by an explosion, in Volgograd, Russia on Sunday.
Sochi Winter Olympics were meant to be a showpiece for Russia’s pacification of Chechen jihadist movement. They’re serving to show how hard insurgencies are to stamp out
Late this summer, the jihadist leader, Doku Umarov, delivered a grim warning to Russia. “They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land,” he said. He called on followers “to use maximum force on the path of Allah to disrupt this Satanic dancing.”
The murderous terrorist bombing in the southern Russian city of Volgograd on Sunday, carried out by a woman suicide bomber fired by Mr. Umarov’s words, holds out an important lesson to Indians.
After years of terrorist attacks, there is growing public support in India for hard-line action against terrorists. However, the Russian case shows states that unleash maximum force against terrorists don’t necessarily succeed in stamping out their problems. Nor do efforts to buy out discontent through development or expedient political deals.
The Sochi Winter Olympics were meant to be a showpiece for Russia’s pacification of the Chechen jihadist movement. They are, paradoxically, serving to show how hard it can be to stamp out terrorism.
Long before Mr. Umarov’s public threats, Russian intelligence and police services had been warning of attacks in the build-up to February’s Winter Olympics, to be held in the idyllic resort of Sochi.
In October, Naida Asiyalova, 30, killed six persons and wounded 32 others in a suicide-bombing on a bus in Volgograd — almost identical to Sunday’s attack. Naida is reported to have been the wife of jihadist Dmitri Sokolov, wanted by Russian authorities for two other terrorist bombings.
For more than a decade now, the lethal reach of Chechen separatist commander Shamil Basayev’s Riyad ul-Saliheen Martyrs Brigade has been repeatedly demonstrated. In 2004, it seized control of a school in the town of Beslan, sparking a siege that claimed 334 lives, 186 of them children. In 2002, the Brigade took 800 people hostage at the Nord-Ost theatre in Moscow, leading to the death of 129 of them. In 2009, 29 were killed when the group bombed a Moscow-bound high-speed train. In 2010, a similar attack claimed the lives of 39 commuters.
Like other far-away wars, the Chechen insurgency has mostly been ignored by Indians. The Chechen battle against a great power has, however, inspired jihadists across the world.
Muhammad Abdul Aziz, a one-time Hyderabad electrician educated at the Anwar-ul-Uloom College in Mallepally, known to his friends as Gidda, fought in Grozny in 1996, under the command of Saudi Arabia jihadist Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailem. He also took part in combat against Serbian forces at Zentica in 1994, hoping to learn skills he could use at home.
Mr. Aziz later told Hyderabad police investigators that he had been radicalised by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 — and hoped for revenge.
Like India’s own insurgencies, the roots of the Islamist insurgency in the north Caucuses go back centuries. In the 1700s, as imperial Russia expanded into territories until then controlled by Iran and Turkey, it faced resistance from local Muslim rulers. Then, in 1940, central Asian Islamists allied with the Nazi Germany in an effort to gain independence from the Soviet Union. The historian, Ian Johnson, has documented the United States’ subsequent sponsorship of these jihadists, seeking to use them against the Soviet Union.
Even as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, a war for independence broke out between Russia and the newly formed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Basayev was appointed vice-prime minister of the Chechen Republic by President Aslam Maskhadov in an attempted peace deal.
In 1999, though, he attempted to stage a coup in neighbouring Dagestan, and fighting broke out again. President Vladimir Putin’s troops laid siege to Grozny in 1999-2000, reducing it, the United Nations reportedly said, to “the most destroyed city on earth.” Journalist Anna Politkovskaya described it as “a small corner of hell.” Basayev himself was killed in 2006.
From the mid-2008 though, the jihadist movement in Chechnya began to gather momentum again. In November that year, Mr. Umarov declared himself the Emir of the so-called Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus. For the past decade, Mr. Umarov has faced a determined adversary in the former warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Helped by generous assistance from Moscow, Mr. Kadyrov has turned Grozny into an economic hub. But he has been alleged to be complicit in violence directed at human rights activists and political opponents — and criticised for Shari’a laws that discriminate against women, introduced in a bid to outflank his Islamist opponents.
The Sochi Olympics will show the world how far Russia has succeeded in turning a war-zone into a peaceful economic success. They will also demonstrate, though, that the end of war doesn’t necessarily mean the coming of peace.