Russia's Responses to Acts of Terrorism

From: University of Michigan | By: Alexander Knysh
EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION | A week following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the University of Michigan International Institute assembled a faculty panel to begin a dialogue on terrorism and globalization. The panel was designed with a university of the world in mind, a sanctuary for reason and reflection during a time of anger and grief.

Two years prior to the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center, Russia suffered a series of terrorist attacks against civilians. Panelist Alexander Knysh, professor of Islamic Studies and chairman of the department of Near Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, revisits these events and provides a context for understanding the terrorist attacks. Knysh analyses Russia's response, draws parallels between the US and Russian situations, and cautions that a war in Afghanistan will be extremely difficult to win.

On September 9, 1999, a powerful explosion ripped a gaping hole in a nine-story building in Moscow, killing a total of 95 people. Four days later, another blast flattened another apartment building, killing at least 124 people, including 13 children. These two buildings were destroyed by hexagen, a powerful explosive that was placed in the cellars of the buildings under the guise of sacks of sugar. On September 16, 1999, another explosion in southern Russia took the life of 13 people. To inflict the highest possible casualties, hexagen was detonated in the early hours of morning, when the residents of the apartment complexes were still in their beds.

Although the Russian Secret Service (FSB, heir to the KGB) linked these and a series of other explosions to the Chechen guerillas fighting for independence from Moscow in the northern Caucasus, no firm evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim. No ethnic or religious group in Russia claimed responsibility for these terrorist acts. On the contrary, all the major field commanders in Chechnya have energetically denied their involvement in the blasts, claiming that they were orchestrated by the FSB in order to justify the Russian invasion of Chechnya in August 1999. Many Chechens hold President Putin personally responsible for these dastardly acts, since he rode to presidency on the wave of broad public support for his war on Chechnya that was triggered by the string of explosions across Russia.

Incredible as this accusation may sound, some Western news agencies gave it some credence. After two years of investigation, the FSB has failed to produce any conclusive evidence of the Chechen involvement in the blasts. The FSB has come up with a most-wanted list of suspects that is headed by Achemez Gochiyaev, accused of masterminding the terrorist acts in Moscow. For Russians, Gochiyaev is a small-scale version of bin Laden. Furthermore, many Russian experts think that the terrorist acts in Moscow and other Russian cities were funded by either bin Laden or some of his agents. In any event, there is a lot of speculation and very little in the way of concrete evidence either for or against Chechen involvement and its alleged linked to bin Laden's networks.

Interestingly, none of the nine suspects on the FSB list is an ethnic Chechen, although the majority of the suspects indeed come from the North Caucasus (Daghestan and Karachaevo-Circassia). So far only two suspects, who were accused of engineering the bombing of an apartment building in neighboring Daghestan, have been brought to justice and given life sentences.

Russia's response

Russia's immediate reaction to the bombings was in some ways similar to what we now observe in the US. The shock of losing the sense of safety in the very heart of Russia was followed by an outpouring of grief and patriotic enthusiasm that helped Putin to win the presidential election hands down. The nation rallied around Putin who vowed to find those responsible for the bombings and bring them to justice. Putin's military campaign in Chechnya received broad public support and endorsement. Those media outlets and personalities that attempted to cast doubt on the effectiveness and necessity of an all-out military campaign against Chechnya were accused of lack of patriotism and, occasionally, even of treachery. Using public enthusiasm, Putin took on some powerful Russian politicians and power brokers and drastically reduced the independence of the media. The military were given almost full control over reportage from Chechnya and journalists now have to get clearance from the Russian military authorities in Chechnya before airing any news on the region.

In Chechnya, the Russian army prepared for a long occupation and anti-guerilla warfare, while Russian commandos began to hunt down and liquidate the purported "terrorist" leaders: the Jordanian born al-Hattab and the Chechen warlords Shamil Basaev, Ruslan Gelaev, and Arbi Baraev. Two years later, on all fronts, the Russians have had only limited success. The army is still bogged down in a bloody fight against elusive bands of Chechen fighters and the FSB so far has been able to take out only one field commander, Arbi Baraev, out of four on their hit-list. To justify their failure to destroy the "terrorist nest," the FSB and government spokespeople have cited the financial and logistical support that the Chechen resistance fighters allegedly receive from abroad, in particular, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Egypt.

There is indeed evidence of presence on the Chechen scene of a number of foreign-born fighters, al-Hattab being the most prominent example. Some are said to have been trained in bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan, but in general evidence of this remains inconclusive at best. This is not to say that there are no foreign fighters in Chechnya. What is not clear is whether they are playing any significant role in the hostilities. Recent attempts by the FSB to link the terrorist acts in the US to some figures in Chechen resistance are tenuous at best.

The Russian public at large, and intellectuals in particular, are disgusted by the FSB's inability to track down, try and charge the alleged perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on Russian cities. The army operations in Chechnya continue to enjoy some public support, but it erodes as the war drags on with no end in sight. As casualties mount and hijackings of Russian planes and buses across Russia and abroad continue, many Russians begin to look for a negotiated solution to the Chechen conflict. There is also a growing sense of resignation and cynicism among the Russians as a result of Putin's concerted efforts to roll back democratic reforms and drastically curtail the freedom of speech. Given the fact that Putin rose to power on the war ticket, he has no option but continue the war in Chechnya. As for the victims of the terrorist attacks, they are forgotten by the majority of Russians who are too preoccupied with surviving at the time of a lingering economic crisis.

Lessons to be learned

Are there any lessons to be learned from Russia's recent encounters with terrorism? Are there any parallels to the situation faced by the US in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.? There are similarities as well as differences. I'd like to begin with differences.

First, Russia is fighting with separatists in what used to be part of its territory. Therefore, it treats Chechnya as its renegade republic, which is definitely not the case with the US, whose enemies are driven by resentment against its foreign policy. At the same time, many radical Muslim groups treat the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia as a foreign occupation, which is exactly how Muslim fighters in Chechnya see Russian presence in the northern Caucasus. Second, the inability of the Russian intelligence and secret services to identify and punish the culprits in the terrorist attacks on Russian cities shows both their incompetence and the difficulty of the task at hand.

Now the parallels. As with the terrorist attacks in the US, all the suspects energetically deny their involvement in the acts of terror, leaving it to the intelligence agencies to find irrefutable evidence of their guilt. Both Russia and the US are dealing with terrorist operations that allegedly originate in a rugged, sparsely populated mountainous terrain with hardly any infrastructure and many potential hideouts. All these factors make any large-scale military operations in the area extremely difficult and rife with potentially high casualties. To what extent these difficulties can be overcome by the superior US military machine remains to be seen. Finally, Russia's unsuccessful attempts to strike at the leadership of alleged or real terrorists points to the difficulties awaiting those elite US troops that plan a surgical strike against bin Laden and his followers.

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