The Moscow Airport Bombing
January 27, 2011
Russia suffered another serious terrorist strike this week when a suicide bomber, thought to be from the volatile North Caucasus region, detonated explosives inside the international arrival hall at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, killing 35 people and wounding 170. This attack follows the 2010 Moscow subway bombings and other high-profile strikes on transportation infrastructure, including railways and airplanes. Over the past 10 years, theaters (the Nord-Ost siege in Moscow in 2002) and schools (the Beslan massacre in North Ossetia in 2004) have also been the setting for dramatic and shocking confrontations between North Caucasus separatists and Russian and local security forces—with the widows of deceased militants often playing a leading role. The North Caucasus region is home to a brutal insurgency that dates back to 1991. Islamic militants have engaged both local and Russian federal forces in an ongoing bid for autonomy. Chechnya has seen two major wars, and the area as a whole has witnessed brutal assassinations, kidnappings, torture, and bombings that have claimed hundreds of lives. In recent weeks Russian nationalists in Moscow attacked immigrants and residents from the Caucasus in retaliation for the shooting death of a Russian soccer fan. There are likely to be additional reprisals on the heels of the airport bombing. Meanwhile, Russian security services and law enforcement have long been expected to increase their operations against suspected militants and insurgents ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics—and this bombing could expedite those actions.
Q1: What is the broader context of this attack?
A1: The North Caucasus is very poor and is marked by ethnic and religious divisions that were stifled under firm Soviet rule. Joseph Stalin deported entire communities and ethnic groups from this area during World War II—many of which eventually returned. Heavy-handed security operations, massive local corruption, and abysmal socioeconomic conditions have perpetuated the violence. Following the December 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus region of southwest Russia (which includes the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria, among others) experienced extreme levels of violence as separatists fought for independence from Moscow. Chechen rebels humiliated Russian forces from 1994 to 1996 and battled again in 1999 when new Russian president Vladimir Putin teamed up with local, pro-Kremlin forces. This fighting lasted a decade and resulted in some gains against the insurgents. There is a qualitative difference in the region today. Whereas in the 1990s the violence was largely confined to Chechnya, there is now a pervasive ungovernability across the North Caucasus as the insurgency metastasizes. This is partly borne out by the very steep rise in violence and terrorist attacks, with this region now one of the most dangerous on the globe. It is worth noting that following al Qaeda’s September 11 attacks—and continuing today—the United States curbed its criticism of Russian security operations in the region as it sought a closer counterterrorism alliance with Moscow.
Q2: Is al Qaeda involved to any degree?
A2: It is premature to characterize Muslim militant violence in the North Caucasus as part of the global jihadist movement advocated and carried out by al Qaeda and its affiliates. The separatist insurgency in the North Caucasus has local aims and does not target the United States, Europe, or “apostate” Muslim and Arab countries allied with the West. Battles between Islamic rebels and Russian forces and their local allies do feature prominently in jihadist recruitment videos and online where the violence is manipulated by al Qaeda. There have also been a number of foreign fighters in Chechnya, and the late rebel leader Commander Khattab—himself born in Saudi Arabia—is known to have met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Other Chechen militants have sought to recast their battle along broader, international lines. The current “emir” of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, apart from having promised to bring the battle to the heart of Russia, has echoed some al Qaeda sentiment by denigrating the West. But to directly associate this attack in Moscow with al Qaeda’s global goals and narrative is inaccurate at this point in time.
Q3: How might Russia respond?
A3: When it comes to a high-profile attack such as this one, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin sets the tone for rhetoric and response. He has promised “inevitable retribution,” which will likely include increased activity by Russia’s Interior Ministry forces and Federal Security Bureau, along with additional police pressure on North Caucasians in Moscow and in other cities. Inside the now uniformly pro-Russian republics of the North Caucasus, there will be stepped up interrogations of known and suspected militants. Violence carried out by Russian nationalists, of the type seen in December 2010, will certainly increase. This may also be the beginning of a more public, loudly justified roundup of militants ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. One of the implications going forward is likely to be additional terror strikes in Russia in response to the government crackdown, thus continuing the cycle of violence that plagues that country. With failed policies in the North Caucasus region, Russia allows local corruption to reign, which only contributes to the conditions that sustain the insurgency.
Thomas M. Sanderson is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Transnational Threats Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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