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The motives likely to have informed Monday's suicide bombing are not new - and if such attacks are to stop, Moscow needs to urgently rethink its counter-terror strategy
by Jonathan Eyal for RUSI.org
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered maximum security precautions at the country's transportation hubs after two suicide bombers killed thirty-five people and injured 180 at Moscow's main international airport on Monday. Yet much of these measures are intended for internal consumption, since the truth remains that Russia still does not have workable strategy to deal with terrorism and is unlikely to develop one soon.
A running sore in the Caucasus
While nobody has yet claimed responsibility, suspicion for the latest airport attack has fallen on Islamist extremists from the Caucasus region, the source of many attacks over the past decade. Grisly allegations appearing in the Russian media - according to which the head of one of the alleged suicide bombers has, apparently, "Arab features" - may not be very significant: Russians are not known for their political correctness, and are prone to attribute almost any crime to the country's various Muslim communities. Still, the likelihood remains that some organisation or individuals from the Caucasus were involved in the outrage. And the implications for Russia's internal security arrangements remain dire.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - who, despite his lower official ranking to President Medvedev, remains Russia's paramount leader - initially rose to power following a series of bomb explosions blamed on terrorists from Chechnya. Mr Putin then ordered an all-out war in which tens of thousands died. Since then, Russia has poured huge resources into reconstructing Chechnya, but these did little to alleviate poverty, poor education and the consequent spread of Islamist extremism. Indeed, as violence was suppressed in Chechnya, it erupted in the neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan, other Muslim-populated territories. Russian authorities periodically claim that the problem of terrorism has been 'solved', and that terrorist ring-leaders were 'crushed'. But, evidently, this is not the case.
The total number of Russia's home-grown terrorists is probably not very large: at most a few thousand out of a nation of 141 million. Still, this is more than enough to cause repeated havoc. The 2004 massacre at the Beslan school in which 331 hostages - half of them children - perished, as well as the destruction of aircraft in mid-flight during the same year and the Mach 2010 bombings on Moscow's underground stations are just a few in a series of spectacular attacks.
And the reasons are simple. After two major wars in the last two decades, many men in Chechnya's major cities have sought refuge in the region's mountains, where they are virtually impossible to apprehend. The Russian capital is also home to large numbers of minorities from the Caucasus and, although very few of them are engaged in politically-motivated violence, terrorists still have plenty of opportunities to find shelter, even in Moscow. The separatists cannot win, but nor can they be militarily defeated. Russia has effectively fought itself into a stalemate, and claims that terrorism has been defeated are, yet again, exposed as myths.
Why Moscow Airport?
Attacks against airports are not a new Russian phenomenon. In May 1972, three Japanese terrorists acting at the behest of Palestinian organisations shot dead 26 people at Israel's Lod airport. And, in June 2007, another attempt was foiled at Glasgow airport; the attack was also aimed at the building and the people in it, rather than aircraft. However, attacks against airports remain far more rare than the attempted destruction of aircraft, if only because attacking an airport is more hassle than it's worth: terrorists who wish to kill large numbers of people may as well opt for 'softer' targets such as railway stations or city markets, where the impact is the same, but the risks of early detection are far lower.
Nevertheless, those who planned the attack in Moscow this Monday knew what they were doing. Domodedovo is the biggest of the Russian capital's three airports, the hub of choice for 22 million passengers a year. Its modern, gleaming buildings project an image of a modern, efficient country. Bringing death to this iconic building wounds Russia's national pride and hits at the country's door to globalisation. The terrorists also exploited a known vulnerability. All airports have to strike a balance between security and efficiency, and most choose to concentrate on screening crowds in the departure areas, rather than the arrivals hall - where Monday's attack took place. It is relatively easy for a terrorist to be inconspicuous in the meet-and-greet terminal, where people wait for hours, and aimlessly wandering individuals are common. All airports will now re-examine their security procedures.
The immediate challenge
But, for Russia, the problems are more immediate. The authorities apparently had some advance warning that a terrorist attack was planned but, as is often the case in such situations, the information was not precise. Russian media commentators are already criticising their government for not doing all that was possible to prevent the attack, and the Russian authorities have themselves admitted that they failed to act on some leads. That is an old debate about 'connecting the dots', usually influenced by hindsight which few people have.
What is undeniably true is that the Russian government must begin to share much more of its information with the Russian public. For instance, Moscow may care to copy the example of many Western countries, where governments publicly announce the alert levels, enabling individual and commercial entities to react accordingly. Such public alerts do not necessarily prevent attacks, but they do tend to reassure the public that no shred of intelligence information is discarded, and that governments are doing everything possible to prevent attacks. The credibility of Russia's entire anti-terrorism effort is now at stake.
The Russians will also have to improve co-ordination between their intelligence agencies, notorious for their infighting. In every previous outrage, the absence of proper anti-terrorist training was an aggravating factor, as was the inability of government organisations to act together. The fact that Domodedovo airport was up and running within hours after the attacks on Monday is encouraging for what it shows about Russia's resilience, and is testament to the good work of the Emergencies Ministry, a specially-constituted Russian government department tasked solely with dealing with such tragedies. But much more will have to be done between various other ministries.
Ultimately, however, only a political solution in the Caucasus would stem the violence. And the danger is that, with every terrorist attack, the Russian government's refusal to negotiate with rebels only hardens.
Image: Boris SV, Flickr