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The Volgograd Bombings: the Latest Chapter in Putin’s War in the Caucasus

Commentary, 3 January 2014
The latest bombings in Russia is part of an ongoing war between Putin and Islamist rebels who feed upon a anti-federal, pan-Turkic and pan-Islamist narrative.

The latest bombings in Russia is part of an ongoing war between Putin and Islamist rebels who feed upon a anti-federal, pan-Turkic and pan-Islamist narrative.

Dr Cerwyn Moore, University of Birmingham

Doku Umarov

In late December 1999 – after weeks of air raids and artillery strikes – Russian troops began a concerted effort to storm the Chechen capital Grozny, following the onset of war in October 1999. Elsewhere in Moscow – on 31 December 1999, against the backdrop of heavy fighting in Chechnya – Vladimir Putin assumed the role of acting Russian President, after the unexpected resignation of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

Ten years later on 31 of December 2009 the federal authorities announced the death of Umalat Magomedov, known by the nom de guerre al Bara, in the suburbs of the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. Magomedov was a young commander who had been appointed by Doku Umarov to lead the Dagestani branch of the Caucasus Emirate – a regional militant network of affiliated local groups, espousing a pan-Turkic, pan-Islamist anti-Russian narrative.

Little would have been made of the death of al Bara but for the actions of his wife, who was one of two suicide bombers who launched ‘martyrdom operations’ in Moscow, in March 2010. These attacks were part of a third wave of missions, linked to the insurgency in the North Caucasus and the Caucasus Emirate. The series of suicide attacks in Volgograd in recent months are also reportedly part of this third wave of attacks associated with the Caucasus Emirate, given statements by Doku Umarov encouraging groups to disrupt the Sochi Winter Olympics. 

The first phase of suicide attacks were directly related to the war effort in Chechnya. Although they began in June 2000 with a female attacker, most of the suicide bombings, which were all conducted in Chechnya, were conducted by men. These attacks were linked to groups from Urus-Martan. The wave of incidents ended with the  Nord Ost theatre siege in October 2002. The second wave of attacks (December 2002- September 2004) were linked to a strategy of terrorism called Operation Boomerang, orchestrated by Shamil Basaev and his ad hoc mutli-ethnic terror network called the Riyad us-Saliheyn.

In fact a number of 'martyrdom operations' in the second phase of suicide attacks, were linked to the Ingush jama'ats (clandestine military groups) – aided and abetted by a very capable group of Nogai militants – known as the Stavropol jama'at. This phase of attacks including operations directed at military installations, and soft targets in the North Caucasus and in Moscow. Many were timed to have political significance. This wave of attacks ended with the Beslan School siege in 2004, which tainted the rebel movement.

The Regional, Anti-Federal Dimension

Even though the insurgency has been Chechen-led, it has always had a regional dimension, drawing extensively on a deep-seated anti-federal narrative so as to garner support from a younger generation of volunteers from across the North Caucasus. Other attacks, including an audacious June 2004 'swarm attack' in the Ingush city of Nazran, and a similar raid in Nazran in October 2005, in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, illustrated that the insurgency had a regional character. A low level terrorist campaign also continued unabated in Dagestan throughout the early 2000s.

During 2005 and 2006, following the deaths of key Chechen leaders, the regional character of the insurgency became more marked. A pan-Islamist and pan-Turkic narrative, drawing on widespread poverty and political disenfranchisement across the North Caucasus, took hold. In 2007, this led to a significant shift in the direction of the regional rebel movement, leading to the creation of the Caucasus Emirate: an avowedly Islamist network, led by veteran Chechen leader, Doku Umarov. By late 2008, relative peace had been restored in Chechnya. However in 2009 and 2010 Ingushetia became engulfed in a wave of low-level violence. The Ingush jama'at – operated as one local branch of the Caucasus Emirate – drawing support from a new generation of militants, including a young ideologist and Russian convert, Said Buratsky.

The third wave of suicide operations began in 2008, following the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, with a cluster of attacks in Chechnya, North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Then in 2009 Umarov issued a statement in which he declared that the ad hoc network which had been involved in the wave of attacks in 2002-2004 – the Riyad us-Saliheyn – had been reconstituted. The statement went unnoticed by many, until suicide attacks killed scores of policemen in Ingushetia in 2010. However during 2010 and early 2011 key rebels – including Supyan Abdullayev, Anzor Astemirov and Ali Taziev – from the multi-ethnic leadership of the Caucasus Emirate – were killed, or captured. The local authorities in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya had sought to plant moles to undermine the capability of the network of jama'ats, as part of their long term strategy to undermine the regional network. The rebel groups in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya had been greatly weakened, as local counter-terror operations and attrition damaged the network of local groups.

Although small in number and only loosely connected, the groupings of local militant jama'ats were attracting young volunteers, including a handful of Russian converts to Islam. By late 2010 Dagestan had become the focal point of the regional insurgency. As violence escalated in the following years it was these groups who deployed Russian converts to conduct suicide attacks.

A prominent Sufi Shaykh, Said Efendi Chirkeisky was killed on 28 August 2012, by a local Russian convert to Islam, while a twin suicide attack in Gubden, Dagestan, in February 2011, was also reportedly conducted by two Slavic converts linked to the insurgency. If, as reported, one of the attackers involved in the Volgograd train station blast was a Russian convert to Islam associated with the Caucasus Emirate, it is likely that he will had some connection to Dagestani militants. The October 2013 suicide attack on a trolley bus in Volgograd was also reportedly linked to the Dagestani branch of the militant underground.  

Other known groups have less of an interest or capability to launch attacks of this kind, in Russia, even though some organisations might hold similar beliefs. Nonetheless the Caucasus Emirate has consistently declared a pan-Islamist agenda, focused on a territorialised reading of jihad in Russia. The statement released in mid 2013 by Doku Umarov sought to draw attention to the genocide of Circassian peoples, as a way to legitimise attacks designed to disrupt the Sochi Winter Olympics. The conflicts in Chechnya in the 1990s did became a cause celebre in jihadi culture, even though the network of foreign fighters associated with Ibn Khattab – the leader of the Arab fighters in the North Caucasus – was, in many ways, in competition with Al-Qa’ida.

Although little evidence exists of connections between Chechen fighters and Al Qa’ida, even in the late 1990s, the federal authorities have consistently tried to portray the threat linked to the North Caucasus as both domestic and international – enveloped within a global reading of militant Islam. The war in Syria in which a number of vocal, Russian-speaking jihadi volunteers – some with connections to the North Caucasus – have participated, has renewed fears for the Russian authorities, who point to the threat posed by seasoned volunteers returning to the North Caucasus who are capable of re-invigorating the regional insurgency.

However, the statement by Umarov in mid 2013 sought to explicitly draw attention to the era of Russian Imperialism, and implicitly reinforce the pan-Turkic character of the Caucasus Emirate. As more information about the attacks are released by the Russian authorities, and perhaps in further statements by the rebels themselves, the role of groups from the North Caucasus may become clearer. The attacks in Volgograd – originally a commercial settlement known as Tsaritsyn, and later a fortress built to defend the unstable Southern Russia border – may well have been designed to undermine the Kremlin administration ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics: they may well have also been planned to challenge Vladimir Putin, nearly fourteen years after he first assumed the role of acting Russian President.  

Dr Cerwyn Moore works on the changing nature of the regional insurgency in the North Caucasus (suicide attacks; foreign fighters; Islam) at the University of Birmingham.

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