Moscow’s Stalin-era Metro has frequently attracted the murderous attentions of terrorists, starting in the late 1970s with attacks by Armenian separatists. The most recent atrocity was in March, when female Islamist suicide bombers murdered almost 40 commuters at two busy stations, one near the Foreign Ministry, the other beneath the security service’s notorious Lubyanka headquarters.
Some of the lessons of this latest massacre are local while two are more general. The Moscow massacre, and a subsequent bombing of the security services in Dagestan a couple of days later, came after a relative lull in Chechen terrorist attacks. This peaceful hiatus was widely attributed to the success of President Dmitry Medvedev’s policy of “Chechenising” the counter-insurgency war: pumping in huge funds for reconstruction after Grozny and other cities were razed in the conflict. Medvedev was so confident that his strategy had worked that a year ago he lifted Chechnya’s state of emergency. His local emissary even believed that Chechnya could be developed into a major tourist destination, perhaps along the lines of extreme risk activities for the Saga generation. By contrast, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quick to issue the kind of robust threats with which he is associated, vowing to “scrape” the Chechen Islamists “from the sewers”, having failed to kill them, as he vowed last time, in the “outhouse”. Some Russians are beginning to wonder about these bombastic pronouncements. Although Russian security forces have assassinated many Islamists, some of them as far away as Doha, there seems to be no shortage of replacements.
This is partly because Chechen Islamists have discovered the benefits of going viral via the internet, first pioneered by al-Qaeda and recently recommended as a resilient business model by Andrew Haldane, the executive director for financial stability at the Bank of England. The Chechen jihadists have no obvious centre, as reflected in the proscription of an organisation whose last known address was “Cave number 35, in unknown mountain-forest, quadrant number 17”.
The Moscow bombings were in retaliation for the killing on 2 March of Said Buryatskiy, aka Said the Buryat (born plain old Alexander Tikhomirov in Siberian Ulan-Ude). Despite having only joined the jihadis in 2008, Buryatskiy quickly established himself as a winning internet proselytiser for a Chechen movement whose goals have metamorphosed from separatism to a pan-Caucasian caliphate. Buryatskiy recruited and trained a cadre of suicide bombers, including the two women who struck in the Metro. One was the 17-year-old widow of a Dagestani insurgent (they had dated on the internet), while her comrade was the widow of a Chechen Islamist leader.
No sooner had Russian security forces killed Buryatskiy than his boss, Doku Umarov, cropped up on the internet, claiming responsibility for the Moscow bombings and vowing that ordinary Russians will be made to “feel” Chechnya’s strife through further spectacular attacks in Central Russia. Umarov knows about strife since most of his family seems to have been abducted and killed.
Chechenising the counter-insurgency has also had its drawbacks. Chechnya is run by Ramzan Kadyrov, possibly the only world leader to be happy in the company of the boxer Mike Tyson, whom he invited to organise a martial arts event horribly reminiscent of those in Bruce Lee films. Kadyrov is the former chief bodyguard to his late father, an imam who became Chechen president and was blown up in 2004 after switching to Putin’s camp when he fell out with such Wahhabist “devils” as the Saudi Ibn al-Khatab, aka the “Lion of the Caucasus”, whom the Russians eventually poisoned.
Kadyrov is all Armani tracksuits, blacked-out Lexuses, pet lions and panthers, lavish palaces, disappearances and torture chambers. He is also an enthusiastic proponent of polygamy and sharia. He probably funds his reconstruction efforts from Chechnya’s black market in oil and gas.
In other words, he caters to an authoritarian version of Chechen separatism, which incorporates corruption, Islam and rhetorical resistance to big Russian oil and gas. That style of rule propels his opponents into the virtual world of jihad, where the people they recruit are potentially malleable. At that point, this tale of gun-mad lunatics in the mountains of the Caucasus ceases to be solely a problem for Medvedev or Putin, since you can bet your bottom rouble that the immigration and security services in London or Washington won’t, in sorry retrospect, have regarded a young visiting female Russian teacher as a major priority.