A Violent Summer in the North Caucasus: Analysis of the Ingushetia Bombing

August 26, 2009

A Volga car along the road to Mt. Elbrus in the North Caucasus region (Photo by giocomai, available at Flickr)

 

The suicide bomb attack in Nazran, Ingushetia on Monday, August 17 was hardly surprising, given the rising turmoil in the North Caucasus over the past year. It was but one incident in a long list of violence and terrorism (though it caused the most casualties, by far) that has wracked the North Caucasus this summer. It seems it was not even a surprise to the Ingushetian police, who had been informed about a “planned terrorist attack using a yellow GAZel [the vehicle involved]” on Saturday, August 15.[1] Officials estimate that 25 people died (mostly police officers) and around 280 people were wounded in the attack, which occurred early Monday morning when a suicide bomber drove a car full of explosives into the gates of the police headquarters in Nazran, Ingushetia’s largest city.[2] As the blast set off ammunition within the police headquarters, surrounding buildings and cars were severely damaged. Riyadus Salikhin, a Chechen separatist martyr brigade founded by the notorious terrorist Shamil Basayev in 2002and revived earlier this year, claimed responsibility on August 21 for not only the Nazran attack, but also the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam disaster in Siberia that occurred the same day.[3] This southern Siberian dam suffered a large explosion (triggered by an anti-tank grenade, according to Riyadus Salikhin) that flooded the plant, killing 17 workers (with another 58 missing and presumed dead) and causing serious energy shortages in the region.[4] In a letter posted on a Chechen separatist website, Riyadus Salikhin announced that the Chechen separatist leadership decided to “make active economic war against Russia in its territory,” and trumpeted their success in the “destruction of the occupying and puppet bandit groups ROVD and GOVD.”[5] While most analysts consider the Sayano-Shushenskaya claim to be opportunistic propaganda (Russian investigators have found no evidence of a bomb and blame the deteriorated infrastructure[6]), it is no stretch to believe that Riyadus Salikhin carried out the Nazran bombings, probably with the help of Ingushetian rebels.

While Russian President Dmitry Medvedev quickly denounced the Nazran bombing as a terrorist act, he also harshly chastised the Ingushetian police for their poor performance and fired the Interior Minister of Ingushetia, declaring, “This act of terrorism could have been prevented.”[7] Ingushetian President Yanus-Bek Yevkurov, himself recently the victim of a car-bomb assassination attempt, identified a different culprit, “I am far from the thought that the Arabs stand up for all this business. There are other powers, much more serious. …The States and Great Britain. Including Israel. It is quite true.”[8] Both Medvedev and Yevkurov failed to identify the real problems behind the recent bombing, which is just one of many terrorist and violent acts to take place in the North Caucasus this summer.

Contrary to Medvedev’s statement, it is not police ineptitude that has turned Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia into a hotbed of violence, nor is Yevkurov correct in blaming the West (or the Arabs). Rather than address the serious issues of repression, poverty, corruption and massive human rights abuses in these republics, the Kremlin has chosen to install authoritarian regimes that offer favorable election turnout in return for huge quantities of aid—aid that further feeds the widespread corruption and abuse in the region. It is thus Moscow’s (and by extension, the local governments’) own policies that are to blame for the surge in violence and terrorism in the North Caucasus.

The list of terrorist and other violent acts in the North Caucasus over the past 3 months is quite extensive[9]:

May 26: The Deputy Mufti of Dagestan Akhmad Tagaeva was murdered, likely because of his outspoken opposition to Islamic extremism.

June 5: The Interior Minister of Dagestan, Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, was assassinated by a sniper while at a wedding.

June 10: The deputy chairwoman of Ingushetia’s Supreme Court, Aza Gazgireyeva, was shot as she dropped her children off at school. Gazgireyeva worked extensively on a case involving an attack by 12 militants connected to Shamil Basayev.

June 13: Former Deputy Prime Minister of Ingushetia, Bashir Aushev, was assassinated.

June 22: Ingushetia’s President, Yanus-Bek Yevkurov, was seriously wounded in a suicide car bomb assassination attempt and had to be flown to Moscow.

July 4: Nine Chechen police sent into Ingushetia by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov to help avenge the attack on Yevkurov died in a militant ambush; at least 10 more were severely wounded.

July 7: Colonel Magomed Gadarboshev, the chief of Ingushetia’s Forensics and Investigations Center, was seriously wounded after attackers opened fire on his car in Nazran. He died two days later.

July 15: Prominent Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, known for her work exposing human rights abuses by authorities in Chechnya, was kidnapped outside her home in Grozny. Her gunshot body was found the same evening in Ingushetia.

July 17: Ruslan Balayev, the Minister for Sport in Ingushetia, was assassinated.

July 26: A suicide bomber blew himself up outside a concert hall in Grozny (the capital of Chechnya), killing 6 (all senior police) and wounding 4.

August 2: Militants attacked a police convoy in Chechnya, killing 5 and wounding 4 more.

August 10: Two explosions in the town of Derbent, Dagestan, killed two police officers and wounded three; two policemen were killed and one wounded in a shootout at a security checkpoint in Dagestan.

August 10: Two human rights activists, who worked with victims of the Chechen war, Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Alik Dzhaberailov, were kidnapped from Grozny and found dead the next day in the trunk of their car outside Grozny.

August 11: Dagestani investigative journalist Malik Akhmedilov was found shot dead in his car on the outskirts of the capital, Makhachkala. He was known for his pieces about the unsolved murders of high-ranking officials in the region.

August 12: Ingushetia’s Minister of Construction, Ruslan Amirkhanov, was murdered in his office.

August 14: A joint attack on a police checkpoint and a sauna in Dagestan killed seven woman and four police officers. On the same day, four policemen died in a shootout with militants in Chechnya.

August 17: A suicide bomber rammed a minivan loaded with explosives into the front gate of the police headquarters in Nazran, killing at least 20 and wounding at least 138.

August 18: An explosion in Dagestan wounded four people, including two policemen.

August 21: A series of bicycle suicide bombings hit Grozny, killing at least four policemen and wounding others.

August 25: At least four policemen and two civilians were killed in a suicide bombing in a village only 20km from Grozny, Chechnya.

 

Some of these attacks can be attributed to the annual upswing in violence in the summer in the North Caucasus, but this summer the region has seen more attacks than usual, including the deadliest attacks in both Ingushetia and Dagestan in recent years.[10] These attacks are in stark contrast to the optimistic proclamations of the Russian and republic governments. On April 16 2009, Russia announced the end of formal counterterror operations in Chechnya. Just aweek later, on April 24, the Kremlin was forced to expand its counterterror operations in three main districts of Chechnya because of militant plans to commit terrorist acts.[11] The militants called the end of counterterror operations propaganda and announced their continued plans to fight.[12] While militant violence and activity has fallen in the republic since Ramzan Kadyrov came to power (first as prime minister in March 2006 and then as president in February 2007), stability in the republic is an illusion. Kadyrov’s militias, known as the Kadyrovtsy, use violence, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses to control the population through fear (and enrich themselves), while the Chechen republic relies heavily on Kremlin handouts for reconstruction and basic needs. Despite Kadyrov’s repeated claims that the remaining militants in Chechnya are foreign interlopers, the combined social and security policies of the Russian troops and Kadyrovtsy continue to drive more young Chechens “into the woods” to join the militants. Punitive measures such as disappearances, beatings, house burnings, rapes, killings and fines are all used against anyone suspected of being connected to the militants or related to a militant, with the goal of forcing militants to come out of the woods. Instead, they often backfire and lead more young men (and sometimes women) to join the militants in search of revenge.

Another popular theory is that all violence elsewhere in the North Caucasus, primarily Ingushetia and Dagestan, is the result of fighters fleeing Kadyrov’s crackdown and trying to spread the rebellion.[13] Certainly, the 2007 proclamation of the North Caucasus Emirate by Chechen separatist government leader Dokku Umarov (who proclaimed himself Emir of the North Caucasus at the same time) subsequent declarations of the need to unite it under Shariat law lend themselves to this argument.[14] However, while fleeing fighters and the region-wide aspirations of the Chechen separatist leadership have contributed to the violence in other republics, the root cause lies within the republics and Kremlin policy.

All over the North Caucasus, unemployment is high (estimated at 50 percent for the region) and, in the absence of a strong alternative, the clan system continues to control society.[15] The local economy is far from strong, and the region relies heavily on the roughly $3 billion in yearly aid that regional governments receive from Moscow.[16] In exchange for this money and a relatively free hand to govern, local authorities proffer their loyalty and support to the Kremlin and serve as an extension of its control. The Kremlin ignores crackdowns on the population at large for dissent or protest, particularly when the crackdowns go hand-in-hand with counterterror operations of the Chechen variety (punitive measures and human rights abuses meant to scare the populace into cooperation with officials). However, this policy has proven less reliable in recent years, leading Moscow to consider, and implement, leadership change. In Dagestan, President Mukhu Aliev’s first term is nearly up and rumors are swirling that Moscow intends to replace him. However, while Moscow’s motives might be to increase, stability, these rumors are instead fueling a power struggle in the already turbulent political environment of ethnic and clan factions.[17] Add this to recent social unrest resulting from electricity cutoffs in major cities across Dagestan (as the city governments cannot pay the electric companies), and the domestic scene in Dagestan is far from stable.[18] Meanwhile, militant activity continues to increase as the security forces’ ruthless counterterrorism campaigns push more young men “into the woods.” Shariat Jamaat, a militant Islamic group founded in 2002 that joined with the Chechen separatists in 2005 and now reports to Dokku Umarov, engages in shootouts and attacks on Dagestani security forces almost daily, and claimed responsibility for the assassination of Dagestan’s Interior Minister, Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, on June 9, 2009.[19] Despite Dagestani officials’ recent success against the group in the capital, Makhachkala, Shariat Jamaat has increased its activity in other parts of Dagestan, proving it is still a strong threat to the republic.[20] 

Replacing an unpopular leader does not necessarily bring much more stability or success, as the Kremlin found with Ingushetia. A loyal former KGB and FSB member, Murat Zyazikov, served as the republic’s president from May 2002 until forced to resign in October 2008 under growing public pressure. Though he maintained tight control over the republic in his early years, the last few were increasingly marred by significant civil unrest, violence, and a strong, civil opposition. His rule was marked by corruption and further impoverishment of the republic, as well as serious civil and human rights violations by police and local authorities. Ingushetia surpassed both Chechnya and Dagestan as the most unstable and violent North Caucasian republic, with attacks on police and security occurring daily. After the rigged elections in March 2008, Ingushetia’s clans responded by choosing delegates for a shadow National Assembly.[21] When prominent opposition journalist Magomed Yevloyev was found shot after being taken into police custody (an accident that occurred when he grabbed for a policeman’s gun, Zyazikov assured the public), the situation turned to chaos.[22] Zyazikov’s inability to handle the mass protests and increase in violence and social disturbances that followed proved to be the last straw for the Kremlin, and on October 31, 2008, Medvedev accepted Zyazikov’s voluntary resignation and appointed Yanus-Bek Yevkurov in his place. Yevkurov, a career military intelligence officer, was welcomed with cautious hope for his lack of ties to Zyazikov’s corrupt government, and his willingness to meet with the Ingush opposition. There was a brief lull in violence, but though his efforts to combat corruption and work with the opposition calmed the social and civil unrest, he did not effectively address the police brutality that provoked so many attacks and inspired young men to turn to the militants. Though Yevkurov also planned to decrease the republic’s reliance on federal aid (which amounts to roughly 80 percent of the republic’s budget), he has been unable to do so and complained in March 2009 of the problems the republic faced because Moscow was slow in giving it the 29 billion rubles (approximately $909 million) Medvedev promised him in January.[23] Without the funding or political will to back his attempted reforms, the situation in Ingushetia has only worsened.

In this context, it is no wonder that the summer of 2009 has been particularly violent in the North Caucasus. The economic crisis is hitting the already heavily impoverished North Caucasus republics hard as Moscow struggles to deliver the billions of aid they rely on. Meanwhile, social discontent and unrest increase, while harsh crackdowns on large parts of the population and large scale human rights abuses drive more and more people to sympathize with and join the militants. In turn, republic and federal security forces crackdown even harder on militants and the population alike, leading to more violence and more new recruits for the militants. Even Ingushetia’s Yevkurov, who once offered amnesty to most militants, seems to have turned into a hardliner as a result of the attempt on his life. Upon returning to Ingushetia on August 22, he declared that “the fight [against terrorism] will continue without mercy.”[24] Until Moscow seriously considers changing its policies, it (and the North Caucasus) will continue to be trapped in the current morass of worsening violence.

 

 


[1] “Medvedev sacks Ingushetia interior minister after suicide attack,” RIANovosti, August 17, 2009. Available: http://en.rian.ru/russia/20090817/155834609.
[2] “Zhertvami terakta v Nazrani stali 25 chelovek,” (25 people were victims of the terrorist act in Nazran), Vzglyad, August 19, 2009. Available: http://vz.ru/news/2009/8/19/319151.html and “Chislo postradavshikh pri terakte v Nazrani vozroslo do 280 chelovek,” (The number of victims of the terrorist act in Nazran has increased to 280 people), Vzglyad, August 20, 2009. Available: http://vz.ru/news/2009/8/20/319480.html.
[3] “Zayavlenie batal’ona Shakhidov ‘Riyadus Salikhin’ ob operatsii po istishkhadu v Nazrani i diversii v Rossii,” (Announcement of the Battalion of Martyrs ‘Riyadus Salikhin’ about the operations for istishhad in Nazran and the diversion in Russia), KavkazCenter.com, August 21, 2009. Available: http://kavkazcenter.net/russ/content/2009/08/21/67511.shtml.
[4] Andrew Kramer, “Decaying Soviet Infrastructure Shows Its Era,” New York Times, August 21, 2009. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/business/global/21ruble.html?scp=1&sq=sayano-shushenskaya&st=cse.
[5] “Zayavlenie batal’ona Shakhidov ‘Riyadus Salikhin’ ob operatsii po istishkhadu v Nazrani i diversii v Rossii,” (Announcement of the Battalion of Martyrs ‘Riyadus Salikhin’ about the operations for istishhad in Nazran and the diversion in Russia), KavkazCenter.com, August 21, 2009. Available: http://kavkazcenter.net/russ/content/2009/08/21/67511.shtml. ROVD is the Russian acronym for the District Department of Internal Affairs, and GOVD is the Russian acronym for Main Department of Internal Affairs. Both of these offices report to the federal Ministry of Internal Affairs, which includes the police.
[6] “Russia Rebels Claim ‘Economic War’,” Reuters, August 21, 2009. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE57K1A820090821.
[7] “Vzryv vyvel iz stroya ministra,” (The explosion has put the minister out of action), Gazeta, August 17, 2009. Available: http://gazeta.ru/politics/2009/08/17_a_3237274.shtml.
[8] “Vzryv v Nazrani unes 19 zhizney, v Ingushetii obyavlen traur,” (Explosion in Nazran has taken 19 lives, in Ingushetia mourning is declared), RIANovosti, August 17, 2009. Available: http://www.rian.ru/incidents/20090817/181244505.html. Author’s note: By “Arabs,” Yevkurov was referring to the Moscow-preferred myth that the militants in the North Caucasus are mostly outsider extremist groups, such as Al Qaida.
[9] This list, while extensive, is not comprehensive and does not include many clashes between authorities and militants, nor does it necessarily include all injuries and deaths. It is taken from two lists of events: The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty “North Caucasus” news archive (available: http://www.rferl.org/archive/North_Caucasus/latest/652/682.html) and “Terrorizm na Severnom Kavkaze” (Terrorism in the North Caucasus), Vzglyad, August 17, 2009. Available: http://vz.ru/topic/5.html.
[10] “Surge in North Caucasus Violence Reflects Diversification of Resistence Tactics,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 18, 2009. Available: http://www.rferl.org/content/Surge_In_North_Caucasus_Violence_Reflects_D... and Mairbek Vatchagayev, “Black Thursday in North Caucasus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, August 20, 2009.
[11] “Russians Expand Chechen Counterterror Effort,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 24, 2009. Available: http://www.rferl.org/content/Russia_In_Fresh_Hunt_For_Chechnya_Rebels/1615190.html.
[12] “V Moskve vse zhe priznali, chto ‘otmena’ voiny- propagandistskaya profanatsiya,” (In Moscow all know, that the “cancellation” of the war is a propagandistic profanation), KavkazCenter.com, April 17, 2009. Available: http://kavkazcenter.net/russ/content/2009/04/16/65109.shtml.
[13] Sarah Mendelson, “Putin’s Secret War in the North Caucasus,” Foreign Policy, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/08/12/uncivil_society_in_the_north_caucasus.
[14] “Ofitsial’nyi reliz zayavleniya Amira Dokki Umarov o provozglashenii Kavkazskogo Emirata,” (Official release of the announcement of Emir Dokku Umarov of the proclamation of the Caucasian Emirate), KavkazCenter.com, November 21, 2007. Available: http://kavkazcenter.net/russ/content/2007/11/21/54480.shtml.
[15] Marina Kamenev, “Has Russia Lost Control of the North Caucasus?” Time, June 12, 2009. Available: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1904234,00.html.
[16] Valery Dzutsev, “North Caucasus Cossacks are Also Victims of Moscow’s Policies in the Region,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, July 14, 2009. Available: http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=35259. In Ingushetia, unemployment reaches 57%. See Liz Fuller, “Russian President Calls for ‘Emergency Measures’ In Ingushetia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 21, 2009. Available: http://www.rferl.org/content/Russian_President_Calls_For_Emergency_Measures_In_Ingushetia/1372965.html.
[17] Valery Dzutsev, “Social Protest and Political Struggle on the Rise in Dagestan,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, June 3, 2009. Available: http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=35073&tx_ttnews[backPid]=407&no_cache=1.
[18] Ibid.
[19] “Spetsial’noy operativnoy gruppoy unichtozhen zleyshii vrag allakha,” (Worst enemy of Allah is destroyed by special operations group), Jamaatshariat.com, June 9, 2009. Available: http://www.jamaatshariat.com/content/view/1109/34/.
[20] Mairbek Vatchagaev, “Center of Rebel Strikes Shifts to Eastern Dagestan,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, August 14, 2009. Available: http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=35414&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=c2eb14c859.
[21] Liz Fuller, “Moscow Finally Replaces Discredited Ingushetian President,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, October 31, 2008. Available: http://www.rferl.org/content/Moscow_Finally_Replaces_Discredited_Ingushetian_President/1337069.html.
[22] “1,000 Protest Killing of Journalist in Ingushetia,” New York Times, September 1, 2008. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/01/world/europe/01iht-slay.4.15801995.html.
[23] Liz Fuller, “Russian President Calls for ‘Emergency Measures’ In Ingushetia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 21, 2009. Available: http://www.rferl.org/content/Russian_President_Calls_For_Emergency_Measu... and Roman Badanin and Grigorii Shvedov, “Tsentr vsegda naidet, chem pomoch’,” (The center always finds ways to help), Gazeta, March 12, 2009. Available: http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2009/03/11_a_2955853.shtml.
[24] “Yevkurov ne sobiraetsya davat’ poshchady boevikam” (Yevkurov doesn’t intend to give mercy to militants), RIANovosti, August 22, 2009. Available: http://rian.ru/defense_safety/20090822/181944194.html.