Wednesday, 08 January 2014

Volgograd Bombings Demonstrate the Inability of Russia's Security Services

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By Emil Souleimanov (the 08/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On the eve of the New Year's celebrations, two subsequent terrorist attacks hit Volgograd, located around 900 kilometers southeast of Moscow and around 650 kilometers northeast of Sochi. Leaving at least 34 dead and dozens injured, the Volgograd bombings raised questions regarding the ability of Russian intelligence and security services to properly anticipate and forestall terrorist attacks, and doubts about their capacity to ensure the security of the upcoming Winter Olympics. Additionally, the Volgograd bombings indicated a certain evolution of Russia's Jihadist underground that might have repercussions for the nation's security in the years to come.

BACKGROUND: A number of factors amplified the shock experienced by Russian society in the last days of 2013. First, the terrorist acts took place on the 29th and 30th of December, on two subsequent days and within less than 24 hours, and in the same city, demonstrating the glaring incapacity of Russia's security services to prevent at least the recurrence of terrorist acts. Second, the bombings hit the city's railway station and a trolleybus that was less than 2 kilometers away from the railway station. Importantly, the railway station in Volgograd, as elsewhere in Russia, has been among the most closely guarded areas of the city. Third, the two bombings took place only a few kilometers from the site of another bombing that hit the city in October 2013, when a female suicide bomber detonated her explosives in a bus, claiming seven lives and dozens injured. In sum, the terrorists were able to carry out three successful bombings in the same city, considered as a strategic crossroads, within three months.

In fact, the October and December bombings both seem to have been carried out by suicide bombers with links to the Dagestani insurgency. Naida Asiyalova, an ethnic Avar who is believed to have perpetrated the October bombing, was born in the Central Dagestani town of Buynaksk. She most likely organized the bombing in cooperation with her boyfriend Dmitry Sokolov, an ethnic Russian with links to Dagestani insurgents. She was in fact the first female suicide bomber to contradict the established profile of a "black widow" as she had no personal reason for revenge. On the contrary, having been seduced by her school teacher at the age of 17 and misused by several men, she earned a reputation for herself as a "spoiled woman" in the area, leading to disrupted relations with her relatives and apparently serving as her initial impetus to turn to Islam in the last years of her life.

The first December bombing was carried out by Oksana Aslanova, an ethnic Tabasarani (a small Dagestani ethnicity), who probably had a Russian mother, was born and raised in Turkmenistan, and then subsequently married two or three members of the Dagestani insurgency who were later killed in combat, hence a typical example of a "black widow." Authorities have speculated that an unknown male might have assisted her during the railway bombing. The trolleybus bombing was carried out by Pavel Pechenkin, an ethnic Russian native of the Mari-El Republic, who had converted to Islam and become radicalized over several years. He travelled to Dagestan several times where he supposedly established contacts with Dagestani jamaats. According to some sources, Pechenkin's interest in Islam and personal radicalization went hand in hand with his research of Jihadist websites and contacts with Jihadist communities in Kazan, where he had worked as a paramedic. Yet Pechenkin also had no personal reason for revenge.

IMPLICATIONS: Shortly after the Volgograd bombings, some commentators have been quick to note that the terrorist acts testified to the Caucasus Emirate's changed strategy. In fact, following a wave of anti-regime protests that stroke Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other Russian cities in 2011, emir Doku Umarov declared a moratorium on terrorist acts in Russian cities. The moratorium was later cancelled as Umarov called for renewed attacks during the Sochi Olympics. In reality, Umarov's power has been steadily diminishing over the last few years, as the Chechen wing of the North Caucasian insurgency was significantly weakened particularly after the killing of the influential Gakayev brothers in January 2013.

Even though Umarov has been regarded as an icon of resistance by part of the North Caucasian insurgents, his grip over the situation is minimal. Instead, following massive crackdowns on local jamaats, the resistance movement has been decentralized, with various jamaats and even individuals operating on their own. According to some information, cooperation has been quite intermittent even among the strongest Dagestani jamaats. At the same time, the intensification of counterinsurgency operations in Dagestan has led to increased numbers of radicalized youth that would not hesitate to carry out highly lethal terrorist acts for the sake of revenge.

Still, the Volgograd attacks have demonstrated that a new and powerful entity is emerging in Russia: recent converts to Jihadism. Due to their sheer devotion to the cause, increasingly radical agenda, and lack of connections with their native social backgrounds, they have found the sense of their lives in serving a single noble cause, which has turned their attacks increasingly indiscriminate and lethal. Contrary to North Caucasian jihadists, whose main motivation for suicide terrorism has been a desire to retaliate against wrongdoings inflicted either upon themselves or their families, non-local jihadists have pursued a broader and more elusive agenda of doing what they believe is in the interest of Islam. As such, they are not concerned whether their co-ethnics or fellow believers approve of their terrorist acts.

This, in turn, has boosted the role of imams of Salafi congregations, since the "non-rooted" converts are, as a rule, much more prone to being manipulated because they come from disrupted backgrounds and lack links to local communities. In a parallel with the April 2013 Boston bombings, carried out by two Chechen-Avar brothers, the increasing salience of individual or small-group self-radicalization, for which the use of various freely accessible internet sources, such as YouTube and Islamist forums, has been symptomatic. This scheme of self-radicalization, coupled with the ongoing formation of independent cells within the Jihadist resistance, will likely play an increasing role in the years to come, rendering the task of anticipating the activities of would-be terrorists all the more difficult. This also assigns Russian authorities with the crucial task of properly monitoring the internet-related activities of individuals involved, or sympathetic to, the Jihadist cause.

Importantly, a pattern is being established that involves cooperation between terrorists of a "Slavic" background with North Caucasian – particularly Dagestani – insurgents. The security implications for Russian authorities are magnified by the perspective of a deadly alliance between newly converted non-North Caucasian jihadists and experienced, well-equipped and financed jihadists from the North Caucasus. The movements and contacts of "Slavic" jihadists will raise far less suspicion than Caucasian ones, and cooperation leading to their deployment in areas inside Russia proper would be a huge asset to the insurgency particularly on the eve of the upcoming Olympics.

CONCLUSIONS: The emergence of non-North Caucasian jihadists entails two important consequences: first, the inability of Russian security forces to infiltrate Jihadist cells across the country, and second, their inability to solidly monitor the movements and activities of already known Jihadists. Interestingly, the identities of the three terrorists mentioned in this article, who are believed to have carried out the Volgograd bombings, were known by Russian secret services who had sought to monitor their activities. Still, they proved unable both to trace their location and to anticipate the bombings they carried out. The fact that these persons were able to travel freely across the country, make contact with insurgents, and to obtain explosives, speaks to the unprofessionalism of Russia's secret services.

Even though the Russian authorities’ unprecedented concentration on Sochi in the context of the upcoming Olympics will likely thwart terrorist acts in that city and its vicinity, that same attention seems to have left other Russian areas unprotected, giving the terrorists a chance to attack cities that are just a few hundred kilometers away from the Olympic site. This provides the terrorists with an opportunity to make their case public during as well as after the Sochi Olympics.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Emil Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).

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