Wednesday, 24 September 2003


Published in Analytical Articles

By Michael Fredholm (9/24/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: On July 5, 2003, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up during a rock concert at the Tushino airport in Moscow. This attack was followed on July 9 by an attempted bombing of a restaurant in downtown Moscow, on Tverskaya-Yamskaya street. In addition, a number of explosive devices of the same type as was used on the previous occasions was found stored in Tolstopaltsevo outside Moscow on July 24.
BACKGROUND: On July 5, 2003, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up during a rock concert at the Tushino airport in Moscow. This attack was followed on July 9 by an attempted bombing of a restaurant in downtown Moscow, on Tverskaya-Yamskaya street. In addition, a number of explosive devices of the same type as was used on the previous occasions was found stored in Tolstopaltsevo outside Moscow on July 24. While the use of terrorist tactics in the Chechen war is not new, these events are a novel pattern. Foreign Islamic extremists of Arab origin began to engage in suicide bombings in Chechnya already in mid-2000. These were carefully coordinated attacks on military targets by mainly male suicide bombers who used the Middle Eastern method of exploding trucks loaded with explosives near the target. Units of Chechen fighters then often followed up the attacks by conventional means. Similar attacks have continued to occur since, including devastating ones aimed at a government building in Znamenskoe, in Chechnya, on May 12, 2003 and a military hospital in Mozdok, North Ossetia on August 1, 2003. Chechen women took part in fighting already during the First Chechen War, in 1994-1996. However, they only recently turned to suicide attacks against civilians, another method learnt from the Middle East. Examples include a suicide bombing in the Chechen town of Iliskhan-Yurt on May 14, 2003, and the suicide bombing of a bus in Mozdok on June 5, 2003. Underlying factors no doubt include a feeling of hopelessness among Chechen women, many of whom have lost family members in the war. Besides, many are likely destitute. It is hardly coincidental that female suicide bombers have become known as the “black widows.” The key factor that made several Chechen women turn to terror was probably the failed hostage-taking in the Dubrovka theatre in southern Moscow on 23 October 2002. A unit of Chechens, including many women, took hundreds of civilians hostage. In the First Chechen War, hostage-taking operations such as Shamil Basaev’s 1995 raid on Budennovsk were pivotal episodes with regard to the outcome of the war. Basaev launched what appeared to be a suicidal operation against a Russian target, yet emerged victorious with only few casualties. In addition, his raid resulted in widespread international media attention on the Chechen cause as well as outspoken Russian public criticism of the war as many Russians blamed their own government for its incompetence and heavy-handed tactics. In 2002, the Chechens who took part in the in Dubrovka hostage-taking probably hoped to duplicate the success of Basaev’s raid seven years earlier. For this reason, the operation was probably intended to take hostages rather than kill Russians. The goal might have been to regain some measure of sympathy from the West, the support from which had diminished since the American War on Terror began in 2001. However, the Dubrovka operation produced little sympathy for the Chechen cause abroad and none whatsoever in Russia. Besides, the response of the Russian security organs, to gas both hostage-takers and hostages (more than a hundred of whom were killed by the gas) and then slaughter all the hostage-takers probably persuaded many Chechens that the only remaining solution was to engage in suicide bombings of the type that the Arab extremists in Chechnya have long favoured.

IMPLICATIONS: Despite the fact that the increased numbers of female suicide bombers would seem to be a natural reaction to the events in Dubrovka rather than any kind of premediated war strategy among the Chechens, the phenomenon indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of the war in Chechnya. The earlier cases of Chechen terrorism and hostage-taking were either aimed at military targets or, if not, were never planned to result in large numbers of killed civilians. Basaev’s 1995 hostage-taking in Budennovsk was in practice aimed at a military target: a garrison town hospital in which Russian military personnel was recuperating. Besides, interviews with Chechens who participated in the raid indicate that the hospital was only a secondary target, chosen when the primary target could not be reached. Even the suicide bombings committed by foreign extremists in Chechnya were aimed at military targets, typically barracks or headquarters of the Russian Interior Ministry Forces in Chechnya. The Chechen suicide bombers are unlikely to change the outcome of the war in Chechnya militarily. Chechnya remains unstable, and any Russian reaction to the suicide bombings in the form of increased repression - in Chechnya or directed at Chechens living in Russian cities such as Moscow - will no doubt only encourage yet more Chechens to engage in terrorism. Yet, the Russian security organs have stepped up surveillance of Chechens present in the Russian cities - and could hardly do otherwise when suddenly faced with a real threat of terrorism. However, the new threat of terrorism brings implications for the political and social development of Russia. Since 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gradually increased the powers of the state, motivating this with the need to protect Russian society from Chechen terrorism. Yet the Russian claims of Chechen involvement in the 1999 apartment building explosions in Moscow and elsewhere have never been substantially proven, and except in the Northern Caucasus, the threat from terrorism was always minimal. The security organs never, or only seldom, had to face a genuine need to use their new powers to fight real, not imagined terrorists. Beginning with the Dubrovka hostage-taking, this situation has changed. President Putin and the Russian security organs will henceforth have to deliver the security that the increased state powers were meant to provide.

CONCLUSIONS: Russia from now on will have to live with sudden acts of terrorism aimed at civilians in Moscow as well as other major cities. Whether this will alter the public image of President Putin remains to be seen. He has hitherto enjoyed the image of a tough commander-in-chief of a small victorious war in the Caucasus. However, if Putin cannot deliver the security that he has promised, even he - and certainly the security organs - may eventually lose the support of the public. On the Chechen side, it remains unclear to what extent the Chechen leadership under President Aslan Maskhadov is able to prevent, or even influence, the shift in tactics. Maskhadov immediately condemned the Dubrovka hostage-taking. He has also condemned other attacks aimed at civilians. Yet, the Chechen leaders no doubt realize that the foreign support lost since 2001 will hardly be regained as long as some Chechens engage in suicide bombings. On the other hand, a situation that pushes men and women so far over the edge that they choose to become suicide bombers is not one that can be solved by logic and negotiations alone. The war in Chechnya is unlikely to be over soon.

AUTHOR BIO: Michael Fredholm is a defense analyst working for the Swedish government. He has written extensively on the history, defense, and security policies of Eurasia. The views presented in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent those of the Swedish government.

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