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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Chechnya: Spreading the insurgency

By Simon Saradzhyan in Moscow for ISN Security Watch (13/06/06)

The lull in "classic"acts of terrorism in Russia, such as hostage-takings and suicide bombings, reflects the North Caucasus-based warlords' decision to attempt to spread insurgency across the volatile region by attacking combatants while refraining from targeting civilians. This decision was based on the damage done to the insurgents' cause by the horrendous attack on a school in Beslan in September 2004. However, Shamil Basaev and other warlords will not hesitate to resume their campaign of hostage-taking and suicide bombing should these new tactics fail to destabilize the region, security experts said.

Basaev, number 1 on Russia's list of wanted terrorists, and other radical warlords in the North Caucasus seem to have learned a lesson from Beslan. The school attack, in which more than 330 people died, including 186 children and all of the terrorists except for one, had a devastating effect on the separatists' cause in the eyes of both his supporters and wider audiences, according to analysts who spoke with ISN Security Watch.

"It really hurt Chechnya's cause. Although the Chechens, notably Basaev, tried to make an analogy to the tens of thousands of children dead in Chechnya as a result of Russia's air campaign, this fell flat in the media and as a public relations tactic," according to Monica Toft, associate professor and scholar of separatism at Harvard University.

Arthur Martirosyan, senior program manager at the Conflict Management Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agreed. By losing a legitimate leader after the killing of the popularly elected Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005, the rebels' ideologues needed to draw a line that could distinguish their cause from that of terrorism in the wake of Beslan, he said.

However, it was not only the negative press over Beslan, but also the futility of large-scale conventional terrorist attacks in Russia that might have convinced Basaev and other warlords to suspend terrorist attacks, Martirosyan said.

"The regime in Russia has demonstrated that it won't back down even in the context of the most horrendous act of terrorism. It simply does not have the persuasive power - the public cannot really demand change as was the case in [Putin's predecessor Boris]Yeltsin's days," Martirosyan said.

Basaev seems to have acquiesced to the line of Chechen rebel de facto president Abdul Khalim Sadulaev to give up the familiar form of militancy and concentrate on spreading insurgency across the North Caucasus, according to Adam Dolnik, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

Sadulaev - who took over the separatist leadership after Maskhadov was killed – does not approve of targeting non-combatants. Most mainstream definitions define terrorism as an act of political violence that inflicts harm on non-combatants, but is designed to intimidate broader audiences. Russian authorities would refer to all attacks, including ambushes on troops, as terrorist attacks.

Soon after assuming the leadership, Sadulaev granted an interview to a Polish newspaper in August 2005 to stress that he and Basaev disagreed on whether hostage-takings and other forms of targeting civilians were acceptable.

The rebel leader also claimed that "almost the entire Caucasus has become a front". He then referred to every republic of the North Caucasus as sectors in a united Caucasian front with the exception of Dagestan, which deserved its own front. In a separate statement posted on the Kavkaz Center web site - the rebel web site - in February 2006, he referred to the Dagestani front and the Caucasian front as "structural subunits of the Ichkerian armed forces".

Sadulaev has proposed that all warlords, including Basaev who chairs Ichkeria's state defense committee, focus on attacks against what they deem as legitimate targets along this "Caucasian front". These targets include not only law-enforcers and troops, but also local civil servants and their offices, according to Sadulaev.

"For the time being, Basaev highly respects Sadulaev and in the interest of unity, is refraining from deliberate attacks against civilians," Dolnik noted.

If judged by the attacks, which have been happening since September 2004, Basaev and other leading warlords, such as Doku Umarov, have indeed embraced the notion of limiting their assaults on non-combatants. While attacks on troops convoys, barracks, and check-points and assassinations of officials occur every week in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, and less often in neighboring republics, since Beslan, there have been no attacks in the North Caucasus deliberately targeting innocent civilians.

The largest-scale conventional attack executed by the insurgents since Beslan was in the city of Nalchik, the capital of the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in October 2005. Some 200 rebels attacked law enforcement headquarters and other installations. The fighting left more than 100 dead before the rebels were driven out.

Basaev claimed responsibility for the attack, but it was the local militants who made the bulk of assailants. According to Mark Galeotti, director of the Organised Russian and Eurasian Crime Research Unit at Keele University in Britain, many of these militants had no interest in turning the attack into a suicide mission.

"If you look at the Nalchik attack, for example, while Basaev claimed to have played a role, it is pretty clear that this was an entirely local initiative, and these kind of local groups tend to be - like the original Chechen guerrillas - more interested in fighting today and then getting away safely to fight again tomorrow, rather than suicide attacks," Galeotti said.

Still, Basaev has sufficient resources for suicide and other forms of terrorism, not to mention zeal, which makes his current abstinence notable, according to Dolnik.

In his terrorism zeal, Basaev even formed a squad of suicide bombers, some including women, and used them in executing such attacks as the hostage-taking at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002. Women with explosive belts were also among the hostage-takers in Beslan, albeit some experts doubted whether these female participants were prepared to die in that attack.

After the Dubrovka Theater raid, Chechen suicide bombers led 11 attacks, including the spectacular downing of two airliners in August 2004. These attacks reportedly claimed the lives of 295 people, mostly Russian civilians, according to a December 2005 research paper published by Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

And it was not only in Chechnya that organizers of terrorist attacks in Russia recruited men and women for suicide missions. The militant who blew himself up in a Moscow subway in February 2004 was a native of Karachayevo-Cherkessia.

While the Nalchik attack itself ended badly for the assailants - with many of them killed and no government buildings seized - the very fact that hundreds of armed men could stage such an attack in broad daylight in the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria does reflect that the efforts by militants to spread insurgency and destabilize the North Caucasus by conventional means are paying off, according to Dolnik.

"If Sadulaev can keep Basaev on the leash and keep doing the same conventional attacks," his ability to forge alliances throughout the region will be strengthened," Dolnik said.

The abuse of suspects by Russian police and troops, and harassment of Muslims who reject violence, have helped Sadulaev to spread insurgency, as victimized individuals become easy prey for extremist recruiters and networks of militant Salafis. Every republic in the North Caucasus, including the largely Orthodox Christian North Ossetia, is now home to militants who readily enter into alliances with outside networks.

However, while successes in expanding the insurgency across the North Caucasus may convince Basaev and other radical warlords to continue to refrain from targeting civilians, there is a chance they may resume those tactics, at least against troop and police, Dolnik warned.

"Suicide attacks in other republics could still be launched against military and police targets, which would have would have tremendous propaganda and recruitment value," he said.

And while Basaev might have indeed realized the futility of trying to coerce the Kremlin through conventional hostage-taking acts of such horrendous proportions as Beslan, he might have not given up on the idea of staging a large-scale attack. In fact, when commenting on the Beslan attack in an interview aired by US broadcaster ABC in July 2005, Basaev said he was seeking new ways in the wake of Beslan in what appears to be a veiled threat to attempt an act of catastrophic proportions.

"We are always looking for new ways. If something doesn't work, we look for something else. But we will get them," the warlord said. In the interview, Basaev vowed to "do everything possible" to end the second Chechen war.

"I am trying not to cross the line. And so far, I have not crossed it."

Simon Saradzhyan is a veteran security and defense writer based in Moscow, Russia. He is a co-founder of the Eurasian Security Studies Center in Moscow.
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