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Monday, July 03, 2006

Seek and destroy: A new FSB era

Putin's order to seek and destroy the killers of four Russian diplomats abducted in Iraq is addressed to no one in particular, but it is clear which of the Soviet KGB's successor agencies will take the lead.

Commentary by Simon Saradzhyan in Moscow for ISN Security Watch (03/07/06)

Russian president Vladimir Putin last week ordered his country's secret services to seek and destroy the killers of four Russian diplomats abducted in Iraq. The move is not only designed to divert public anger over the slaying, but signals that the Kremlin is not in the least bit shy about extrajudicial executions of suspected terrorists and radicals abroad.

"The president has ordered the special forces to take all necessary measures to find and destroy the criminals who killed Russian diplomats in Iraq," the Kremlin press service said.

Putin made the statements during a meeting in Moscow with Saudi Arabia's Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Russia would be "grateful to all its friends for any information on the criminals who killed our citizens in Iraq, Putin told the Saudi prince.

Putin's order came two days after the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that four Russians diplomats working at the embassy in Iraq had been killed. Mujahedin Shura Council, an al-Qaida linked group, claimed responsibility for their abduction 3 June and subsequent execution. The group had demanded that the Kremlin pull its troops out of Chechnya in exchange for freeing the diplomats.

Putin did not specify which of Russia's secret services would be assigned the lead role, but it was director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Nikolai Patrushev who was the first to publicly vow to fulfill the order.

Patrushev made it clear that Putin's order reflected the Kremlin's vision on what agencies and how should be dealing with terrorists outside Russia. "This is no accidental order. It fits the logic of what we are doing," Patrushev said.

Currently, operations outside Russia fall under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU). However, the SVR can use force abroad only to protect embassy personnel and visiting officials.

The FSB, the main successor of KGB, has largely focused on domestic security and its operations abroad are limited mostly to the prevention of recruitment of diplomats by foreign intelligence services. The FSB's border guard service is said to conduct intelligence operations within a 200-km margin of the Russian border.

But more than anything, Putin's seek and destroy order indicates that these limitations will soon be exorcised. A State Duma bill set to be passed in a second reading on 5 July gives the FSB the authority to go beyond information-sharing with its foreign counterparts and dispatch commandos to strike terrorist groups and bases, according to Gennady Gudkov, member of Duma's pro-Kremlin Unite Russia faction who sits on the lower chamber's security committee.

Gudkov, also a former counter-intelligence officer, told ISN Security Watch that the bill would merely legitimize what has already been practiced by Russian security services. "We are walking along the tracks left by practice" of fighting terrorism.

He said he saw no contradiction in the fact that the FSB would be legally allowed to use force outside Russia.

But allowing the FSB to use force outside Russia could cause some tensions among the country secret service agencies, particularly the GRU, which has commando units and the right to conduct operations abroad.

And there are questions about the FSB's rules of engagement, with some lawmakers concerned that the FSB's use of force abroad could lead to scandal, especially in the Middle East where such operations would be unilateral and could cause an uproar.

The public order by the commander-in-chief to seek and destroy the killers of Russian diplomats demonstrates that FSB and other successors to the KGB are reviving the Soviet secret service's global reach in the sphere of covert operations.

Of equal importance, the Kremlin has sent a clear message that it no longer finds it necessary to try conceal its approval of targeted assassinations.

This represents a change in course. Previously, Russian authorities would not admit responsibility for extrajudicial killings of individuals labeled as terrorists by the Kremlin. Russia did concede that two Russians convicted for killing Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar in 2004 were agents, but insisted that they merely had been on an intelligence gathering mission - not a mission to assassinate. The agents were returned to Russia to serve the rest of their prison sentences, but their whereabouts are now unknown.

However, Russian special services wasted no time in claiming responsibility for targeted assassinations inside Russia, including the assassination of Chechen rebel leaders Aslan Maskhadov, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and Arab warlord Khattab.

But while eliminating Yandarbiev was relatively easy given his public life-style in Qatar, finding members of the little-known Mujahedin Shura Council in the chaos of war-torn Iraq might prove a mission impossible for Russian secret agents.

After all, Russia's once formidable network of agents and informants in Iraq is no longer what it was in the 1990s.

Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Russian-based Center for Defense Information, says Russian agents will require the assistance of US-led coalition forces, the Iraqi government, and Saudi secret services to hunt down the Mujahedin Shura Council.

And it appears that the Kremlin is already reaching out for help, as Putin announced the seek and destroy order in the presence of the Saudi prince, whose secret service networks are better positioned to spy on al-Qaida groups in Iraq.

Some experts also believe that there may have been a Chechen rebel link to the executions in Iraq, pointing to the demand that Russian troops leave Chechnya.

It is unlikely, after all, that Iraqi insurgents would target Russians on their own, especially since Moscow has vehemently opposed the US-led military campaign in Iraq and clearly has kept its distance from Washington on the issue.

As such, Moscow is sending clear message that the execution of four Russian diplomats in Iraq will not go unpunished, and that the FSB intends to rise to the prowess of its Soviet predecessor. However, while the FSB's seek and destroy mission may start out in Iraq, it could very well end up back in Chechnya.

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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