Moscow, the economic and cultural center of the Russian Federation, has once again endured the wrath of terrorists. At just before eight o’clock Monday morning, local time, a female suicide bomber detonated herself inside a subway car, killing dozens. Less than an hour later, and several stops down the line, another bomber detonated her explosive vest, killing over a dozen more. Based on the best information available as of press time, 38 have died, and more than one hundred are wounded.
These latest blows at the heart of the Russian state have as yet not been claimed, but the methods and targets credibly point to the so-called Black Widows. These women, the female relations of Muslim rebels killed by the Russian military during numerous counter-insurgency campaigns in the Caucasus, seek revenge on Russia by striking at the heart of its cities. These attacks come two months after Dokka Umarov, the leading Islamic Chechen military leader, warned that despite Russia’s claims to have stamped out his forces, his martyrs would soon strike at Russia’s cities. Though Umarov has not yet been definitively linked to the bombings, it seems his warning had merit.
Russia’s entanglement with numerous restive groups, many of them Muslim, in its strategically important Caucasus region is a horribly complex affair. For centuries, Russia has dominated the region, and with the fall of the Soviet Union, its grip has become far more tenuous as numerous factions vie for power. Some seek independence from Moscow, others seek its support. It is rarely clear whether or not the anti-Russian forces are motivated by an Islamist’s zeal for jihad or a nationalist’s hope to see the Caucasus, particularly Chechnya, free of Russian domination. In truth, a mixture of both motivates the rebels (Umarov himself has said he was first compelled to take up arms against Russia not in the same of Allah, but of Chechnya). While their ideology is muddled, their goal is clear: terrorize Russia until their dream of an independent, Muslim Caucasus is achieved.
Russia has used brutal military force to keep the disparate ethnic groups that populate the Caucasus region in line, most famously by waging two wars to keep Chechnya, a small region administered by Russia, under Russian control. The wars were brutal, with both sides racking up an appalling record of human rights abuses. Now that Russia has achieved control over the region, however, it seems that the rebel remnants, unable to defeat the Russian military, now seek to spread terror and chaos amidst Russia’s greatest cities.
Russia, and Moscow in particular, is no stranger to terrorism. Beginning eleven years ago, terrorist bombings have rocked the country. In the fall of 1999, on the eve of Russia’s second war to pacify the Chechens, a wave of bombings ultimately killed almost 300. Fifty Islamic militants, including women, took 800 Moscow movie theater patrons hostage in 2002. A raid three days later by Russian Special Forces saw the militants wiped out with the loss of 130 hostages, many choked to death by the “knock out gas” pumped into the room before the attack. In 2004, while Russian forces were still fighting in Chechnya, female bombers blew up two passenger aircraft, killing 89. Dozens more died that year in a series of bomb attacks aimed at Russian trains and subways.
2004 was marked most painfully by the infamous attack by Islamic militants on a school in the small town of Beslan. After a horrific three day hostage crisis, Russian forces attacked the school, freeing over 800 hostages, at an atrocious cost of at least 330 dead, including perhaps as many as 180 of them children.
The attacks discussed above are mere samples of the attacks that Russia has sustained, focusing on those best known to the West. The death of dozens in Russia often warrants only the merest mention in Europe and North America; even yesterday’s devastating attacks in Moscow barely made top story on many news websites. Regrettably, due to conflicting sources, the high likelihood of media censorship and frequently adjusted official body counts, all of the above numbers should be considered suspect and approximate, but basically accurate.
Russia is a country very much in the midst of seeking a return to past glories, even at the expense of antagonizing potential partners like the United States. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has sought to reestablish Russia’s preeminence in the world by backing the Iranian nuclear program, rebuilding Russia’s military capability, forging friendships with anti-U.S. dictators all over the world and reasserting Russian sovereignty over vast swathes of disputed Arctic territory. It is simply not conceivable that Russia will not respond massively to this latest attack, which makes the typical Western disinterest in Russian domestic affairs all the more perplexing.
Indeed, both Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, considered by many observers to be the real man in charge of Russia, have warned of swift reprisals. The Caucasus region could be on the verge of yet another humanitarian disaster. Medvedev has promised that the terrorists would be pursued and defeated. Putin was blunter, saying simply that those responsible would be destroyed. This does not bode well for those unlucky enough to be pinned between the two warring sides.
These attacks, and whatever retaliatory action Russia chooses to launch, constitutes a whole other front in the war against terror, one that is oft-overlooked because the Russians continue to consider the NATO allies — natural partners for Russia in the fight against militant Islam — as the more serious enemy. It is bitterly ironic that even while Russia counts its dead in the wake of this latest attack by Islamists, it continues to offer diplomatic and technical support to the Iranian drive to develop nuclear weapons. Yesterday, Muslim fanatics killed dozens. In the years to come, they may well kill millions. The Russian government should choose this moment to reconsider its own indirect support of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which are bankrolled by Tehran while Russia gives Iran all the diplomatic cover it needs by stymieing American and European efforts to level tough sanctions against the Ahmadinejad regime.
In the days to come, Russia will bury its dead, tighten security and seek someone to destroy for this atrocity. Whether or not it will recognize that itsr true enemy lays to its south, and not across the ocean in America, remains to be seen. Given the past behavior of this regime, however, it seems likely that Moscow is willing to grapple with more than one enemy at a time.