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In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, Russian leaders congratulated the United States and stressed the shared mission of the two countries in fighting Islamist terrorism. It would be easy to write this off as opportunistic justification for Russia’s anti-terror tactics—often rightly criticized by human rights groups for their heavy-handed nature, collateral damage, and lack of transparency—and the chance to conflate their cause with the West’s.
“Part of the reason Russian leaders have been so effusive in praising the US operation to kill bin Laden is because it looks to them just like one of our Russian actions,” Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow liberal daily Kommersant, told the Christian Science Monitor. “We’ve been dealing with our own bin Ladens using targeted killings for quite some time.”
But the Russian response shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Though Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule has been marked by brutal suppression and rampant corruption—both sanctioned by the Kremlin—Russian officials are not inventing the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. If anything, they downplay the threat so as to give the impression they are in control of the volatile region.
Consider this: In 2010, 440 Russian security, military, and police forces were killed in the Caucasus—the same number of American forces killed in action in Afghanistan. And, though it was a decade and a half ago, the Russians were the last authorities to have Ayman al-Zawahiri—the man expected to take over for Osama bin Laden—in custody.
That was after Zawahiri traveled to Dagestan to see if he could re-establish Islamic Jihad there and use the Caucasus as headquarters. Instead, Zawahiri was arrested, and when freed (most likely after bribing officials there) fled to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
It was no surprise, then, that the situation in Chechnya (which quickly spread to neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia) continued to show similarities with Afghanistan. When I reported on this story in 2009, Yossef Bodansky, former director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare of the U.S. House of Representatives, told me that Chechen fighters had shown up in Afghanistan to help attack coalition forces there. Money was also pouring into the Caucasus from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states for the Chechen jihad. Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, warned of the “Afghan-ization” of the Caucasus conflict—the moment at which violence reaches a level it is unlikely to drop below.
And Russians were reminded of the reach of the Caucasus Emirate—the breakaway Islamist authority in the region—when in January terrorists bombed Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, killing more than 30.
Russian authorities also used bin Laden’s death to call attention to their own successes in the war on terror. A spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry said he wanted to emphasize that “this is a natural result: Bin Laden, Basayev and others like them sooner or later catch up with what they have done.” The Moscow News called it a “Basayev moment.” Shamil Basayev was second-in-command to Aslan Mashkadov, elected Chechen president after the first Chechen war. Basayev soon quit the government and declared his movement was no longer solely about Chechen independence but was part of the global jihad. There is evidence that Basayev received funding from bin Laden himself during this time. (The timeline fits as well, since Basayev’s decision to challenge Mashkadov for the presidency was made the same month Zawahiri made his trip to the Caucasus, establishing links he would take with him to Afghanistan.)
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