Bin Laden’s Death and the Russian Insurgency

The Islamist threat emanating from the Russian frontier.

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.)

Basayev led the 1999 invasion of Dagestan that triggered the second Chechen war. The Russians finally killed Basayev in a targeted assassination in 2006. Russia has continued its policy of targeted assassinations of Islamist terrorist leaders in the Caucasus, but thus far have been unable to get to the Emirate’s current leader, Dokku Umarov.

Gordon Hahn, of the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program, wrote of one such attempt in March.

“It appears that Russian forces just missed killing CE amir Dokku ‘Abu Usman’ Umarov in a special operation that culminated in aviation bombing the mountains near the village of Verkhnii Akhul in Sunzha Raion, Ingushetia on March 28th,” Hahn wrote. “Umarov’s naib (deputy) Supyan Abdullaev, who had been fighting for 17 years, was killed in the operation along with at least six other mujahedin. Initial reports claimed 17 mujahedin had been killed in the air attack. Some Russian media have been reporting that not only Umarov’s naib but also his wife, his doctor Yusup Buzurtanov, and the amir of the Riyadus Salikhin Martyrs’ Brigade (RSMB) of suicide bombers ‘Khamzat’ Aslan Byutukaev were also killed in the operation.”

Hahn notes that Russian reports initially claimed Umarov was killed in the attack, though this was the seventh time such reports had circulated. A man claiming to be Umarov—and most likely was—called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about a week later to inform them that he was not killed in the operation. But Hahn also had some good news for the Russians—since they killed Umarov’s deputy in the attack, if they are now able to remove Umarov it will throw the Emirate into chaos.

Thus the American and Russian focus on targeted assassinations reveals the two most compelling reasons to pursue such a policy. In the case of bin Laden, his death provides both a moral and strategic boost for Western anti-terror efforts. In the case of Umarov, it would throw the terrorist organization into crisis from which it could only emerge on the conclusion of an internal power struggle. At the very least it would buy Russia time—but it could also deal a crippling blow to an organization that derives its strength not from numbers, but from leadership.

One more reminder that the Caucasus Islamists are part of the global jihadist movement came when Aslan Yemkuzhev was killed March 16 in a firefight with Russian police in Kabardino-Balkaria. Yemkuzhev, it turned out, trained with Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon—a Palestinian-founded terrorist group with possible ties to al-Qaeda.

Russia should not be excused its corruption, dismal human rights record, or the steady erosion of freedom that began under Boris Yeltsin and continued under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev—but neither should the Islamist threat emanating from its frontier be ignored.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.