It was a hell of death and destruction.
Smoke and dust blanketed the interior of part of Moscow’s busiest airport yesterday after a suspected Islamist suicide bomber detonated a powerful explosion, which killed about 35 people and injured another 160. The attacker set off the deadly blast about mid-afternoon in the international arrivals hall of Domodedovo airport right outside a high security area. As rescuers searched with flashlights, blood and bodies, according to witnesses, were strewn everywhere.
Early reports stated the bomb, which was estimated to be equivalent to 4 to 7 kilos of TNT, contained metal pieces to inflict maximum injury. Investigators believe the bomber was standing in a crowd in the arrival area before he killed himself.
“This part of the airport is typically crowded with friends and families waiting to meet passengers and taxi drivers looking for fares,” reported the Russian newspaper, The Moscow News.
While no one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, radical Chechen Muslims have taken responsibility for similar suicide bombings in Russia in the past. The most recent one in Moscow occurred in March 2010, when a double suicide bombing on the subway killed 40 people. “Black widows,” Chechen female suicide bombers, also blew two planes out of the sky in Russia in 2004, killing 90, and attacked young people standing in line for a Moscow rock concert in 2003, killing another 15.
Without a doubt, Moscow has been hit harder by Islamist terrorism than any other European capital. The largest and deadliest terrorist attack to take place there occurred in 2002 when 41 Chechen terrorists stormed the Nord-Ost Theater during a performance, taking 800 people hostage. In retaking the building three days later, Russian security forces killed all the terrorists, among them were several “black widows.” Tragically, 129 hostages also perished.
Other parts of Russia have also not been spared. The most horrific Islamist terrorist attack of the many that have occurred in Russia since 9⁄11 took place in Beslan in North Ossetia in 2004. Chechen terrorists took 1,100 people, including 777 children, hostage at a local school. When it was over, 334 people were dead, including about 180 children, some only four-years-old.
The reason for the ongoing terrorist attacks in Russia has been its involvement in hostilities in Chechnya almost since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Chechnya, which had been conquered by the tsar’s army in the nineteenth century after a long, bitter guerrilla war, declared independence that year. But following that action, the country became an inhospitable place for non-Chechens, causing many to leave, and a haven for criminal gangs, which victimised southern Russia. This eventually caused the Kremlin to send its army into the former Soviet republic in 1994.
The ensuing war, however, had an unexpected, fateful consequence. The Chechen side attracted religious zealots from across the Islamic world, many of whom were looking for a place to continue the jihad after the Afghan-Soviet war shut down in 1989.
The First Chechen War ended in a peace treaty in 1996 that saw Russia withdraw its forces. But due to the influence of the foreign jihadists, the war had morphed before its conclusion from one of independence into one of religion. In 1999, Islamic extremists from Chechnya invaded neighboring Muslim Dagestan, a part of Russia, in a quest to turn all of the North Caucasus into an Islamic emirate that would resemble Afghanistanunder the Taliban.
In response to this threat, Russia sent its army back into Chechnya again in 1999, which started the Second Chechen War, and imposed direct rule. Only in April 2009, was the counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya declared officially over. In that time, the Russian forces, with some Chechen help, had severely defeated the Islamist forces, ending large-scale fighting. In the two Chechen wars, it is estimated more than 100,000 people died. It is not for nothing that the Caucasus has been called Russia’s “violent underbelly.”
The Russians have managed to maintain a semblance of peace in Chechnya, a clan-based society, by putting one of the area’s most powerful families, the Kadyrovs, in power (Ramzan Kadyrov is Chechnya’s president). With good reason, the Kadyrovs have been called the Kremlin’s “vassals.” The Russian government allows the clan and its allies to operate in their fiefdom with a loose legality as long as they get results against the Islamists.
The Kadyrovs, supported by the Russians, have been successful in this respect and there is now little trouble in Chechnya except for corruption and criminal activities, which are traditions in the Caucasus. Now numbering only a few hundred fighters in Chechnya’s forests and mountains, Chechen Islamists have been forced to resort to terrorist attacks at home and in Russia to let people know they are still a force to be reckoned with.
With the abating of fighting in Chechnya, many jihadists went to the neighboring Muslim regions of Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia where they have been successful in keeping the jihad, and the dream of a North Caucasus emirate, alive with numerous, destabilising terrorist attacks. Especially in Ingushetia, with a population of only 500,000, have these Islamist fighters achieved some success, although one analyst states it is sometimes difficult to differentiate in that part of the world between a terrorist attack and criminal activity. It is also likely that due the Chechen War shifting to these new areas, Monday’s suicide bomber in Moscow may turn out to be a Dagestani or an Ingush and not a Chechen.
Critics of the Kremlin claim terrorist attacks like the Domodedovo will continue as long as Russia has a presence in the Caucasus. One such Russian pundit wrote in a Moscow publication: “They want Allah, not Russia, to rule the North Caucasus.”
But such reasoning is a dangerous fallacy. Al-Qaeda views the Caucasus as a valuable piece of strategic real estate in that it will eventually serve as the base to spread jihad to Eastern Europe. It regards Bosnia and Kosovo as performing the same function for Western Europe. Russian withdrawal from the Caucasus, therefore, will see no cessation in Islamist attacks but rather an increase.
The Kremlin could also never contemplate a withdrawal from the Caucasus if it wants to maintain its status as a regional power. The establishment of a North Caucasian emirate would see Russia cut off from both the Black and Caspian Seas and its border redrawn about three to four hundred miles northwards from its present position. The Caucasus Mountains are a base of Russian power, whose possession allows the Russian government to extend its influence into Iran and the Middle East.
Unlike most Western countries, Russia is a frontline state in the war against worldwide jihad and the Islamist death cult, so it will be caught off guard once in a while. Especially when it involves suicide bombers, which are very difficult to defend against. It was reported the Russian security services may have had the bomber in its sights, but that has yet to be confirmed. The Domodedovo attack confirms, however, that the Islamists still see the aviation industry as a major target and may pursue attacks against it on the ground rather than in the air, where security is tighter.
An unfortunate consequence of Domodedovo may involve an upsurge in ethnic violence in Moscow where Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia have already had street battles with Russians (about a million Muslims live in Moscow, more than in any other European capital). Even more importantly for Russia’s image, the Domodedovo attack questions whether athletes’ security for the upcoming 2014 Winter Games in Sochi can be guaranteed. After all, Sochi is located in the Caucasus. If the Islamists in the North Caucasus want to show the world their power, then that is the obvious place to do it.