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Russia Islamist network takes shape as Caucasus hit by another terrorist attack

An attack in Ingushetia today, the fifth to shake Russia in a week, underscores the threat posed by an Islamist insurgent network that has emerged from the ashes of Chechnya's nationalist rebellion.

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In what has become a signature tactic for militants seeking to maximize casualties by catching investigators and onlookers attracted to the scene of an attack, a second explosion detonated in a nearby parked car a few minutes later, but in this case no one was harmed.

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Medvedev lays down the law

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made a surprise visit to Dagestan last Thursday, where he laid down a tough message in a meeting with local leaders.

"We have ripped the heads off the most infamous bandits, but it appears that this was not enough," Mr. Medvedev said. "We will track them all down in due time and will punish them all, just as we did to the previous ones. We will act only this way."

He also appealed to local Islamic leaders, urging them to renounce the insurgents and push them out of their communities. "We need to help them [Muslim leaders] and in all ways contribute to strengthen their authority, they have to bear truth," Medvedev said.

In January, Medvedev created a single "north Caucasus district" and appointed a can-do former Siberian governor, Alexander Khloponin, to be the Kremlin's special emissary to the region. At the time, experts hailed the move as a sign that the Kremlin had recognized the failure of raw force to contain the spiraling insurgency, and was looking to Mr. Khloponin to enact a more subtle strategy, including economic investment, outreach to local religious leaders and political reforms.

"Medvedev is very limited in what he can do," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "He needed to show his toughness and his decisiveness -- hence his harsh words -- but he also wants to avoid any escalation in the north Caucasus. The Kremlin very much needs stability there, especially as preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are seriously underway."

2014 Sochi Olympics, Putin's credibility at stake

Sochi, a Black Sea resort town, sits on the western edge of the turbulent north Caucasus, and is bounded on the south by the breakaway Georgian statelet of Abkhazia – another potential source of instability.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who staked his personal reputation on the success of the Sochi Games, has offered similarly stern rhetoric, including a pledge to "scrape [the terrorists] from the bottom of the sewers".

But experts point out that the insurgency has been escalating in the north Caucasus for at least the past two years. In Dagestan, where male unemployment is estimated at around 80 percent, and polls show virtually no support for the Kremlin-installed local leaders, the outlook appears grim.

"There is a civil war going on in Dagestan, basically between the law-enforcement organs and the entire male population," says Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran Russian human rights campaigner. "One violent event leads to another and, unfortunately, the security forces still react indiscriminately – to put it mildly."

Moscow suicide bombers reportedly from Dagestan

The two female "black widow" bombers who struck Moscow's metro last week also appear to have come from Dagestan.