Russia praises bin Laden operation, seeks greater counterterror cooperation with US

Russia eliminated a number of top militant leaders. Russian experts warn that eliminating Osama bin Laden does not remove the threat of Al Qaeda attacks.

By , Correspondent

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    A Pakistan army helicopter heads back after flying over the compound (l.) where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Wednesday, May 4.
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The Kremlin has warmly welcomed the US operation that killed Osama bin Laden – who got his start killing Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan – and urged Washington to use the occasion to explore joint efforts to fight terrorism.

But Russian experts warn that while eliminating the Al Qaeda mastermind might win justice for his victims and buy a bit of breathing space in the battle against his followers, the threat could become more dangerous.

"The Americans have done what had to be done. Evil has to be punished; there is no alternative," says Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the State Duma's security committee, which oversees internal antiterrorist operations. "But we know that the terrorists learn from one action to the next. They draw conclusions and their activities become more complex, both domestically and globally. ... We should not entertain the illusion that anything will change for the better once a top leader is liquidated."

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That's the voice of experience. Since the first Chechen war in the mid-nineties, Russian security forces have killed top enemy leaders over and over again in targeted assassinations, sometimes in chillingly innovative ways.

Some of those they killed were men the Kremlin might have negotiated with, including Chechen separatist president Dzhokhar Dudayev, killed by a laser-guided missile that homed-in on his satellite phone in 1996, and Mr. Dudayev's successor, Aslan Maskhadov, who was gunned down in a small Chechen town by a special unit of the Russian FSB security forces in 2005.

Others have been outright terrorists allied to Mr. bin Laden's Al Queda organization, responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Russians in a wave of bombings and hostage-seizures over the past dozen years.

One of those was a Saudi Arabian-born veteran of the anti-Soviet Afghan war, Ibn al-Khattab, who rose to become a top Chechen warlord and is accused by the Kremlin of orchestrating a devastating wave of apartment bombings in 1999 that killed almost 300 Russians in their sleep. After many attempts, the FSB finally eliminated him in 2002 by sending him a "poison pen" letter written with ink containing a deadly nerve agent.

Another was Shamil Basayev, architect of a horrific downtown Moscow theater siege that led to the deaths of 120 people, and a mass 2004 hostage-taking at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, that left 330 people dead, half of them children. Though the facts of his death remain murky, the FSB claims to have tracked him to a small village in Ingushetia in 2006 and, using an unmanned drone aircraft, detonated the explosives packed in his vehicle.

"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," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow liberal daily Kommersant. "We've been dealing with our own bin Ladens using targeted killings for quite some time."

Following news of the successful operation against bin Laden, President Dmitry Medvedev issued a statement urging more cooperation between the US and Russia in hunting down the next generation of terrorist leaders.

"Russia is one of the first to come up against the danger that global terrorism carries and, unfortunately, not by hearsay does it know what Al Qaeda is,” the Kremlin statement said. "Revenge is inescapable for all terrorists. Only a joint struggle against global terrorism can bring a result. Russia is ready to increase its cooperation."

After the killing of Mr. Basayev, Russia enjoyed several years without any major terror strike in its major cities. The Kremlin chalked that up to then-President Vladimir Putin's uncompromising use of brute force to pacify rebellious Chechnya and the FSB's growing sophistication at eliminating opponents.

But other factors may also apply. "After the death of a top leader, we often have seen a power struggle erupt within the ranks of the terrorist organization over who will replace him," says Alexander Golts, a security expert with the online newsmagazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

"This is obviously good for the counterterrorist forces. But Al Qaeda and the terrorist groups in our northern Caucasus are not vertical structures, they are more like networks, and the death of one leader doesn't put an end to their activities," he says. "In fact, in the short run there can be an intensification of terrorism if the dead leader's followers are motivated to strike in his honor, or take revenge."

Russia's current Enemy No. 1 is Doku Umarov, the self-described "Emir" of the north Caucasus, who has taken responsibility for a twin suicide bombing in Moscow's crowded metro a year ago that killed 40 people and a deadly January blast in Moscow's Domodedovo airport that left 35 dead.

Mr. Umarov has repeatedly dodged FSB attempts to kill him, including a March air strike against his hideout in the southern republic of Ingushetia.

"There is no doubt that terrorists have to be squeezed out and physically eliminated," says Alexei Arbatov, head of the official Center for International Security in Moscow.

He says the US and Russia should stop bickering over the definition of a "terrorist" and start working together to make the world safer.

"We have to be clear about this, and stop making exceptions for some groups [on political grounds]," he says. "If someone attacks peaceful civilians, or takes hostages, he should be considered a terrorist, and the leading countries of the world should unite to fight this evil."

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