The suicide bombing attack on the headquarters of the Kremlin-backed government in Chechnya has cast doubt on Russia's claims that peace and normalcy are returning to the war-torn republic.
The bombing Friday - which killed at least 60 people - also highlights the new menace posed by terror techniques imported from the Middle East, especially when mixed with the centuries-old hatreds between Moscow and Chechnya.
The Kremlin was quick to charge "Arab mercenaries" with involvement in the assault in the mainly Muslim republic. Two explosive-laden vehicles slipped through military cordons and detonated almost simultaneously outside the newly renovated government building in the heart of the ruined capital of Grozny. Up to 250 people may have been inside the heavily fortified complex.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said the attack was "without doubt a reaction by international terror to the firm line taken by President Vladimir Putin in favor of a political solution to the Chechen conflict."
Russia's FSB security service has long claimed that Chechnya's separatist fighters have been infiltrated by new recruits from abroad, some of them trained in Al Qaeda-linked camps in Afghanistan. They bring with them a fanatical brand of Islamic ideology and tactics that target innocent civilians. "It is a mistake to think we are fighting old-fashioned separatism here," Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, head of the FSB's Chechnya operations, said in an interview before last week's bombing. "This is about international terrorism, which has penetrated the Chechen rebel movement and is using it as part of a world-wide assault against civilization."
In the past the Kremlin has produced little evidence to buttress claims of large-scale outside involvement in Chechnya's rebel movement, but even experts sympathetic to the Chechen cause warn that a decade of sometimes indiscriminate warfare and harsh Russian repression have radicalized a younger generation of Chechens and left them receptive to extreme ideas and brutal tactics.
"Young Chechens are growing impatient with the moderate political approaches of [elected Chechen rebel president Aslan] Maskhadov," says Anna Politkovskaya, an independent Russian journalist who has been widely praised for her courageous reporting of Russian military abuses against Chechen civilians. "The young radicals believe that only the most painful terrorist methods can win."
In the first Chechen war, 1994-96, Chechen rebels did resort to mass hostage-taking on two notable occasions, but shunned suicide tactics and showed little interest in Islamic ideology. "The horrors of the current war [1999-present] have given rise to a generation that knows nothing but the Koran and fighting," says Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Moscow-based Chechen moderate and former Speaker of the Russian parliament. "This has happened in response to the zachistki," the reputedly brutal Russian security sweeps, "which are driving young Chechens to join rebel detachments in ever larger numbers."
Russian officials claim the reverse is true, and that peace is returning to Chechnya under Moscow's rule. Mr. Putin this month decreed the opening of a political process, in which Chechens will endorse a new constitution, cementing the republic as a Russian territory, and then elect a local parliament and president. .
But Chechens say the war erupts all around them each night, while the zachistki and harsh security checks at fortified road points known as blokposti make life almost unliveable. "If the Russians see a Chechen boy or man, they take him for a bandit," says Arbi Magomadov, a Grozny teenager who says his mother almost never lets him leave home.
The rising number of spectacular rebel strikes suggests the radicals may be winning. In August, rebels used a Russian-made Strela shoulder-held missile to down an Mi-26 helicopter just outside the main Russian military base in Chechnya, killing 120 people. In October, a suicide squad of about 40 Chechens seized a theater in downtown Moscow with 800 hostages, demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. Russian special forces stormed the building, inadvertently killing at least 129 hostages through overdoses of a knockout gas meant to immobilize the explosive-laden Chechen fighters.
The attack Friday, which killed mostly pro-Russian Chechen workers, displayed the kind of determination and ruthlessness the world has come to associate with international terror groups like Al Qaeda. Even the Kremlin-appointed head of Chechnya's government, Akhmad Kadyrov, seemed rattled.
"How could terrorists have managed to break through three fences around the government building?" said Mr. Kadyrov, who is the Kremlin's candidate for Chechen president in elections slated for next year.
Critics warn that unless Moscow's peace plan is broadened to include at least moderate rebel leaders, and Chechens are given a genuine democratic choice, more conflict is likely. "Until the Kremlin realizes that we can never impose our will on Chechnya by military force, the violence will undoubtedly continue," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.