Russia is mourning and burying its dead. But yesterday’s terrorist attack in the Domodedovo International Airport leaves more than pain in its wake. It also stands as evidence of a major policy failure in the north Caucasus, a patchwork of seven republics that flank Russia’s southwestern border. That policy now threatens to destabilize southern Russia, spark an anti-democratic response, and endanger the stability of the strategic Caucasus region as a whole.
The apparent pair of suicide bombers exploded a shrapnel-loaded 11 lb. bomb at Moscow’s busiest airport, leaving at least 35 dead and 180 wounded, including foreigners.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has already blamed ministry and airport officials for intolerable security lapses and is now calling on Russian transportation centers to implement US-style passenger checks, which he praised as “meticulous.”
This is the second security lapse at Domodedovo. In 2004, two female Chechen suicide bombers from the north Caucasus bribed an airport security guard, boarded two planes there, and brought them both down. Since then, security in Domodedovo has improved, but apparently not enough.
A history of brazen attacks
This modus operandi looks like previous extremist attacks in the Moscow Metro (subway), markets, and other soft targets. In March last year, two female suicide bombers attacked the Metro system, killing 40 and wounding dozens.
In towns throughout southern Russia, Islamist terrorists regularly attack innocent civilians. Law enforcement forces and pro-Moscow politicians are frequent targets as well. The Chechens have also engaged in massive hostage-taking in recent years – in theaters, hospitals, and a school.
Put plainly, Russia is in the throes of a low-intensity civil war. This, in turn, has escalated racist sentiments in the ethnic Russian cities. Combined, it’s a witch’s brew in the country’s stage-managed political season. (Duma elections will be held this December and the presidential race is next year.) Fear compounded by ethnic and religious hatred will probably make the electorate yearn for Vladimir Putin’s “strong hand,” moving him back into the third presidential term after completing his prime ministership.
The failure to protect Domodedovo, a high-value target, casts further doubt on the Russian leadership’s declarations that it has the strategically important north Caucasus region under control and that Russia “won” in Chechnya, a conflict that has raged with varying intensity since 1994 . And more trouble awaits Russia and her south Caucasus neighbors – Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan – according to senior diplomats from the region. They are afraid of radicalization of their own Muslim populations and blackmail demands to pay off terrorist leaders in exchange for leaving the energy pipelines alone. Islamist leaders have promised to escalate the violence in north Caucasus and make it spill over into the central Russian cities.
The Russian government should resist the temptation to use these attacks as a pretext to crack down further on civil liberties, make elections more difficult, and tighten control of the media. That’s what it did in 2004, following its botched counter-attack against the Chechen hostage-takers in the Beslan school where more than 300 people, mostly kids, died. The Putin administration replaced the elections of governors and single-district members of parliament and introduced governor nominations by the Kremlin and Duma elections by party lists, a system in which electoral outcomes are much easier to control. Today, parties must clear a 7 percent barrier to seat Duma deputies, and allegations of rigged elections abound. Unsurprisingly, none of this helped fight terrorism.
More public participation in the governance; greater civilian, legislative and media control over the executive branch, including the law enforcement; less corrupt courts – this is what Russia desperately needs. According to documented allegations from the media and the country’s president, Russian security services and police are plagued with abusive behavior and corruption.
What Moscow can do now
To prevent terror attacks, Medvedev should fire the current security apparatus leaders and install his own people who can turn things around. Security services and police need to clean up their act, beef up airport security, collect better intelligence, and improve their anti-terrorism activities. They should also cease and desist arresting democratic dissidents, as they regularly do in Moscow.
Instead of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the hands of corrupt north Caucasus local chieftains, new economic development models need to be developed. This would empty the cash sea in which Islamist guerillas swim.
Finally, the Domodedovo attack represents a serious challenge to the security of critical Russian and European infrastructure. The US and other Western countries should offer Russia airport security and counter-terrorism assistance, especially because United Airlines, British Airways, and others fly in and out of Domodedovo. The West should also offer help in tracking down external financing for the north Caucasus insurgency. The funding flows from the Persian Gulf countries and extremist/Islamist communities around the world.
The north Caucasus insurgents pursue an Islamist agenda, which includes creation of the “Caucasus Emirate” from the Black Sea to the Caspian. If created, such an emirate will jeopardize pipelines for Caspian oil and threaten secular regimes, such as Azerbaijan’s.
The insurrection’s leader, Doku Umarov, proclaims himself an "emir," an Islamic military leader. Mr. Umarov’s insurgents declare that they are fighting “a jihad in the name of Allah.” According to US military and intelligence officers serving in Afghanistan, Chechen fighters have repeatedly been apprehended when fighting for the Taliban. But Russian officials brazenly accuse the West of supporting the north Caucasus insurgents. Nothing is further from the truth. An emirate in the north Caucasus will undermine stability in southeastern Europe and threaten US friends in the south Caucasus.
Tragically, the north Caucasus insurgency is spreading with no help from the West – but because Russia’s policies are deeply flawed and their implementation corrupt. The insurgency is setting the whole region ablaze. The US and our Western allies can no longer ignore the multifaceted threats arising from this region.
Ariel Cohen, PhD, is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and international energy policy at the Heritage Foundation.