Russia suicide bombing: Is Doku Umarov the Kremlin's worst nightmare?

Two suicide bombings in a Russian city are stoking fear about the Sochi Winter Olympics. The most likely mastermind is a Chechen field commander who wants to humiliate Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. 

This undated frame grab image made available by IntelCenter and taken from a video posted on a pro-rebel website Wednesday, purports to show Chechen warlord Doku Umarov. In the video Umarov claims responsibility for the Moscow metro bombings that killed 40 people in March 2010.

In July, a video went up on a Russian-language website known as a forum for commentary and propaganda by militant Islamist groups in Russia’s troubled North Caucasus. In it, a Chechen man named Doku Umarov gave an unequivocal warning about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, in whose success the Kremlin has invested tens of billions of dollars.

"Today we must show those who live in the Kremlin … that our kindness is not weakness," said Mr. Umarov, dressed in camouflage and wearing his trademark bushy beard. "They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as mujahadeen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us."

On Sunday and Monday two suicide bombers detonated their explosives at different sites in Volgograd, a city, like Sochi, located just a few hundred miles from the Caucasus. Neither Umarov nor anyone else has claimed responsibility yet for the bombings, which killed at least 32 people and wounded dozens more. What’s certain, however, is that just weeks before the Olympic opening ceremonies, the attacks are bringing new tremors to a country that has struggled to quash a 20-year terrorist insurgency.  

For analysts who have studied terrorist tactics, in Russia and elsewhere, it seems likely that Umarov had a hand in the attacks. Successful suicide bombings are difficult to plan, organize, and execute. And there aren’t that many groups with that ability in the North Caucasus, says Mia Bloom, a professor who has written several books examining female suicide bombers in Russia and other places. (Early reports from Russia claimed that the attacker on Sunday was a woman.)

“Doku Umarov is one of those guys who follows through. He specifically mentions getting Russians, to humiliate Putin, particularly because of Sochi,” says Ms. Bloom who teaches at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “It follows a pattern (for Umarov): the use of women, the use of simultaneous attacks, the use of hitting transportation infrastructure, the repetition of it, these are all the leitmotifs of his work,” she says.  

John Horgan, who directs the UMass terrorism center, says the absence of Umarov taking responsibility may in fact indicate there are more bombers waiting to attack.

Umarov is latest iteration of the Chechen insurgent legacy. A veteran of the two wars and the stubborn violence that has ravaged Chechnya and the entire North Caucasus since the Soviet collapse, Umarov rose to prominence in the 2000s alongside notorious terrorist leaders such as Shamil Basayev, a fellow Chechen, but also radicalized jihadis from places like Jordan or Saudi Arabia with names like al-Khattab, Abu Hafs, and Abu Walid.

The presence of these foreign fighters helped turn the Chechen fight from a secular, ethnic-based independence cause towards a pan-Islamist, cross-border movement that spilled into other parts of the Caucasus 

In 2007, after Russian forces killed a series of top commanders including Basayev and gained the upper hand in Chechnya, the insurgency began to fracture. Umarov declared himself “emir of the Caucasus Emirate,” an umbrella of rebel groups through the North Caucasus. Umarov used suicide bombers – which Basayev had helped introduce to Russia earlier that decade – in incidents like the 2002 Moscow theater siege, and the 2004 seizure of a school in Beslan.

Moscow bombings

Between 2009 and 2011, there were a series of spectacular attacks in Moscow, and a slew of other bombings around the North Caucasus, including the 2009 bombing of the high-speed train to St. Petersburg; the 2010 suicide bombing of two Moscow subways stations; and the 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. All were claimed by Umarov.

By 2011, the Caucasus Emirate was officially designated a terrorist group by the US State Department, and a $5 million reward was announced for information leading to Umarov's capture. 

Since the second Chechen War erupted in 2000, Kremlin’s tactics in the North Caucasus have turned to using local allies to take the lead in fighting insurgents like Basayev and Umarov. That, along with millions of dollars in investments and infrastructure building, has helped bring a semblance of calm to Chechnya.

Other regions, however, continue to fester – such as Dagestan, a republic east of Chechnya that is a mosaic of ethnic groups who live uneasily side by side. Dagestan was the region that Tamerlan Tsarnaev visited in the months before planning the Boston Marathon bombing in April. It was also reportedly home of the female suicide bomber whose attack on a Volgograd bus in October killed six people.

Umarov’s activities were relatively minimal in months leading up to the July video, which has led to speculation that he was consolidating his authority among Caucasus groups and laying the groundwork for new attacks connected to Sochi.

The Sochi Olympics, which open Feb. 7, are the most expensive games ever, with the Kremlin estimated to have spent close to $60 billion to prepare the Black Sea city and the surrounding mountainous countryside to host thousands of athletes, tourists, and dignitaries. Sochi is about the same distance from Chechnya as New York is from Washington, though the formidable Caucasus Mountains prevent driving directly.

By most accounts, President Vladimir Putin has staked his personal prestige on Olympic success, and Russian security services have spent years preparing to ensure the games are not disrupted. That may be the main reason why terrorists have targeted other cities like Volgograd, which is a major transportation hub for southern Russia, experts say.

The Olympics also provide a ready venue for high-profile attacks to raise awareness of a group’s cause, similar to what happened with the 1972 Munich Olympics, says James Forest, former director of terrorism studies at the US Military Academy. Those games were tarnished by the killing of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by members of a terror group wanting to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians. 

“It conveys to the public that even though you have all this security, this is a target; they know that they can’t protect you,” Bloom says, “so that it has a greater oomph, greater impact.” 

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