Ten years have passed since the most brutal terrorist attack in Russia’s history, an attack on a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. It began on September 1, 2004, when a group of terrorists took 1,100 students and teachers hostage. 334 people, 186 of them children, lost their lives as a result of the subsequent storm of the school building ; more than 800 people were injured. A heart-wrenching children’s cemetery sprang up on the outskirts of Beslan in the aftermath of the tragedy.
It is still unclear whether the storm of the school building was justified and the gruesome death toll was avoidable. The most important question is whether it was possible to negotiate with the terrorists, as had been done during the 1995 hospital takeover in the town of Budyonnovsk. Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was Russia’s prime minister at that time, later called saving the Budyonnovsk hostages the main achievement of his life. Chernomyrdin agreed to the negotiations with the terrorist leader Shamil Basayev, which saved hundreds of lives.
It is hard to compare Beslan and Budyonnovsk, but still… Shamil Basayev organized both attacks ; the terrorists that managed to take hundreds of people hostage acted daringly and, for the lack of a better word, professionally. Both in Beslan and Budyonnovsk, their main goal was to force the regime to the negotiating table, which would allow them to express their political demands in exchange for releasing the hostages. The extremists believed that such negotiations would mark their de facto recognition as a party to the conflict and a legitimate political force.
Yeltsin agreed to the negotiations, while Putin did not, although such an offer was on the table, and some politicians were ready to get involved. As a result, the poorly-planned offensive claimed hundreds of human lives. What was the Kremlin’s logic ? The regime demonstrated that from here on in it will never accede to negotiations with the terrorists, thus it is no longer possible to seek political gains through the acts of terror.
Incidentally, Vladimir Putin managed to extract handsome profit from the Beslan attack. Under the guise of protecting the country from instability, direct gubernatorial elections were eliminated, and the Civic Chamber and National Anti-Terrorist Committee came into being. Thus, the regime made an important step toward building the “power vertical,” although the term did not yet exist at the time.
Indeed, the number of terrorist attacks outside of the North Caucasus region decreased dramatically after the Beslan tragedy. They became more sporadic and were carried out merely as a show of force. After 2004, one can draw attention to just three of them—the last one took place at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in 2011.
Besides, the Russian special services have gained a lot of counter-terrorism experience in recent years as was evidenced by the problem-free Sochi Olympics. Many Russian and foreign experts warned of possible terrorists attacks on the eve of the Olympics, but the Games went without a hitch. It is quite possible that as a preventive measure the Russian authorities even contacted some of the North Caucasus’ most influential field commanders, trying to convince them to refrain from disrupting the Olympics. Whatever the case may be, the Olympics were peaceful but for the Volgograd Railway Station explosion in December 2013. This outcome can be credited to the Russian special forces.
Nevertheless, terrorism still remains a factor of Russia’s political life. It is generally believed to be limited to the North Caucasus, which has been a source of instability for over twenty years. The situation in the region—primarily in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria—remains tense. Acts of terror are quite routine there ; there are occasional clashes between militants and law enforcement structures. According to the data cited by Kavkaz-uzel.ru, 986 people were killed or injured in the North Caucasian Federal District in 2013. This number was 26 percent higher in 2012, when 1,225 casualties were registered. Moreover, the region has seen another spike in violence in the first half of this year.
Russian politicians and journalists tend to call armed struggle waged by Islamist extremists “acts of terror.” They are right when it comes to attacking civilian installations, sabotaging infrastructure, etc. However, we should not forget about the long-standing latent civil war in Dagestan, and those called “terrorists” in the context of this conflict are in fact the most radical members of religious and political opposition. From the vantage point of the civil war, the armed resistance carried out by the radicals looks more like combat operations than terrorist attacks. Hence, we are dealing with a broader phenomenon here than merely terrorism.
In recent years, force structures succeeded in destroying scores of terrorists, including some of the leaders of the extremist groups. However, they are being replaced by younger, more daring mujahidin. The third generation of Islamic radicals joined the struggle in the mid-2000’s, with ethnic Russian converts to Islam making up part of the new recruits. In fact, they played the main role in the Domodedovo explosion and conducted several high-profile terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus.
Another new trend is the growth of extremism and terrorism in the previously quiet Volga-Ural region, specifically in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where several terrorist attacks have been carried out. In 2012, terrorists killed a renowned Islamic scholar Valiulla Yakupov and seriously wounded Tatarstan’s Mufti Ildus Fayzov ; in 2013, militants fired home-made Qassam rockets (the ones also used by Hamas) at the Nizhnekamsk oil refinery, the largest one in the region. These events gave rise to the term “caucasusization” in reference to the Volga region. Of course, this is somewhat of an exaggeration, but we cannot ignore the spike in terrorist activity in the region. Moreover, besides the local Tatars, the extremist groups attract the North Caucasus natives and the Central Asian, primarily Uzbek migrants.
Terrorism also remains a concern as a result of the Syrian civil war in which some of Russia’s Muslims fight alongside the radical Islamic opposition. The estimates on their numbers range from 300 to 2,000 people. Besides, some yet unknown number of Russian Muslims joined ISIS in Iraq. Upon their return to Russia, thesemujahidin contribute to Islam’s greater radicalization and are prepared to put their international terrorist experience to work.
Just like in other parts of the world, Russian terrorism is deeply rooted in politics, religion, and social issues. It is part and parcel of the global radical movement, whose many factions interact with one another. Both Russia and the international community are yet to develop a political answer to the challenges posed by terrorism. In the meantime, a repeat of Beslan tragedy is still possible.