Volgograd’s second bombing demonstrates terrorists’ strengths and weaknesses

Volgograd railway station, the moment the bomb explodes

Volgograd railway station, the moment the bomb explodes

The terrible spectacle–visible on CCTV footage–of the latest terrorist bombing in Volgograd is another tragedy in a blood-red litany of massacres and miseries associated with the North Caucasus. It is hardly a coincidence that as Sochi nears, so does the tempo of attacks outside the North Caucasus region itself: the Volgograd bus bombing in October, Friday’s car bomb in Pyatigorsk, now this.

1. Sochi matters. The “Caucasus Emirate” over which the undead Doku Umarov claims to preside is essentially a fiction; there is no centralized command, and real operational control is exerted at the level of local jamaats and individual cells. Nonetheless, as we have seen on a larger scale with Al-Qaeda, generalized calls to arms can galvanize local autonomous groups into action and help direct them towards a common goal. To this end, a clear, specific and uncontroversial target acts as a great rallying point around which to cohere disparate efforts. Sochi undoubtedly counts, as a Putin project, the focus of international media and government attention and already the cause of local angers. Thus, the presence of the Sochi Winter Olympics could almost be likened to a magnet, pulling towards it sentiments and attacks that might otherwise be spent locally in the North Caucasus. It will be interesting to see in hindsight whether there is a particular increase in the total number of attacks: I suspect the answer will be no, that what will change is their direction and location. After all, a bomb attack in the North Caucasus is, sadly, not so newsworthy these days.

2. But Sochi is also a hard target, displacing the threat. The Russians are putting a great deal of manpower, money and planning into securing Sochi and while no protection is guaranteed, it is making the region a very hard target. Furthermore, when resources are finite (and they are), then that effort must be at the expense of somewhere else, and already we have seen resources and officers being moved from other commands to Sochi. Together, these two factors help displace the real threat. The terrorists want to target Sochi, but lack the tradecraft and capacity to get into the Sochi security zone or else the Russian heartland. Thus, while we can’t rule out attacks in the major cities of European Russia, so far we are seeing the shift of the target area north and west, into the rest of the Southern Federal District. We’ve already seen Volgograd and Pyatigorsk hit; I’d also be concerned about Rostov-on-Don (the district’s capital), Krasnodar (not only an economic hub but also historically a Cossack stronghold, with cultural reasons to be targeted), Stavropol and maybe Astrakhan.

3. Suicide bombers are the weapon of choice, but also weapons of desperation. Although historically not part of the Chechen way of guerrilla war, with the intrusion of the ideology of jihad into the North Caucasus, so came this ghastly tactic. In some ways, suicide bombers are the (horrifyingly) “ideal” weapon, capable of blending in with the general population, make tactical decisions as the situation demands and having a particular horror for us all, forcing us to look at that man on the station platform, that woman getting on the bus, and think “is that one of them?” In other ways, they are very problematic. They are by definition one-shot weapons and the number of would-be martyrs willing truly to go through with their murderous act is fortunately limited. In the meantime, they tend to require considerable preparation, both training and above all grooming and psychological conditioning, the cynical art of building an emotionally vulnerable target–let’s be honest, many of them are victims as surely as those their explosives kill and maim–to this unnatural pitch. That is not something that can be built up and then kept on the shelf until the ideal moment; suicide bombers essentially must be unleashed when they are ready. As weapons go, then, they are relatively hard-to-”build”, temperamental, and fragile; they can be devastatingly effective but most of the time, let us be clear, are not.

4. The revolution is televised, but who benefits? Both Volgograd attacks were captured on camera–dashboard cam for the first, surveillance CCTV for the second–an byproduct of our increasingly monitored society. On one level, this gives the attacks a much larger potential footprint, as they are shown and re-shown on TV, on social media sites, etc. On the other hand, it allows the authorities more quickly to gather information and also perhaps leads to a degree of desensitization.

5. What is the impact? This leads to the final point: these attacks have had surprisingly limited impact to date. Perhaps this should not surprise us, as even the much more bloody metro and airport attacks in Moscow–Moscow, not some provincial city–have had only marginal effect, beyond ensuring that the police are a little more assiduous putting “blacks”–in other words, people who look like they come from the Caucasus region–through metal detectors and document checks. One could pontificate about the phlegmatic nature of the Russian soul, but this would be missing the point. Russians, like many others before them (and I speak as a Brit who remembers the IRA London bombing campaign), have come to regard terrorism as one of the risks of modern life, in a way akin to auto accidents and random muggings. Of course there is a difference in scale, but given that terrorism–like war–is a political campaign to force the other side to bend to your will, unless and until the terrorists are able to come up with something qualitatively or quantitatively different (and yes, some major attack on Sochi might qualify), then it is hard to see the misery they create having any major impact.

Unless, of course, they goad the Kremlin into over-acting (or some crass and cynical political technologist there thinks a terror scare would be good for Putin’s ratings). Further crackdowns on people from the North Caucasus living in European Russia, an escalation in disappearances and abusive treatments of detainees in the region, all these could do precisely what the terrorists at present cannot, which is turn a jihadist minority into a populist and popular majority nationalist force. To a greater or lesser extent, it is true of all terrorist campaigns, that ultimately they succeed or (usually) fail not because they “win” but because the forces against them lose the will or capacity to continue to resist them. On present showing, the Russian state and people alike are not in any way suffering from any such malaise.

Второй взрыв Волгограда демонстрирует сильные и слабые стороны террористов

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