This morning (19 October), three insurgents launched a suicide attack on the Chechen parliament building in Grozny, killing two security guards and a parliamentary officer. Following another, larger attack on Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s home village, Tsentoroi, on 29 August, this inevitably triggered the usual questions about what this upsurge in violence means.
On one level, the answer is that they mean relatively little. While the worst of the insurgent war in Chechnya is over, the rebels retain the ability to mount small-scale attacks, and at times to plan and execute them effectively. What they cannot do is launch them with impunity: it is telling that both these incidents were suicide attacks. One of the lessons of modern counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is that it is very difficult to prevent suicide attackers from launching their attacks. What can be done, though, is to limit their impact. A reported three civilians or security officers dead in Grozny and seven more in Tsentoroi represents ten human tragedies, to be sure, but not any significant practical blow to the Kadyrov regime. Meanwhile, the insurgents have lost at least 13 of their own number, combatants that arguably they can hardly afford to lose in their current attenuated state.
Of course, though, terrorist attacks are more political than military. On the one hand, Kadyrov – already under pressure from Moscow – has suffered a loss of face given that his sole claim to credibility was his ability to bring a rough-and-ready peace to Chechnya. However, it is hard to see this as a mortal blow to him. The fact that the casualties were not greater could even be leveraged to support a claim as to the efficacy of the Chechen security forces.
The real political struggle at present is not rebel vs. Russian but rebel vs. rebel. With the Chechen insurgency divided between Doku Umarov and a splinter faction fronted by Aslambek Vadalov, both are competing to prove their credentials, not least by seeking to stage ‘spectaculars’. The Tsentoroi and Grozny attacks certainly count as such high-profile attacks. According to RFE/RL, the Tsentoroi attack seems to have been planned by the anti-Umarov camp, notably commanders Gakayev and Mukhannad.
No one has yet claimed the Grozny attack, although that is likely to happen soon. It may be that this was an attempt by the Umarov camp to regain the initiative; if it is another attack by his rivals, he will look increasingly ineffective. Either way, the split within the rebel movement, while at least in the short term undoubtedly weakening it, has also galvanised it in a dangerous and violent way.