So after an unexpectedly long silence, beleaguered Chechen rebel ‘amir’ Doku Umarov has claimed responsibility for the Moscow airport suicide bomb (here’s the official announcement, with a translated summary here). As has become the norm, the statement is couched in jihadist terms and suggests that the suicide bomber was the ‘Seyfullah’ seen in an earlier video, in which Umarov threatened to make 2011 “the year of blood and tears.”
Why the two week gap between attack and statement? On the one hand, this may reflect the disruption within the divided rebel movement. Perhaps because of his trouble retaining control of the movement in the face of a challenge from younger warlords, Umarov himself appears increasingly unfocused and listless: his video performances of late have been almost robotic.
It may also be that Umarov was not actually the instigator of the attack, but had to secure the agreement of the actual organisers to claim credit or at least wait to see that no one else did. After all, even within Chechnya the rebels are divided and the command and control structure virtually shattered. Given that the bomber appears to have been an Ingushetian (although earlier reports had suggested the Nogai Jamaat from Stavropol was responsible) it could easily have been an autonomous operation, or one no more than inspired by Umarov’s call for attacks rather than directly organised by him. In this context, it may have taken time for the real organisers to have communicated with Umarov and allowed him to take the ‘credit.’
Obviously, Umarov wants to raise his profile, not so much to pressurise Moscow, but to demonstrate his own relevance to the rest of the rebel movement, as he is fighting for his political life. The ability to mount ‘spectaculars’ is an important element of the political discourse amongst the rebels (evident also in last year’s attacks by the anti-Umarov wing on Chechen President Kadyrov’s home village of Tsentoroi and the Grozny parliament).
To this end, his promise to escalate these ‘special operations’ is worth dwelling on for a moment. In his earlier statement, Umarov said “I won’t say there are hundreds of us, but some five to six dozen [suicide bombers] can be found, and special operations will be carried out monthly and weekly.” Suicide bombers are actually a rare thing, and if Umarov really had that capacity, he would be using it, and we would see a much greater tempo of attacks. So this is propaganda. But it also reflects a clear statement of intent: Umarov wants and needs more high-profile attacks, and given the paucity of true military resources at his disposal, terrorist attacks and suicide attacks in particular are about all he has. Furthermore, he needs them to be as ‘spectacular’ as possible, with high death tolls and, ideally, foreigners or newsworthy targets. In his later statement, he described Domodedovo as a “special operation carried out by my order.” He added that “More special operations will be carried out in the future.” Sadly, he is likely to be desperately trying to make this promise come true.