The “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, the rise of Russian jihad, and a mix of crime and terrorism

Not really about Sochi, for a change. I’ve just published a piece in Russia! about the emerging threat of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in parts of the country outside the North Caucasus — and the recruitment of Slavic Russian converts into a new (if still very rare) kind of jihadist terrorism.

Of late I’ve felt I ought to be on retainer from the Sochi Olympic administration, given the effort I’ve been putting into trying to address some of the more lurid and hysterical accounts of the “terrorist threat.” For the record, my view is that Sochi is, thanks to the massive security operation, as safe as such an event going to be, in such a location, facing a near(ish)-by jihadist insurgency. That is not to say that Russia is safe from terrorism, by any means, as the events as Volgograd and Pyatigorsk have shown; indeed, I’d be surprised if the next month didn’t see some kind of incident(s) outside the North Caucasus themselves (where they are, sadly, a regular occurrence). One of the more alarming long-term trends is the apparent rise of jihadism outside the North Caucasus, among both the scattered Caucasus and Central Asian communities of Russia but also—doubly alarming for a security apparatus all-too-often dependent on clumsy racial profiling—amongst ethnic Russian converts.

Read the rest here. (And in case you’re wondering about the crime angle, a group currently on trial, the so-called “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, staged armed robberies to raise funds for the insurgency.)

“Новосибирск Джамаат», рост российского джихада, и сочетание преступностью и терроризмом

Sochi has (almost) nothing to fear but fear itself – on CNN GPS

News potential female terrorists – so-called “black widows” – may be loose inside or around the Sochi Winter Olympics security zone has inevitably stirred up fresh concerns about the Games. Athletes and prospective visitors are wondering if they will be safe. The United States is preparing plans in case its citizens need to be evacuated. The more the conversation about Sochi is about the threat, though, the more the terrorists have won – and a cheap victory at that.

Just a note to the effect that an op.ed of mine on–what else?–the Sochi Winter Games is up on the CNN Global Public Square site, here.

Sochi, “Black Widows” and Double Standards

140120182228-russia-black-widow-grab-story-topApparently the police inside the Sochi security zone are hunting one Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova,  widow of a member of a North Caucasus insurgent. Indeed, according to some accounts she is only one of 4 such female terrorists there. Cue, first of all, the “black widow” meme: apparently, being the widow of an insurgent instantly makes a suicide bomber out of you. Almost every bombing in Russia seems to be attributed to such a “black widow” at first, even if such claims are often dropped. But I’m more exercised by the media flurry that followed the news. I get it: news media want splashy stories, and “Russians hunting suicide bomber in Sochi as countdown to Games tick down” has a pleasingly 24esque vibe and also provides the usual opportunity to question the competence of the Russian security measures and, for some US sources, a chance to talk up the need for some kind of contingency emergency evacuation plan for their athletes. But…

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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.

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Daydreaming: an Autumn surprise for Kadyrov

Putin could cut Kadyrov down to size

Putin could cut Kadyrov down to size

There is a distinct body of opinion that suggests that this autumn, Putin will have to do something dramatic–and I mean more than just bare-chestedly wrestling some new breed of furry predator–in order to reassert his political authority. In my latest column for Russia! magazine, I engage in some unashamedly unrealistic daydreaming and contemplate all the virtues in Putin turning on his Chechen warlord-satrap-PR nightmare, Ramzan Kadyrov and trying him for embezzlement and human rights abuses. I think it would be a bold and potentially-transformative act. I also think it is as likely as Medvedev launching a coup. After all, while I suggest in outline how it could be done (and if VVP wants a full operational plan, I’m sure he knows where to find me),

Even if it could be done, would it? Alas, here my daydream blows away in the chilly wind of realism. This would be a bold step and the irony is that badass action man Putin is a very cautious politician, one I cannot see making such a move. But nonetheless, this autumn may well see some bid to regain the initiative and persuade the country that the Kremlin still counts. If it is to be something more than another hamfisted PR efforts then it will have to be something bold, unexpected and meaningful. Vladimir Vladimirovich, I still humbly submit that liberating Chechnya from Kadyrov would be all three.

Why I don’t see any Russian plot behind the Boston bombings

I’ve been struck in the past 48 hours how many journalists’ queries I’ve fielded that seemed to take seriously the idea that the Russian state (or local agents in the North Caucasus) could somehow be responsible for the terrible Boston bombing. (I’m talking 6 serious journalists: not the kind of lunatics who, for example, claimed the real bombers were Navy SEALs.) The idea would seem to be that by encouraging, facilitating or downright arranging the attack, they demonize the Chechens, legitimize their brutal security campaign in the North Caucasus, and create a new, more favorable environment for dealing with the USA, in one fell swoop. A cute idea, worthy fodder for some lurid airport thriller, but in my opinion very, very hard to believe.

I can understand why the Tsarnaevs’ family and friends might want to believe that Tamerlan and Dzhokar were framed or set up. It’s the same impulse that leads to the disbelieving and perplexed statements that “he was a lovely man” or “he kept himself to himself” every time some serial killer or child abuser is arrested. Evil thoughts and plans, alas, do not always or even usually manifest themselves through sinister manner and demented cackles.

However, if we look at these particular suggestions (some of which also come from Russians), they seem to rest of a few basic assertions:

  • The FSB had suspicions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, so the fact that they let him into the country shows that they had some ulterior motive.
  • Putin was willing to blow up Russian apartment buildings in 1999 for political purpose, so he’d have no more compunction seeing terror in Boston.
  • The Russians want to make the world stop hassling them about their tactics in the North Caucasus: this gives them a perfect way of demonstrating that they are simply fighting evil jihadists.
  • In the most ridiculously extreme cases, it’s asserted that the Kremlin just hates the USA anyway, and likes seeing mayhem there.

Of course Moscow will seek to make political capital out of this event; that’s what countries do (I remember when offers of assistance to the USSR after Chernobyl were also accompanied by patronizing suggestions about how this wouldn’t have happened if the Soviets were less Soviet and more Western). That certainly doesn’t mean that “hardliners in Russia might want another Cold War with America, and they may even secretly rejoice at the idea of mayhem in the West.” The pragmatic art of diplomacy is often about making the best from whatever fate presents.

The Kremlin has not shown itself averse to the use of violence in domestic and international politics (I’m inclined to accept the 1999 apartment bombings were state terrorism), but this is a world apart from actually trying to instigate an attack on US soil. The risks so outweigh the potential advantages that I don’t think it would even have been seriously considered. There is one basic rule of covert operations: at some point, they become covert no longer. If Tamerlan had been an active, aware agent, what would have happened if he had been captured? Even assuming that he was instead a dupe, groomed for the purpose by Russian undercover agents posing as jihadists, what happens when the US authorities–who, we can safely assume, are turning the full weight of their massive intelligence capacity onto this case–get a sniff of this? Any political advantages are likely to be transient (think how quickly the post 9/11 amity evaporated); any political risks astronomical.

Besides which, the FSB flags up potential individuals of concern all the time. They don’t necessarily bar them from the country. One could just as easily (and foolishly) suggest that the FBI’s failure to pick up on the brothers’ jihadist sentiments in 2011, after the FSB had passed on a warning about them, showed that somehow the US authorities were involved. (And for the record, while the inevitable inquiry will say for sure, we need not assume the FBI “failed” here–Tamerlan may not have been fully radicalized by then, the FBI get many such warnings, and in any case they are often rightly skeptical of FSB tip-offs as the Russians often claim people are “terrorists” on the flimsiest grounds or just to smear political oppositionists.)

The world is usually a simpler place than people think, and covert actions less common and less attractive than the movies suggest. We’ll wait and see, but to me this is a case of an alienated young man looking for answers and sadly finding them in the ideology of global jihad, and apparently bringing his brother into the cause. In some ways this is harder to understand than deep plots and cunning stratagems, because it requires us to accept that the Western liberal democratic model does not satisfy everyone and that we cannot control the vagaries of lost souls…

(Oh, by the way: North Korea has denied being behind the bombing, too. So that’s alright, then.)

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