“Keep Calm and Carry On”

Russian Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanCould there be a more quintessentially English meme? Anyway, I just wanted to flag up a piece of mine under this title in Russia! magazine, which hopes that the Russian state and people hold their nerve and don’t over-react to the recent terrorist attacks.

At least for the moment, the Volgograd and Pyatigorsk explosions have managed to shape the Sochi narrative, at least for the international media. Debates as to whether the Winter Olympics will be dangerous for athletes and spectators overshadow any sporting considerations. (Apparently the US team have engaged a US private security company to extricate them if need be; I wonder how Americans would react if the running shoe were on the other foot and Russian athletes wanted Spetsnaz commandos on call…) The Kremlin has every reason to be peeved, but it would be best served by remaining calm and avoiding the temptation to change policy in response to every reversal. After all, it needs to remember four key points:

Read the rest here.

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.


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.)

Said Efendi Chirkeisky/Said Atsayev – Dagestan’s Falcone?

Statues of Falcone and Borsellino, Sicily

At first glance it might seem quite a stretch to find any connection between Said Efendi Chirkeisky (born Said Atsayev), the Dagestani Sufi religious leader assassinated in a suicide bomb attack yesterday and Italian anti-Mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone — beyond that he, too, died in a bomb blast. The Mafia murdered him in 1992 and, shortly thereafter, his friend and colleague Paolo Borsellino. But bear with me and indulge a moment of, bizarrely enough, optimism amidst this undoubted tragedy.

Chirkeisky died because he was a Sufi, because he was a rival source of religious authority to the Wahhabi/Salafi jihadists, because he challenged the legitimacy of their Manichean worldview. It is interesting and illustrative that, as well as law-enforcement officials, the North Caucasian terrorists are now targeting religious leaders who are hostile to their jihad or, equally sinful to them, even just not actively supportive. It demonstrates how the war is also becoming a Muslim civil war in the region.

More than 100,000 people turned out to Chirkeisky’s funeral (remember, Dagestan has a population of less than 3 million — that would be like 2.1 million Britons turning up to a funeral). The understandable first reaction is that this threatens to worsen the violence. However, it need not be quite so straightforward. The tragic murders of Falcone and Borsellino galvanized a country that otherwise had almost become apathetic, losing hope that Italy’s corrupted state could or would ever seriously take on the Mafia and back the courageous magistrates and police officers who were fighting the good fight. Italians mobilized and forced their political elite — often very much against their will and interests — at last to unleash the legions of law enforcement. Obviously organized crime is still strong in Italy, and this proved a two-steps-forward-one-and-a-half back process (thanks, Berlusconi), but nonetheless the start of the real rollback of Mafia power in Italy began with what seemed to be their great triumphs, their ability to kill these two bitter enemies of theirs.

The situation is, of course, very different in the North Caucasus. Nonetheless, Chirkeisky was an enemy of violence, an advocate for engagement with what he realized were corrupt, authoritarian and often hostile authorities in order to tame and educate them.

Ravil Gainutdin, Russia’s Grand Mufti, has warned that “A lot of strength, wisdom and fear of God are needed from the Dagestani people to maintain the situation within the legal framework, avert a bloody civil war and not allow quarrels to split society.” But it is — just — possible to see a more positive potential outcome that just averting civil war. Chirkeisky could become a martyr not to war but unity, a unifying symbol that allows new connections to be made between a state that is often only marginally legitimate and a population that has concerns, needs and a desire for change but would rather find ways other than violent Islamist jihad to address them. This is a time for President Magomedov to take some bold and conciliatory moves that might help show that his government is the population’s ally, not its oppressor. For other religious leaders — Sufi, Shafi’i, Shia — to clasp hands and stand together against a jihadism that is essentially alien to the region. (Remember, even the great regional cultural hero Iman Shamil was a Sufi, however much others try to appropriate his name to their cause.)

Do I think this will happen. Sadly, no. I think Magomedov lacks the political finesse to appreciate that this is one of those brief historical opportunities and probably the freedom of maneuver to take advantage of it. I am unconvinced the religious leaders have that level of ecumenicalism yet, unwilling to appreciate the threat jihadism poses them all. But it could and, for one bittersweet moment, I’d like to cling to that potential, that Chirkeisky did not die in vain.

Room for Chechens in the global jihad?

Three news items last week raised again the thorny question of how far the current insurgencies in the North Caucasus may be linked with a global Islamic extremist jihad. (more…)

First thoughts on the Putin assassination plot

There have already been some excellent first-response pieces on today’s news of a Chechen plot to kill Putin being busted in Odessa, of which perhaps the best I’ve come across so far was from Ben Aris in BNE. (I’m sure there are other, equally splendid pieces already out there , too, for that matter.) I don’t want to reinvent any wheels here, so instead just want to make a few initial observations:


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