At Large

Terror in the Caucasus

The Obama administration now sees things Moscow's way -- but in return for what?

By 10.8.10

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It has been referred to as Europe's last remaining civil war. In 2009 more than 900 people died in fighting in the North Caucasus, and the battling continues today. Early this September nineteen people were killed and over 200 wounded when a bomb exploded in a market in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. This terrorism is justified by insurgents as part of the independence movement that continues to rage throughout this mountainous and primarily Muslim region of southern Russia.

Islamist militants have proclaimed the five northern Caucasus republics to be the Caucasus Emirate: They include North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Each republic is fiercely independent and multi-lingual and each is run as feudal fiefdoms by Moscow-approved political strongmen. Russia has been attempting to tame this part of its traditional empire since the days of Catherine the Great. From time to time a degree of peace descends only to be exploded by another violent uprising. Things are no different today.

In late September another fifteen insurgents were killed in Dagestan when anti-terrorist police penetrated the their mountain hideout. Whether these actually were police or Russian special forces (Spetznatz) is impossible to say. The northern Caucasus has been a perfect ground for Russian special operations training. In fact, Russian spetznatz forces operate in all phases of the region's security. The training is realistic and the missions are all appropriate to special operations and their typical rules of engagement. 

Of course, the same thing applies to FSB (Federal Security Service) operations in this region. Electronic intercepts at all levels attempt to keep track of the dissidence. The FSB -- and its predecessor KGB departments -- have kept ongoing penetration (human and technical) of dissident activities in the northern Caucasus areas for decades. The Caucasus Emirate has been penetrated by Russian agents since its creation in 2007. Before that, the separate insurgent groups each had their own state security double agents. It's a crowded and deadly field.

The best known of the Caucasus Emirate leaders is its founder, Doku Umarov. This Chechen rebel -- turned jihadi for political more than religious reasons -- brought together a disparate collection of militants of various organizations throughout the northern Caucasus. At this time the emirate is more of an umbrella movement than an organized amalgamation of fighting teams -- in spite of Umarov preferring to call himself Emir, a position from which he resigned in August then reinstated himself a day later.

Nonetheless, this emirate insurgency recently has put together an impressive list of operations: In addition to the most recent bombing in the market in Vladikavkaz, two suicide bombings in Moscow's metro in April killed upwards of forty people and wounded scores. In November '09 they blew up the luxury Moscow-St. Petersburg train, Nevsky Express, killing 28. They attempted to assassinate the president of Ingushetia because he was considered a "Moscow collaborator."

The operations of the Caucasus Emirate -- and most particularly its "emir," Umarov -- are inadvertently responsible, however, for achieving a diplomatic victory for the Russians in respect to their relations with the Obama Administration. The U.S. State Department finally has placed Doku Umarov on its terrorist list in admission that the CE attacks in Russia "illustrate the global nature of the terrorist problem we fight today."

This was a major breakthrough for Moscow, which for years has argued the Islamist terrorism in the Caucasus is no different from anywhere else. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced: "[It was] an important acceptance of the indivisible and universal nature of international terror threats." The State Department's Russian team definitely gets the credit for this new U.S./Russian agreed characterization -- one that went against the grain of the White House's desire to keep Caucasian affairs from being marked by the stigma of Islamic jihadi connections.

One wonders why it took the Obama administration so long to recognize publicly the Islamist ties of the northern Caucasus militant groups with their Middle Eastern cousins. Intelligence sources have been reporting for some time the financial and material aid the Caucasians have been getting from other radical Islamic groups. If there was a quid pro quo desired from Moscow, it could have been obtained two years ago. One wonders if Washington was smart enough to extract an advantage in return today?

By definition and ethnicity, the people of the Caucasus are European. For this reason Chechen and other north Caucasian terrorists can pass indistinguishably as typical westerners. This is an advantage for those terrorists seeking to infiltrate European and American sites. The Russians have been correct in being annoyed at American refusal to tie the terrorism of the Caucasus with radical Moslem organizations such as al Qaeda.

The former Communist Youth League publication, Komsomolskya Pravda, defined the Islamic terrorist connection quite clearly as "links in the same chain." If this is true, does it mean the U.S. can expect greater cooperation from Russia in related Middle Eastern matters

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.