It’s becoming very difficult to be a terrorist these days. This fact has become starkly true in the aftermath of the Domodedovo airport bombing outside of Moscow. The tactical objective of killing and wounding scores of innocent people of various nationalities was well accomplished. The next step was supposed to be exploitation of the horrific results, but the revolution in Egypt gobbled up all the attention of the world’s press and public.
The basic justification for homicide bombings is what the famed historian Walter Laqueur has referred to in his terrorism writing as the “propaganda of the deed.” The idea behind this form of political action is that a terrorist act that has a major public impact establishes the importance of the intended message as well as the threat of implied power which reverberates beyond the immediate political target. This concept did not work very well in the Domodedovo incident.
The Egyptians, following the Tunisian example, rushed into the streets of Cairo and Alexandria demanding the end of the Mubarak government. The international focus that had descended so sharply on the tragedy at Moscow’s leading international airport quickly shifted to the Nile in 24 hours. What the Kremlin was doing or not doing could not compete with the media coverage of the teeming streets of Cairo.
The Moscow authorities initially were unable to respond to press demands for a quick list of likely suspects. Of course Chechnya was designated as the immediate culprit. The bomber or bombers were unidentifiable and Russian security had no hard evidence. What was most important to them was that the catastrophe did not translate into a warning of what might come for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup for which Russia is also the proud host.
To show he was “on the job,” President Dmitry Medvedev announced he would not depart for the Davos world economic forum, where he was scheduled to be the opening speaker. Then, sending an opposite signal, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin combined a statement that emphasized how vigorous the search would be for the people behind the bombing but added a personal view that he did not think it had been a Chechen operation. Immediately all efforts were thrown into an obfuscation of the source of the bombing in hopes that would diminish the fear quotient of an act that carried a longer term political significance rather than a hoped-for one time act of someone mentally deranged.
Within two days Medvedev had reversed course and flown to Davos, where he announced he would be seeking private investment of $13 billion in a resort project for the Caucasus. Two hundred thousand jobs would be produced, he told the Moscow daily Vedomosti. Cairo had pushed the Domodedovo terror off the world press scene by mid-week and the intended psychological effect of the devastating homicide bombing had been negated. It was a major break for the Kremlin.
Apparently the Russian authorities who usually make major issues of terrorist attacks on their homeland — especially such high profile attacks as this international airport explosion — took a 180 degree turn and succeeded in downplaying the whole event by centering their interest on airport security as opposed to the perpetrators. The riots in Egypt had become a boon for Moscow.
The propaganda of the deed was, if not nullified internationally, certainly substantially diminished. The aim of the terrorists, later admittedly Caucasian, had been to hit a soft target that contained a large group of people. The reception area of the terminal provided the perfect target. But as successful as the attack originally was from a tactical standpoint, the strategic objective of the operation was substantially diminished by another operational factor, the “law of unexpected consequences.”
It is not impossible to envision a scenario wherein the bomber had reached a point in the operation where he could not have been turned back by the sponsoring organization. That group, however, already must have tracked the earlier international press coverage of the media-sexy Tunisian people’s uprising. That alone should have warranted a postponement of the Domodedovo event. Ultimately the headline-grabbing Egyptian uprising took away the psychological warfare effectiveness of the terrorist activity in Russia.
There is a rule in political and psy-war circles that should not be broken. If the force multiplier of an action is to be media coverage, and that coverage is essential to the success of the operation, extreme care must be maintained in order not to be upstaged by other events. As terrible as it is to say, there is a great deal of deadly show biz in the effectiveness of terrorist actions.
It has been said that terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the strong. In truth it’s equally often a weapon of the self-indulgent against the innocent. In this case the ultimate psychological ambition of the deed was substantially defeated by the thousands of demonstrators on the streets of Egypt. Nonetheless the Russians know that there will be a next time. That, too, is a tenet of terrorism.