Why Russia is the jihadists’ prime target
It took less than 12 hours for authorities in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan to identify the suspect of the Saint Petersburg Metro attack as a man born in Osh, a restive region in the southern part of the country.
Whether Russia has become the No. 1 target for jihadists, as many observers rushed to point out in the wake of the bombing, is a moot point.
The No. 1 target theory shifts according to need. One day it is France, the next the United States, then Germany or Britain and now Russia.
What is undeniable is that Russia’s escalating intervention in Syria and apparent intention to get involved in Libya makes it a prime target for Sunni jihadist groups, be they linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS). Planting a bomb in Saint Petersburg on the day Russian President Vladimir Putin was meeting there with the president of Belarus adds insult to injury, especially given that Saint Petersburg is the native city of the Russian president. It is where he honed his political skills after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is worth remembering that fighters from Russia’s republics in the Caucasus have been involved in the conflicts in Syria and Libya. An estimated 2,400 may be fleeing the collapsing ISIS’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq, posing a considerable threat to Russia. Fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia and Ingushetia have been among the toughest opponents of Bashar Assad. Their opposition to Assad, who is allied with Shia Iran, is even more intense given that they are Sunnis.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the downing of Russian Metrojet flight 9268 on its flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg 18 months ago. Last year, the Russian ambassador to Ankara was killed by one of his Turkish guards. Areas of Russia and the Caucasus have been hit by violent jihadist attacks over the past decades — from the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002 and a suicide attack in Domodedovo airport in 2011 to the Beslan school siege in 2004 and the Moscow Metro bombings in 2010.
Russia has been at war with the people of the Caucasus since the early 19th century, when the novelist Leo Tolstoy famously described the brutal conquest of Chechnya in his novel Hadji Murat. In February 1944, 400,000 Chechens were exiled from their ancestral lands and deported to Siberia and the northern regions of Kazakhstan, the entire nation being accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Between one-third and one-half of the population died within four years.
In 1949, the Soviet authorities erected a statue of General Aleksey Ermolov, a key military commander of the 1840s, in Grozny. On the base of the statue, the following words were engraved: “There are no people under the sun more vile and deceitful than this one.” History records that the front lines of the German advance never reached Chechnya. The Chechens never saw a German. They were allowed back in 1957.
During the first Chechen war from 1994-96, the Russian Army’s scorched-earth policy flattened the Chechen capital of Grozny. Torture and rape were widespread; forced disappearances and collective punishment the norm. In 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya paid with her life for the brave reporting she did of that conflict.
Russian counterinsurgency forces have targeted many Chechen military rebel leaders, assassinating Dzhokhar Dudayev in 1996, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in 2004, Aslan Maskhadov in 2005, Abdul- Halim Sadulayev in 2006 and Doku Umarov in 2013.
Since 2007, Chechnya has been ruled by a Russian satrap, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose father switched sides from the rebels to the Russians during the second Chechen war, which lasted in some form from 1999- 2009.
The rebels were long divided into two competing groups: the Caucasus Emirate and the Islamic State’s Caucasus Governorate. They could, however, be united by their mutual antipathy towards the Russians. The fact that there are millions of Muslims from the Caucasus and the former Soviet republics of central Asia living in Russia means there is a powerful network of potential terrorists. Racism against darker-skinned or Muslim people is widespread in Russia.
In the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian authorities were happy to see many Sunni militants join jihadists in Syria. However, now that ISIS is crumbling there, they might be tempted to return.
However strict Russian border controls are, the West has learnt that sealing off the European continent from the turmoil in the Middle East is impossible. There may be many disaffected youth of North African, Pakistani or Middle Eastern origin in Europe but France and Britain have never treated their own citizens like Russia has treated the people of the Caucasus. Retribution there will undoubtedly be from those “vile and deceitful” people. That will only increase Putin’s popularity among Russians.