Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 10

The celebration of Victory Day, this year marking the 52nd anniversary of the triumph over Nazi Germany, was marred by a horrendous act of terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus region. A powerful bomb went off on May 9 in the town of Kaspiisk, on Dagestan’s Caspian Sea coast, just as a Marine marching band was passing by. It killed scores of band members, World War Two veterans and more than a dozen children from local schools, who had come to lay wreaths at the town’s war memorial. The death toll eventually hit forty-two; both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Dagestani supremo Magomedali Magomedov denounced the perpetrators as “scum” deserving nothing other than destruction, with the Russian leader comparing the threat they represented to the one the Nazis had posed six decades earlier. While no group claimed responsibility for the blast, Putin, Magomedov and those who run Russia’s security apparatus clearly assumed it had been the work of Islamic extremists. Indeed, a law enforcement source identified the attack’s possible mastermind as Rapani Khalilov, a Dagestani “Wahhabi” who commanded one of the units of Islamist fighters that had invaded Dagestan from neighboring Chechnya back in August 1999. Khalilov was the main suspect in a series of other terrorist attacks in Dagestan, including the bombing of a truck carrying Interior Ministry troops in January of this year that killed seven. The modus operandi of that attack–it used a radio-controlled mine filled with bolts and nails–was very similar to the one used in the May 9 attack.

The assumption that Muslim radicals were behind the Kaspiisk attack was reasonable on a number of grounds, including a possible motive: Khalilov was reportedly a close associate of Khattab, the Saudi-born “mujahid” top Chechen rebel field commander who was reportedly killed in March as the result of a Russian special operation. Indeed, the Chechen rebels subsequently claimed Khattab’s killer, who had reportedly dispatched the Saudi warlord to the hereafter with the help of a poisoned letter, was a Dagestani who had previously fought on the rebel side. While the rebels claimed they had executed the “traitor,” the report that he was a Dagestani intelligence agent, if true, gave plausible grounds for assuming the Kaspiisk bombing was a revenge attack.

On the other hand, an earlier and even bloodier terrorist attack in Kaspiisk–the November 1996 bombing of an apartment building, which killed sixty-nine people–was also attributed initially to Islamic terrorists, but most observers later came to the conclusion that the blast was probably the work of the caviar-smuggling mafia, given that the apartment building targeted was inhabited mainly by border guards and their families. In a region like Dagestan, where the mayor of its capital, Makhachkala, has been targeted for assassination fourteen times, the possible causes for violence are legion. Indeed, some observers noted that elections for the republic’s State Council are set to take place this summer, while a more conspiratorially minded former Soviet KGB official suggested the roots of the bombing could be found in Moscow.