On February 15, a suicide bomber blew his car and himself up near the Jimikent police checkpoint, in Derbent district, in southern Dagestan. Initially, the news reports suggested that the attack killed two police officers and two civilians. Five other people were injured and several cars destroyed (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 15). Later, the authorities said the two police officers were the only fatalities in the attack (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 20).
Even though armed attacks are not uncommon in Dagestan, suicide bomber attacks had not occurred in the republic for several years, so the attack in Derbent district was unusual. Yet, surprisingly, the Dagestani authorities did not designate the suicide bomb attack at the Jimikent checkpoint as a terrorist act. Following the attack, Dagestan’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, said: “First of all, I want to say that law enforcement agencies do not qualify the crime as a terrorist act, because there are no political demands, no statements in regard to this incident. It is clear that this crime was directed against law enforcement officers who were on duty at the post. In any case, it is a tragedy. When I was at the scene yesterday morning, there were two dead police officers—one from Mordovia and the other from Dagestan.” In contrast, Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov said, via Instagram, that the attack was a terrorist act (Eadaily.com, February 17).
Rasul Kadiev, a well-known Dagestani lawyer and avid blogger, noted that Abdulatipov’s definition of a terrorist act does not coincide with how terrorism is defined in the Russian Criminal Code. “Of course, the victims should be glad that they are victims of a mere assassination attempt on law enforcement officials rather than victims of a terrorist act,” Kadiev sarcastically noted (Kavkazskaya Politika, February 17).
The authorities’ motivation for downplaying the significance of the attack was apparent from Abdulatipov’s own statement: “The main thing is to signal to Dagestan and to Russia that these [attacks] are isolated echoes of that terrible period in the past history of Dagestan. It will not continue because the Dagestanis know these killers, Dagestanis are fighting them, and Dagestanis are not afraid of them. It is very important to stress this today” (Novoe Delo, February 20).
Abdulatipov’s reassurances and attempt to imply that the government controls everything and the public should stay calm are hardly reassuring. In fact, it appears that the same “Yuzhnaya” (“Southern”) group that staged the suicide bomb attack had earlier attacked people in the city of Derbent. The authorities also did not qualify the attack at Derbent’s historical Naryn-Kala fortress as a terrorist act (Kavkazskaya Politika, February 17), so it is hard to see how suppressing information about terrorist attacks helps the government to fight the terrorist threat. Authorities claimed they intercepted two members of the same group who traveled to Moscow to carry out attacks there, but other sources said the two suspects settled in Moscow a year ago—long before the “Yuzhnaya” group became known to the public (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 20).
The “Yuzhnaya” group is associated with the terrorist group the Islamic State, and Dagestani experts say that its attacks are a worrying sign. A Moscow-based Dagestani social scientist, Akhmet Yarlykapov, told the Novoe Delo newspaper that terrorist attacks by groups affiliated with the Islamic State indicate that the insurgency in the North Caucasus has established ties with terrorist networks outside the country and started receiving funding from them. Yarlykapov dismissed the connection between the latest attacks in Dagestan and Russia’s military campaign in Syria, saying that the Islamists would have started a violent campaign in the republic in any case. According to another Moscow-based Dagestani expert, Ruslan Kurbanov, the worsening security situation in southern Dagestan is related to the region’s history. Southern Dagestan was relatively quiet earlier, when northern and central Dagestan experienced a large insurgency connected to social protests. Now, the southerners are “catching up” with the rest of the republic, Kurbanov said (Novoe Delo, February 20).
According to official estimates, about 900 Dagestanis are fighting in the ranks of various groups of militants in the Middle East. Some of them moved abroad with their families, including young children. According to the Federal Security Service (FSB) 7,000 Russian citizens and citizens of other countries of the former Soviet Union are fighting in the Middle Eastern conflict. The Dagestani police are still trying to come up with an answer as to how these people became influenced by Islamist ideology and turned to Islamic radicals in the Middle East (Kavkazsky Uzel, December 10, 2015).
While the governor of Dagestan claims the security situation in the republic is continually improving, recent attacks undermine the authorities’ reassurances. Unless the government dramatically improves the economy and pursues political reforms, such as providing a greater voice to the people in the republic, it is hard to see how the situation will improve there in the long run.