Investigative reporting by the veteran liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta has found that the Russian state security services, in particular the Federal Security Service (FSB), may be misreporting and inflating the number of terrorist acts that it annually foils. The paper noted that, in most reported cases where a planned terrorist plot was uncovered, the family names of the accused terrorists or details of their subsequent sentencing are conspicuously never revealed. In light of this fact, Novaya Gazeta’s investigators tried to evaluate the declaration of FSB director Alexander Bortnikov, who claimed that, over the past year, the authorities thwarted 25 terrorist attacks, while 4 took place (Novaya Gazeta, April 27).
Novaya Gazeta compared the number of claimed terrorist acts prevented with the number of subsequent articles anywhere in the media reporting details of prosecution or sentencing. While admitting certain limitations inherent in its methodology, the newspaper nevertheless found an enormous discrepancy between the number of attacks the FSB and other security services claimed to have averted versus the number of reported prosecutions. For a two-year period, the FSB claimed 3,505 incidents or attempted incidents, but the newspaper tracked down only 14 arrests and 13 court sentences. A similar story emerged when examining the statistics disclosed by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (1,702 declarations; 2 arrests and 3 sentences) and the National Antiterrorism Committee (492 declarations; but reports of only 2 cases, with one suspect apparently killed and the other awaiting trial (Novaya Gazeta, April 27).
Moreover, many reported stories of these foiled terrorist acts lacked details: for example, in one article from RBC (November 12, 2016), the FSB claimed to have detained ten people from Central Asia who were planning “resounding terrorist attacks” on highly-populated areas in Moscow and St. Petersburg and who all confessed to the intended crimes. No further specifics about this case emerged. In most cases, no details or family names of suspects were mentioned, which made monitoring any subsequent prosecutions or developments in the case difficult. Only in a few instances were there more particulars given, such as on August 2, 2017, when RIA Novosti reported that a temporary military court in Krasnoyarsk sentenced two suspects, named Abdulliyaev and Abduhamsetov. The two men, confessed followers of the banned Islamic State militant group, planned terrorist attacks during Russian Victory Day celebrations, on May 9, 2016 (Novaya Gazeta, April 27).
The Novaya Gazeta article even gave an example of an outright fabrication by the Russian security services: on April 17, 2017, the human rights organization “Memorial” declared that the alleged attack on the “Kyrgyzstan” movie theater, in Moscow, was contrived and being used by the authorities to sentence political prisoners. The end result is that Russian society is badly informed about the real threat posed by terrorism in Russia. The resulting confusion leaves the situation liable to manipulation or even outright invention by the government (Novaya Gazeta, April 27).
The lack of transparency over the exact nature of the domestic terrorist threat has international implications given that Russia is due to host one of the world’s largest sporting events—the World Cup soccer championship—starting on June 14. Indeed, excitement for the upcoming sporting festival is mounting, and the authorities are planning numerous measures to prevent mass disturbances, by fans at least, including banning the sale of alcohol within the vicinity of Moscow stadiums and specially designated “fan zones,” where many spectators will be (Gazeta.ru, April 30). The manipulation of terrorism data is thus all the more curious given the real and significant threat that such militant organizations pose—as the above Krasnoyarsk case suggests. Presumably, when the Islamic State releases videos taunting President Vladimir Putin or publishes pamphlets showing various World Cup host cities as targets, the expressed desire to bring harm is sincere (see EDM, April 24). Thus, the seemingly inflated numbers that Russian state security services release are not helpful in trying to combat this threat.
What could be the possible reasons for deliberately over-stating the number of potential terrorist attacks in the country? Perhaps the most obvious such reason is that it increases the sense of danger ordinary Russian citizens feel. A strong state security apparatus makes sense only when there is a tangible threat; and the existence of such threats distracts from everyday economic and social concerns. As Novaya Gazeta notes, taking the security services’ statistics at face value does, indeed, give the impression “that the situation in the country is close to critical and reminds one of somewhere in Afghanistan” (Novaya Gazeta, April 27). Some support for this notion comes from Russian Supreme Court data, which shows a decline in the number of prosecutions for corruption at the same time as the number of prosecutions for terrorism increased (RBC, April 24). Reports of intended attacks also provide further legitimization for the regime’s intervention in Syria, as most of the reported intended terrorist attacks were connected to the Islamic State. Another reason, suggested to the author by credible sources familiar with the workings of the Russian security agencies, is that promotions and opportunities for career advancement depend upon the ability to attain perceived results. Nor do these two reasons necessarily work against each other. Whatever the motive, the absence of reliable data will undermine Moscow’s efforts to identify genuine terrorist threats and make policing high-profile mass spectator events such as the World Cup all the more difficult.