On May 31, Russian security forces killed two alleged militants in the suburbs of the Ingushetian city of Sunzha, in an area where officials had introduced a counter-terrorism operation regime. The Russian National Antiterrorist Committee reported that the suspects were surrounded in an uninhabited building. After the presumed militants declined an offer to surrender, the government forces killed them. Video footage available on the website of the government agency shows intense shooting with what seems to be a heavy machine gun at a sizeable one-story building, which catches fire and burns. The shooting apparently happened in close vicinity to a local residential area. Scores of Federal Security Service (FSB) members sheltering behind an armored personnel carrier (APC) are shown at the site. After the special operation concluded, officials alleged that the killed militants had been planning terrorist attacks. The official video also shows a heavy machine gun presumably owned by the rebels. Additionally, the service members reportedly found an improvised explosive device (IED) (Nac.gov.ru, May 30).
Civil and human rights activists in Ingushetia said that the authorities’ explanation for the killing of the alleged militants is dubious because officials provided no proof to legitimate their actions. Indeed, the website of the National Antiterrorist Committee does not even mention what radical organization the presumed militants were affiliated with—usually, it is either the Islamic State or (more rarely) the Caucasus Emirate. The two killed individuals were identified as Magomed Ozdoev and Bilan Mereshkov. Reportedly, Ozdoev had previously served in the Russian border guard forces, which are part of the FSB. Later, he left the service and became a small-business entrepreneur. His friends remember him as a quiet and decent family man, who had two or three children. They also said that Ozdoev was religious, but they did not notice him espousing any sympathies for radicals. Local rights activists additionally pointed to inconsistencies in the official accounts of what happened in Sunzha. First of all, there is no information as to why the security services thought that the killed individuals were rebels in the first place. Second, back in 2017, the authorities in Ingushetia stated that the insurgency in the republic had been uprooted. Activists, thus, question why and how new rebel cells formed, if they indeed did so. “Sleeper cells of the Caucasus Emirate” are only a pretext for militarizing the region, some rights activists argued (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 1).
Reports from Ingushetia suggest that the local police were kept out of the special operation in Sunzha. Russian authorities have habitually distrusted local police enforcements, preferring to rely on the FSB. Local sources in the police, meanwhile, asserted that Moscow regularly exaggerates the presence of rebel “sleeper cells,” while turning a blind eye to more serious security threats. Notably, several people died in a shooting in Ingushetia in recent days, as members of one of the local religious orders turned against one another (TASS, June 1).
Another ambiguous counter-insurgency operation last month took place in Dagestan. On May 22, Russian government forces killed six suspected rebels in the forested area near the village of Goksuv, in the republic’s Khasavyurt district. The killed individuals presumably were affiliated with the Islamic State. One member of the Russian National Guard was also wounded in the clash. According to official sources, the suspects had planned to carry out attacks against the police and religious figures as well as to extort money from local businesses. The government forces used a helicopter and other heavy machinery to kill the alleged militants (Nac.gov.ru, May 22). The killed individuals were identified as residents of a Kumyk village of Endirei, in Khasavyurt district; however, until recently, all of them had resided in Moscow. They were also all quite young—19 or 20 years old. Officials purported that the youths had returned to Dagestan to carry out attacks. When the security forces reportedly blocked the rebels, they were offered the chance to surrender but refused. The suspects were allegedly amateur militants, used bicycles to get around, and were easily identified (Kommersant, May 22).
Russian security services veterans told reporters that special operations in the North Caucasus are regularly carried out under orders to kill all rebel suspects without taking captives. Residents of the same Dagestani village as that of the six killed young men said they were baffled by the events. If the official version is true, it means that young Kumyks from Dagestan went to Moscow for work, radicalized there, and returned to start a militant organization (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 30). When individuals from the North Caucasus go to Moscow or other predominantly ethnic-Russian-populated areas of the Russian Federation, they are often discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity and religion. Perhaps, the six residents of Endirei simultaneously radicalized while in Moscow due to some mistreatment. But if the authorities were aware of these youths’ radicalization, and if their alleged conspiracy was, indeed, so downright amateurish, it is unclear why the youngsters were not simply intercepted and placed under arrest.
Though Russian officials continue to report on killing “bandits” in the North Caucasus, they consistently fail to provide any substantial proof for the seriousness of their suspicions. The lack of transparency from the authorities then leads to both human rights activists and onlookers automatically placing all blame for violence on the government. Despite the proclaimed victory over the insurgency in the North Caucasus, the security services still somehow discover new rebels over and over again. Either the government authorities were overly optimistic about their declared final triumph, or the security services are engaging in self-serving and self-perpetuating activities so as to continue receiving resources and power from the state.