Unprecedented nation-wide preventive measures against a possible terrorist attack were introduced in Russia on Tuesday, January 16, on orders from Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAC). Transport networks were identified as the most probable target, so police checks and patrols on the roads, airports, rail, and metro stations were put on maximum alert. Moscow, which was the target of many terrorist attacks in the first half of the decade, saw particularly strict measures, including the electronic disabling of mobile phones in the metro (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 18). Muscovites took the warning very seriously; normally overcrowded public transport was half-empty even at rush hour, while hundreds of phone calls reported suspicious, unattended packages (Moskovsky komsomolets, January 18).
The terrorist alert was lifted Wednesday evening, when NAC declared that the tip provided by “foreign partners” had not been confirmed. Patrushev expressed his “full satisfaction” with the exact implementation of his order by the police and various special services, but the lack of information about the sudden escalation of counter-terrorist activities left much residual agitation among Muscovites (Novaya gazeta, January 18). Officials insist that it was not a routine drill, and Anatoly Safronov, special presidential envoy on cooperation in countering international terrorism, revealed that the information was received from several “partner channels from foreign special services” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 18). No explanation was provided, however, about why the extraordinary measures lasted only about 24 hours. Kommersant (January 18) even ventured a guess that the alert had been simply a joke.
This was not the first time NAC had issued warnings about an increased risk of attacks. In November 2006, Patrushev announced that several dams in Southern Russia (including the Volgogradskoe and Tsimlyanskoe reservoirs) could be targeted, and in December 2004, he warned about probable attacks in St. Petersburg (Vremya novostei, November 8, 2006). But no victorious reports about foiled attacks or significant arrests ensued, so it remains unclear whether any real threat was indeed present. The fact of the matter is that since summer 2004, no terrorist attacks have happened in Moscow or any other Russian city outside the North Caucasus with the single exception of an explosion in Moscow’s Cherkizovsky market last August, organized by a group of nationalist radicals (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 27, 2006). There were serious concerns that Chechen rebels could stage a large-scale attack to derail the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg last July, but an explosion, most probably accidental, instead claimed the life of Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev.
It might appear odd that NAC was established with the purpose of coordinating the activities of the military and various law enforcement agencies only in February 2006, when it became clear that the terrorist threat was indeed in decline. It begins to make sense, however, when the parochial interests of the Federal Security Service (FSB) are considered. Patrushev, FSB chief since August 1999, saw no point in taking responsibility for leading the struggle against terrorism when the Nord-Ost hostage drama unfolded in October 2002 or when a series of suicide attacks shocked Moscow in summer 2003. Now, however, being in charge of the well-financed and low-risk “struggle” brings many tangible benefits, including institutionalized control over the activities of other power structures.
The residual risks for this privileged role are related to the smoldering instability in the North Caucasus, where ambushes and explosions, assassinations, and kidnappings occur with habitual frequency without making news. The situation in Chechnya, portrayed by official propaganda as greatly improved due to the massive response among the rebels to an amnesty deal, remains grim and tense (Polit.ru, January 18). The recent decision of the European Court on Human Rights that brothers Adam and Arbi Chitaev had been indeed tortured in the Chernokozovo detention center and should be paid 35,000 Euro each in compensation marks only a tiny step in addressing war crimes (Lenta.ru, January 18).
Patrushev’s cadres are now so confident of their success in manipulating this “war” that it was deemed opportune to remind the general population that NAC has a solid reason for existence. The timing might seem haphazard, but in fact the new law “On Countering Terrorism” came into force on January 1, so there was a point in demonstrating to the country, slowly returning to business after the long Christmas holidays, the expanded authority granted to the FSB (Ezhednevny zhurnal, January 20). It is easy to suggest that far fewer Muscovites will take the alert seriously the next time NAC finds it useful to cry “wolf.” It is entirely possible, however, that the next time the seasoned veterans of the counter-terrorist games could decide to play it “for real.”
The “war on terror” in Russia has always been a continuation of the politics of “restoring the integrity of the state” by dirty means. The deadly explosions in the apartment buildings in Moscow in September 1999 served perfectly the purpose of mobilizing the shocked society around Vladimir Putin’s war platform; the chain of suicide bombings in 2003 created the atmosphere of anxiety that answered ideally for the attack on the oil giant Yukos and its owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky; the horrible massacre in the Beslan school in September 2004 was made into a useful pretext for canceling regional elections. Now Putin appears to be at loss about the choice of his successor and the “patriotic” chekisty are ready to make up his mind for him. The question is only about what will it take to transform the NAC into a National Salvation Committee.