Moscow Remains Insecure After Ten Years of Fighting Terrorism in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 62

A Russian Interior Ministry officer stands guard near the Park Kultury metro station, Moscow

Thirty-nine people died and over 80 were wounded as a result of two explosions on the Moscow metro system during the morning rush hour on March 29. The insurgency in the North Caucasus has been labeled the primary suspect for what is believed to have been a double suicide attack in the central part of the Russian capital, but as of late last night, Russian police still have not presented an indisputable link or information on who was responsible. The attack appeared to come as a shock for both the Russian public and the government, given that Moscow had enjoyed a period of relative safety for the previous six years and the Russian security services repeatedly told the public that the insurgency in the North Caucasus was almost done away with.

The principal Russian TV channels kept silent about the bombings in Moscow for one to two hours after the attack, catching up with coverage of the incident only later in the day. The main Moscow city TV channel, TV-Tsentr, delivered its first five-minute report on the incident at 10:30 a.m., more than two-and-a-half hours after the first explosion (Kommersant, March 30). The delay in the Russian state-controlled TV stations’ coverage of the bombings indicates that the government was taken by surprise and did not know how to respond for some time. in its commentary on March 30 highlighted Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s return to the same language he used in the early days of his ascension to the Russian political leadership in 1999. This time, referring to the terrorists, he called on the security services to “drag [them] out of the sewers into the broad daylight.” In 1999, when Putin was also the prime minister and before he became president, he used the famous expression “kill the terrorists in the toilet” and, according to, he had not returned to that type rhetoric until now (, March 30). President Dmitry Medvedev also promised to eliminate the terrorists, unexpectedly visiting the site of one of the attacks (RIA Novosti, March 29).

Aside from the rhetoric, little has been offered so far to enhance the safety of Moscow’s inhabitants. Initially, the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, made a statement that it would introduce capital punishment for terrorists, but later this was revoked by the deputy speaker, Aleksandr Torshin (Interfax, RIA Novosti, March 30). If the Russian security services adopt the usual way of reacting to terrorist attacks, more suspected insurgents are likely to be killed in the North Caucasus in the next few weeks. It is symptomatic that both Russian leaders, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, called for such measures as executions to fight terrorism. Yet, the Russian security services, as it is, rarely arrest terrorist suspects in the North Caucasus, instead preferring to kill them on the spot. So, it is difficult to imagine that these failed practices will for some reason work now.

Many observers have noted that the explosions tarnished the carefully crafted official image of Russia steadily progressing toward a better future. The bomb attack was the second deadliest attack on the Moscow metro in its entire history. It took place even though all the principal leaders of the insurgency in the North Caucasus had been killed. The only one remaining, Doku Umarov, is not known as a particularly outstanding military or terrorist leader; he is mainly known for his statements. In one of the latest, made in February, Umarov threatened to take the war to Russian cities (, February 15).

According to the Russian media, the suspects, two women and one man, arrived from one of the North Caucasian cities at a bus station in southern Moscow. The bus driver allegedly identified them from photos supplied by the police. According to experts, intercity bus service is one of the hardest to control in Russia, and one such bus was used to bring a suicide bomber to Moscow in 2004. No ID is required to buy a ticket for an intercity bus and luggage is not checked (, March 30).

Revenge for the recent killings of Islamic insurgent leaders like Said Buryatsky, Anzor Astemirov and several others is seen as the likely main motivation for the suicide attack. In addition, security services sources say that Buryatsky had prepared about 30 suicide bombers and that most of them are still at large (, March 29).

Meanwhile, Geidar Dzhemal, an outspoken Muslim critic of the Kremlin’s policies in the North Caucasus, dismissed claims about North Caucasus Muslim involvement, saying that ordinary people riding the Moscow metro did not present valuable targets for the insurgency. Dzhemal also noted that the volume of details coming from the scene of the crime was suspiciously high, much greater than investigators are normally willing to release to the public (, March 29).

Several discrepancies are noteworthy. Anzor Astemirov was killed in Kabardino-Balkaria on March 24, and if the attackers really arrived from the North Caucasus on a bus, they should have boarded the bus on March 27 in order to get to Moscow on March 29. This would have left only three days for them to prepare the attack in Moscow, with its security system, including cameras and police in the metro. Said Buryatsky, a charismatic Islamic preacher and militant, was killed in Ingushetia on March 2-3. So there was more time for the insurgents to prepare an attack. But what is interesting is that during Buryatsky’s lifetime he never was able to inflict damage or mount an attack like that on Moscow. Does that mean that the insurgency is more “effective” when stripped of its leaders? This would mean that the real leaders of the insurgency are simply not known.

Even though the twin suicide attack in Moscow has precipitated a certain crisis, the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website points out that 15 other suicide attacks took place in the North Caucasus in the period from May 2009 to January 2010. The attacks in the North Caucasus claimed 69 lives, but attracted less attention than the Moscow suicide bombings. In April 2009, Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov announced the revival of the Riyadus Salikhin suicide bomber unit, which may be behind the attacks (, March 30).

Meanwhile, the Russian government has tried practically all harsh measures available to thwart the terrorist threat, but apparently none of these efforts have worked. So, it is unlikely that the government can offer any new approach to a further tightening of political control over the country. This already came about after the Nord Ost attacks in 2002, and the Beslan attack in 2004. The return of terrorist attacks to Moscow, complements the further deterioration of the Russian economy and is likely to spark more critical thinking in Russian society.