On May 22, Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), gave an interview to the Izvestia newspaper. In the interview, Patrushev claimed that Russia’s fight against terrorism was successful. Answering a question about terrorist threats around the world and in Russia, the FSB chief said that while the terrorist threat was increasing in many other countries, in Russia, on the contrary, it had decreased. “Stability in the Middle East, Asia and Europe depends on the development of the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo,” Patrushev said. “An analysis of the world situation has demonstrated that the terrorist threat will continue to increase. According to different estimates, there were 14,000 terrorist acts in 2006 and 11,000 in 2005.”
“At the same time,” Patrushev continued, “In our country, thanks to the state system of countering terrorism, which was established at the initiative and under the leadership of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, the terrorist threat has decreased significantly. Last year, the number of terrorist acts in Russia dropped from 257 to 112 – that is, half the amount of 2005.” The FSB director added that in 2006, more than 300 acts of terror were prevented and 546 rebels in the North Caucasus surrendered and were disarmed. In particular, Nikolai Patrushev thanked the National Anti-Terrorist Center, which he himself heads, for this accomplishment, stating that it “takes task-oriented preventive measures against terrorism.”
Patrushev’s interview was not the first optimistic declaration by a senior official about Russia’s success in fighting terrorism. This past February, Patrushev himself spoke about a significant decrease in the number of terrorist acts in Russia in 2006, telling Interfax on February 13 that “the command system of bandit groups in the North Caucasus” was destroyed last year thanks to special operations, and that “120 bandits and emissaries of international terrorism,” including 35 leaders, were eliminated. A short time earlier, on January 10, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev thanked the police in Dagestan for their counterinsurgency struggle in the region. The minister said that in 2006, Abu-Khafs, “the top al-Qaeda envoy in the North Caucasus,” was eliminated in Dagestan and that the number of serious crimes solved in the republic had risen (RIA Novosti-Dagestan, January 10).
Clearly, such triumphal statements are very important to the Russian authorities, since the North Caucasus continues to be President Vladimir Putin’s Achilles’ heel. The Kremlin clearly remembers how a large-scale rebel raid on Ingushetia and a terrorist attack on the Ossetian town of Beslan in 2004 shook Putin’s popularity with the Russian public. According to various polls, his popularity rating hit the lowest point of his presidency in the fall of 2004. Vladimir Putin understands very well that the majority of Russians support him as long as he maintains the image of a strong leader, and that any serious failure in the North Caucasus could easily undermine this image.
This is why in his Izvestia interview, Patrushev personally linked Putin to the successes of the security officials in the North Caucasus. This is especially important for the Kremlin, which is currently on the eve of the upcoming presidential elections in the country that are supposed to replace Putin with a successor who will continue his political course.
The question, however, is this: Can we thank only the FSB and the authorities for the decrease in terrorist acts in Russia? Indeed, the FSB was clearly successful in the North Caucasus in 2006, when top rebel leaders like Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and Shamil Basaev were killed and the situation in the region was relatively calm. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the law-enforcement bodies managed to destroy the central command of the Caucasian insurgency. Moreover, the Russian military was forced to recognize in late 2006 that the command structure of the rebels had been restored and that young men in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus were continuing to join the insurgency (Chechnya Weekly, November 9, 2006; EDM, October 26, 2006). Endless anti-terrorist drills, dazzling in their scale, along with the warnings of possible rebel attacks that the officials announce from time to time, show that the situation has not changed fundamentally. It is, however, a fact that there have been no real terrorist acts in Russia since Beslan, e.g. since September 2004.
In talking about terrorism, the Russian authorities usually mix up actual terrorist activity with insurgency and guerrilla warfare. According to the official interpretation in Russia, all armed violence is terrorism and all of the rebels in the North Caucasus are terrorists. Yet, the classical meaning of the word “terrorism” is the indiscriminate use of violence against unarmed civilians. The Chechen rebels used terror methods in 2002-2004. There were acts of terror in Russian cities by suicide bombers and car bombs. There were also hostage-taking operations. However, these types of terrorist activities have completely stopped since Beslan. Ordinary Russians are certainly happy about this fact, but nobody in the country has wondered in public why exactly the terrorist acts have stopped. The Russian authorities claim that people should only thank the FSB for this and do not acknowledge that the real reason may be that terrorism was halted in Russia by the rebels themselves. Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the Chechen rebel leader in 2006 (until he was killed), said in his interview with The Jamestown Foundation that the insurgency regards “terrorist methods as unacceptable, and this is proven by the fact that for a year and a half now we have managed to observe the agreements reached at Maskhadov’s insistence [Aslan Maskhadov, Sadulaev predecessor] for a unilateral rejection of terrorist acts. These are currently being observed” (Chechnya Weekly, July 6, 2006). It seems that they are still being observed today.
It is likely that following the horror in Beslan, the rebels lost all interest in terrorist activities because it brings them nothing and leads only to their further political isolation. After the death of Aslan Maskhadov in early 2005, the rebels switched completely to a strategy of spreading the war outside of Chechnya to the entire North Caucasus. The failure of the rebel operation in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, in October 2005 forced the insurgency to work out a new, long-term but effective strategy, the essence of which is to demoralize the pro-Russian police structures in the region by removing their most active officers and high-ranking leaders (EDM, June 29, 2006). The authorities claim that their efforts have decreased the number of attacks on policemen in Dagestan, but they ignore the fact that instead of targeting ordinary patrols, the militants have conducted carefully targeted attacks against the local Interior Minister and the heads of departments responsible for fighting the insurgency.
Thus, the Russian authorities’ claims of victory may be premature. The real reason why the situation in the North Caucasus today is relatively calm remains an open question.