Twin Attacks

The Volgograd Bombings and the Return of Big Terror to Russia

Putin may have had a banner year in 2013, but the Volgograd suicide attacks expose how unstable Russia remains in the run-up to Sochi.

© Stringer . / Reuters

And things were going so well for Vladimir Vladimirovich.

The twin terrorist bombings that struck the city of Volgograd this week—the first targeting a train station, the second a trolleybus—came just five weeks before the most expensive Winter Olympics in history will be held in Russia’s warmest city. Upwards of $50 billion has already been poured into this Kubla Khan-style behemoth meant not only to enrich Putin’s many friends and business associates but to burnish Russia’s image as a fully modernized state capable of accommodating major international events. But that Sochi is now a subject for a nail-biting security concerns, not to mention a quiet boycott by Western leaders angry about Russia’s vicious anti-gay law, only spoils a narrative that the Kremlin had been hoping to see creep right on into 2014. Instead, his annual New Year’s speech carried the vow to wage war against terrorists “their complete destruction” — a throwback to 1999 when, as prime minister, he promised to “waste them in the outhouse.” Plus ça change.

The return of big terror to central Russia tarnishes an otherwise excellent calendar run for serially awarded “person of the year” Putin. He’s outfoxed the United States in Syria, bribed Ukraine out of moving closer to the European Union, transformed himself in the eyes of many from being a foremost human rights abuser to the reluctant host of “human-rights campaigner” Edward Snowden, let out of jail political prisoners he no longer views as credible threats to his reign, and generally overseen the return to Russia to a position of geopolitical prominence it hasn’t enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet the scenery for this annus mirabilis production has always been rather flimsy. Little about Russia is ever stable or secure, no matter what Kremlin reassurances are given or how much cash and manpower is injected into a given scheme. This past year alone, for instance, has also seen one of the worst spates of racist pogroms hit St. Petersburg and Moscow owing to worsening tensions between ethnic Russians—not a few of whom have ultra-nationalist or fascist politics—and a lumpen class of migrant workers who live in wretched conditions in and around the country’s major cities and hail mainly from the Muslim-majority Caucasus or former Soviet states of Central Asia.

After the Volgograd attacks, Russian authorities launched “Operation Anti-Terror Whirlwind,” deploying over 5,000 police and soldiers and rounding up almost 700 suspects who, in the worlds of Kremlin mouthpiece RT, “refus[ed] to show IDs, bearing arms, resisting the police, and other offenses.” Aleksandr Kurdyumov of the perfectly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia even proposed lifting the ban on the death penalty for terrorists, which presumably means that suicide bombers will be soon be liable for elimination twice.

The 15-year war in Chechnya officially “ended” in 2009 by presidential announcement, but violence emanating from restive southern regions of Russia never did. That same year, for instance, the interior minister of Dagestan—the region where the Boston marathon bombers were said to have been “radicalized”—was offed in the regional capital Makhachkala, whose wheelchair-bound mayor was arrested several months ago on the suspicion that he’d helped murder an official of Russia’s FBI-like Investigative Committee. 2009 also saw the Nevsky Express railroad bombing, followed in 2010 by the bombing of the Moscow metro by two “black widows” (female suicide bombers). In 2011, Domodedovo Airport in Moscow was attacked, the last major “spectacular” to be waged inside the Russian heartland until Volgograd happened this week. Withal, however, murders, kidnappings and explosions have been constant nightmares in the North Caucasus, albeit confined to the periphery of Russia’s popular consciousness and therefore seen as containable, if not downright ignorable. The problem is, that periphery has now grown much closer thanks to the location of Sochi. See this useful map created by freelance journalist Ilya Mouzykantskii for perspective on the proximity of the Games to a flurry of prior terrorist attacks.

Moreover, the reason for the lull in assaults on metropolitan areas has less to do with any counterterrorism savvy displayed by the security services and more to do with the decision-making of the terrorists themselves, specifically Doku Umarov, an Islamist warlord who resembles a bearded Buddy Hackett and heads an organization known as the Caucasus Emirate. This al-Qaeda-like, caliphate-dreaming syndicate has been responsible for Russia’s worst domestic atrocities, from the 2002 Nord-Ost theatre siege to the 2004 Beslan school hostage-taking crisis. But in 2012, Umarov suddenly decided to stop targeting major cities like Moscow, possibly because he wanted to see what became of the anti-Kremlin protests that they gave rise to. But all that changed in July when he declared Sochi to be a primary target for Russian jihadists. The “Satanist games,” Umarov said, were going to be “held on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea.” As if in preparation for the sought-out main event, in October, another suicide bomber killed seven by blowing up another trolleybus in Volgograd. Last Friday, a car bomb struck in Pyatigorsk.

Umarov functions more as a rallying figure rather than an actual commander, much the way former al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki did for so-called “lone wolf” or “al-Qaeda-inspired” terrorists. This poses an added threat for the Olympics because those who may only wish to follow Umarov’s edicts remotely rather than execute an orchestrated, top-down jihadist plot can be much harder to track.

Enormous security measures are therefore being enacted to protect Sochi from attack, including Internet monitoring using a technology that has been described as “PRISM on steroids,” aerial drones, reconnaissance robots, and legions of intelligence and police personnel. There’s also a hysterical component to preventive security measures for Sochi. Environmental activists, for instance, considered “extremists” by law enforcement agencies, are being subpoenaed to turn up at local police stations to register for biometric “report cards”. One such activist, Olga Noskovets, was forced to “write a statement that during the Olympics she undertakes to express her civic position exclusively by legal means,” according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta. And journalists who try to tweet, Instagram, or video the Games on their mobile phones will be stripped of accreditation.

“The Russians are throwing unprecedented sums of money and numbers of security personnel into guarding Sochi,” Mark Galeotti, a specialist in Russia’s security services who teaches at New York University, told me. “Two billion dollars, plus up to 63,000 police and troops. That buys a great deal of protection and on the whole I’d expect Sochi to be locked down tight.” For the most part, Galeotti sees the Olympics itself—around which a 25-mile inland security zone and a 60-mile coastal defense are to be implemented—as relatively protected, although the cities outlying Sochi, such as Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar, Stavropol and Astrakhan, are more probable targets.

Nevertheless, where terrorists may lack tradecraft, corrupt cops and intelligence officials can easily compensate. “We’ve seen in the past that insurgents and terrorists have been able to get through what was meant to be impenetrable security by paying bribes or just taking advantage of human weaknesses,” Galeotti said.

Andrei Soldatov, another expert, points out that the man in charge of Olympics security, Oleg Syromolotov, hails from the FSB’s counterintelligence division rather than from its counterterrorism one. “This guy was trained and spent his career hunting down spies, not terrorists,” Soldatov emailed me. “The tactics of secret services in dealing with terrorists and spies are very different. To cut it short, you may play a long game with a spy, whereas you should stop a terrorist ASAP and you’re under immense pressure to do things quickly.”

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Here it pays to remember that Ramzan Kadyrov, the psychotic Chechen “president,” has often employed ex-jihadists in his region’s security forces, much to the consternation of the FSB. So might Syromolotov’s pedigree indicate that what the Kremlin fears most is someone meant to protect Sochi playing both sides to facilitate an attack on it?

In Russia, anything’s possible.