Thursday’s suicide bombing attack by Islamists in the troublesome area of
southwestern Russia signals the dangers Moscow faces at home, despite its
support for radical Islamic forces abroad.
Terrorist groups seek to form
an Islamic state separate from Russia in the Caucasus region, which is next to
Sochi, the site of the 2014 Olympics.
Chechens, a mostly Muslim ethnic
group in the North Caucasus region have a degree of autonomy from Moscow after
having fought a separatist military campaign for independence following the fall
of the Soviet Union.
After two wars and an ongoing insurgency, including
terrorist attacks such as the March 2010 bombing of a metro station in Moscow,
Russia has not come close to solving its own Islamic terrorism
According to the website of the Council of Foreign Relations,
there exist ties between al-Qaida and some Chechen groups. One Chechen leader
known as Khattab is said to have met with Osama bin Laden during their time
fighting the 1979-89 Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. In addition, Chechen
fighters battled against the US alongside al-Qaida and Taliban forces in
Afghanistan, according to the website.
Yuri Teper, a doctoral candidate
at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on nationalism and politics in modern
Russia, told The Jerusalem Post that he believes that the latest blast in
Dagestan has no connection to the upcoming Olympic Games, but represents the
never-ending security threat in the Caucasus.
The real concern, he said,
is the “growing Islamization of the population” and the “total corruption and
economic failure,” which exacerbates the situation and strengthens
The area is failing and dominated by “clans, gangs and
religious rivalries that are all intertwined,” Teper said.
worrisome, the Salafist trend is gaining, with tacit support from the Arab Gulf.
The recent assassination of Sheikh Said Afandi, a more moderate local religious
leader who was blown up by a female suicide bomber in his home in August last
year, illustrates this trend, according to Teper.
The Bar-Ilan scholar
said that the situation is so bad that the president of Dagestan was forced to
resign less than a month ago and replaced with a Kremlin associate, an
“extraordinary political move” for the Putin administration, which seems to be
increasingly anxious over the situation.
Daniel Course, a Phd candidate
at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Russian foreign and security policy, told the Post that Russia is also worried that Sunni Islamists in Syria could make their
way through Turkey and join the unrest. Course also noted that the conflict is
expanding over larger and larger amounts of territory in the Caucus region and
that Russia sends inadequately trained troops to deal with the problem, some of
whom were killed in the bombing.
The region borders Georgia and
Azerbaijan to its south, and from there, Turkey and Iran, which can also be
accessed via the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, respectively.
obvious example is the support for the Iran-Syria- Hezbollah axis. Historically,
Iran has been fearful of Russia and a few wars between them have engrained the
enmity in their minds.
Amir Taheri, an expert on Iran, wrote in The New
York Post that Russia and Iran signed a security pact last month “to help
prevent an Iranian version of the ‘Arab Spring.’” The pact calls for
intelligence cooperation against terrorism and crime, though perhaps more
importantly, it provides for Russian training and arming of Iranian security
forces that would be used to put down internal unrest. Taheri stated that the
agreement calls for Moscow’s help in creating a domestic police force modeled
after the 500,000-member-strong Russian security forces controlled by the
Taheri also pointed out that both Tehran and Moscow
are worried about internal eruptions of unrest that, in their minds, would be
instigated by the West just as they thought the Arab uprisings were.
However, Course disagreed with that notion, and
said there was no strategic pact – or possibility for one – between Iran and
Russia. According to him, Russia offers weapons and training to whomever has
money and they use this to maintain influence in the region, which has
dramatically decreased since the fall of the Soviet Union.
This is why
you see Hamas and others making trips to Russia, as Moscow welcomes almost any
group in order to maintain its influence.
Therefore, Russia’s cooperation
with Iran should be seen within this context. In addition, trade between Russia
and Iran is not great and is comparable to that of Israel and Russia, even
though Israel has a much smaller population and is farther away.
noted as well that the largest Russian military exercise in the last 10 years
took place in the Caspian Sea, which separates the two countries and holds an
abundance of natural gas.
Tehran and Moscow have tried numerous times to
come to an agreement on the division of the sea, but “Russia stopped because
Iran does not want an agreement.
They want to wait until they are strong
enough to take it with force.”
Course draws a parallel to Iran’s behavior
in negotiations over its nuclear weapons, where it is not interested in giving
up on its atomic agenda, but rather in dragging out the talks until it has
gained nuclear capability.
The other worry, he noted, is that if there
will be an attack on Iran, a flood of refugees will make their way north to
Azerbaijan and even into the troubled Caucusus region of Russia.
would cause members of the Iranian security forces to also stream through with
the refugees and end up in Russia’s backyard.
Moscow’s influence abroad
continues to erode, despite its attempts to ally itself with forces opposed to
the West and it is this game that could become costly in the long-run. The Sunni
insurgents on Russian soil hold an ideological affinity with Sunni Islamists,
such as those fighting the Russian-backed Syrian regime as well as
al-Qaida-linked groups active throughout the region and beyond. Thus, Russia has
set itself up to be opposed by the rising Sunni Islamists in the region, led by
the increasingly influential Muslim Brotherhood movement and its
An attack on the 2014 Olympics in Russia would be a great blow
to Russia, and therefore, according to Teper, “it is a wonderful way for various
radicals to gain prominence and attract more money from the Gulf.”