Naida Asiyalova, the suicide bomber who blew herself up on Monday on a crowded bus in the Russian city of Volgograd, killing six people and wounding dozens more, was born in the town of Buynaksk, a huddle of mosques and squat apartment blocks in the foothills of the Russian Caucasus. For at least a year, the town has been under a so-called KTO regime (the Russian initials for counterterrorism operation), which allows security forces to conduct random searches, impose curfews and detain any foreigners who do not carry a special visitor’s permit, as happened to me this spring. At the checkpoint leading into town, the troops who stopped me could not say exactly how long the counterterrorism operation had been going on. “A long time,” one of them said with a sigh. “Probably a couple of years. You should have known about it.” And when would it be over? “Not soon. Not with the Olympics coming up.”
The Olympic Games, which will be held about a day’s drive from Buynaksk in the Russian city of Sochi in February, were roughly nine months away at the time. But President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to stamp out the local Islamist insurgency had already been pushing ahead for at least that much time. Thousands of Interior Ministry troops had been sent to the region of Dagestan, where Buynaksk is one of the largest towns, to reinforce the local police against jihadi fighters, and KTO regimes were cropping up like brush fires in a heat wave. Some of them lasted only about a week, during which troops would seal off a town or village and bombard the hideouts of suspected insurgents until they were killed, captured or escaped. Others, like in Buynaksk, dragged on indefinitely, imposing on the local population a form of martial law, which in Russia usually amounts to police impunity.
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Although Asiyalova’s motives remain unclear and the details of her biography sketchy, she seems to fit the profile of other Muslims from the Caucasus who have turned to terrorism as a form of revenge against Russia, taking out their anger on the nation they see as an occupying force. “The organizers of these terrorist attacks prey on people’s frustrations,” says Yulia Yuzik, a leading expert in Russia on female suicide bombers from the Caucasus. “They play on pride, on people’s desire to defend their religion, their nation and their dignity.”
The self-proclaimed leader of the insurgency in southern Russia is Doku Umarov, a warlord from the region of Chechnya, whose stated goal is to turn the Caucasus, including Sochi, into an Islamic caliphate governed by Shari‘a. This summer, he released a video message calling on his followers to use “maximum force” to disrupt the Sochi Olympics, which he called “Satanic games to be held on the bones of our ancestors.” Monday’s attack was the first suicide bombing to strike the Russian heartland since Umarov issued this directive. “My main worry is that it may be the first one in a series,” says Pavel Baev, an expert on the Caucasus at the Oslo-based Peace Research Institute. “Every rebel mastermind knows how vulnerable Putin’s pet Olympic project is.”
As the attack on Monday clearly showed, the militants who operate in Dagestan are perfectly capable of staging attacks far outside their home turf. According to Russian media reports, the bomber’s husband, a Russian convert to Islam named Dmitri Sokolov, was an active member of the insurgency in Dagestan and a self-trained explosives expert. Investigators claim he built the suicide vest for his wife and that the bombing was planned by a terrorist cell in Dagestan, one of dozens thought to be active in the region.
Amid the crackdown leading up to the Olympics, there has been little sign that these groups have been weakened or even contained. Between the start of July and the end of September, 133 people were killed in the conflict between militants and government forces in the North Caucasus; the majority of them — 86 people — were killed in Dagestan, including 32 police offices, according to Kavkaz Uzel, an independent news services that keeps a tally of the violence based on media reports. That is up from a death toll of 118 across the North Caucasus in the previous three months.
Anne Speckhard, who surveyed the motives of suicide bombers for her recently published book, Talking to Terrorists, says the brutal raids against insurgents in the Caucasus may actually be swelling their numbers in the lead-up to the Olympics. For the militant leaders, “the most important thing is consolidating recruitment and membership. And they are very cynically willing to manipulate traumatic bereavement for those ends,” says Speckhard. So when a counterinsurgency strike levels an entire building and kills its inhabitants — as is not uncommon in Dagestan — the grieving relatives and friends of the deceased turn into potential recruits. “They are angry, they want revenge, and they can be very quickly activated in a new terrorist operation.”
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Breaking this cycle would require a level of finesse that seems to lie outside the skill set of Putin’s counterterrorism forces. Mia Bloom, a terrorism expert and professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says fostering a dialogue within the communities, and even within the families, of devoted militants is the only effective way to bring them back into civilian life. “If you bring in an imam to explain why suicide attacks are forbidden under Islam, it can strike a chord,” she says. “They may start to listen.”
But last year, the security forces in Dagestan dismantled the only government program that sought to persuade militants to put down their arms in exchange for amnesties. Shamil Mutaev, a former prosecutor who helped lead that initiative, says it was closed down for being too soft. “There is the opinion that only force can work,” he told me earlier this year. “That opinion has won out.” The results can be found at the checkpoints and KTO regimes that scar the lush mountains of the Russian Caucasus. But as the soldiers manning them will often admit in private, they are not sure whether they’re doing more good than harm.