On October 21, 2013 a woman later identified as 30-year-old Naida Asiyalova of Dagestan, Russia detonated a vest of explosives while aboard a Moscow-bound bus in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. The bombing killed six and wounded scores of others. Among those responsible for planning and carrying out the bombing was Asiyalova’s 21-year old husband, Dmitry Sokolov. On November 16th, Russian anti-terror forces tracked down Sokolov in a village not far from the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala. The subsequent operation resulted in the killing of five militants, including Sokolov. Ria Novosti reports:
“’In course of the negotiations Sokolov claimed responsibility for terror attacks, including the bus blast in Volgograd,’ the National Anti-Terrorist Committee said in a statement.
According to the officials, he said that he personally assembled the explosives detonated by the bomber in Volgograd. The statement did not specify what were other attacks he mentioned in his claims.
Russia has suffered a long-running Islamist insurgency centered on the North Caucasus, especially in Dagestan where attacks on security forces, police and civilians occur regularly, generated by ethnic, religious and political rivalries, as well as poverty and corruption…’In course of the negotiations Sokolov claimed responsibility for terror attacks, including the bus blast in Volgograd,’ the National Anti-Terrorist Committee said in a statement.” (Ria Novosti, November 16)
The bombing of the bus in Volgograd represents only the latest in a series of terrorist attacks conducted by insurgents and separatists of the Republic of Dagestan in southern Russia. Despite the violent attacks and the resemblance of the violence to the conflicts in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, the Western media has not focused much attention on the conflicts in the North Caucasus. As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi approach (to take place in February 2014), observers have begun assessing the likelihood that unrest in areas in the North Caucasus, particularly those in Dagestan and Chechnya, will spill into Russia in the form of terrorist attacks. The high profile nature of the Sochi Olympic Games is a tempting target for insurgents. The world’s media attention will increasingly be on the region as The Games prepare to open in February.
Known officially as “The Republic of Dagestan”, Dagestan’s name translates to ‘Land of the Mountains’. Dagestan is a federal subject and subdivision of Russia located in the southwestern portion of the country in the North Caucasus. Situated on the Caspian Sea, Dagestan was originally ceded to Russia in 1813 by Persia and shares international borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan. To Dagestan’s northwest is the restive Republic of Chechnya, home to another of the region’s violent insurgencies. Dagestan’s 2,900,000 inhabitants are ethnically diverse and, in stark contrast with the rest of Russia, its population is rising rapidly. The capital city of Makhachkala is home to over a quarter of Dagestan’s population and is located in the center of the republic. According to a 2010 census conducted by the Russian Federal State Statistics Service, the overwhelming majority of Dagestan’s inhabitants are Muslims, making up 83% of the population. That census can be found here. A good overview of the recent history of Dagestan, as well as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural background of the republic is available via the British Broadcasting Service’s web site.
Even as it is often overlooked by Western media observers who remain more focused on the violent conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Libya, and Iraq, the North Caucasus has been a simmering cauldron of insurgent religious extremism and violence for over a decade. Historically, both religious extremism and nationalism have been a characterizing feature of the insurgency in Dagestan and the inspiration for political violence. Since 2000, Dagestani separatists have targeted Russian military and security personnel, who maintain several outposts in the republic, with suicide bombings and other asymmetric attacks. Additionally, Dagestan’s insurgency has often been catalyzed by the anti-Russian insurrection in neighboring Chechnya. In 2010, suicide bombings in Dagestan began to rise. One such incident, a massive suicide car bombing targeting a Russian military post which included a secondary device that attacked first responders and investigators arriving at the site of the initial blast in May of 2010, is of particular note. In another attack, six policeman were killed and 14 others wounded when a suicide bomber “…rammed a truck packed with with 70kg of explosives…” into a traffic police station (BBC, January 6, 2010)
As Dagestan continues to be an anti-Russian insurgent centerpiece in the North Caucasus, Western observers have begun taking notice of the turmoil and insurgency in the North Caucasus. The insurgency in the region has been the subject of Western media profiles, garnering much more attention from international media outlets as attacks emanating from groups in the region have risen in profile. Consequently, the North Caucasus has been the subject of increasing Western study in recent years, especially in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing April 15, 2013 when two Chechen nationals, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated two pressure cooker devices at the event, killing three people and wounding 264 others. Max Fisher published an outstanding blog article and primer about the unrest in Dagestan and Chechnya at the Washington Post earlier this year, posing nine questions about the conflict in Dagestan and Chechnya on April 19th. Fisher cites an International Crisis Group study and an examination by The Atlantic (linked in Fisher’s quote below) in his article and accurately states:
“It’s about identity, about law and order or its absence. It’s about the still-unresolved questions about Chechnya and Dagestan’s place within but still distinct from the larger Russian state. It’s really, really complicated.” (Fisher, Washington Post, April 19)
Foreign Policy Magazine has run two excellent pieces examining the roots of the terrorism in the North Caucasus and the response of the Russian government, both written by Moscow-based Newsweek Magazine correspondent Anna Nemtsova. The first article, written and published in June 2012, was an excellent analytical piece that outlined the Salafist nature of the burgeoning violence in Dagestan. In Putin’s Secret War, Nemtsova effectively describes the rising violence as reminiscent of the wars wracking Libya and Syria to Russians:
“To most Russians, the scene would probably look more like Syria or Libya than their own country. State television rarely broadcasts images or even official comments about the increasing human rights abuses by the FSB or police in Dagestan. It’s a part of Russia that newly returned President Vladimir Putin does not want to talk about now. Meanwhile, Dagestan is quietly turning from police action to the kind of shooting war against Islamic insurgents that Putin waged with brutal efficiency in Chechnya at the beginning of his first presidential term.” (Nemtsova, Foreign Policy Magazine, June 8, 2012)
In another impressive article she wrote for Foreign Policy Magazine, Nemtsova examines recent Russian political maneuvering and the likelihood that Dagestan’s newly elected president, Ramazan Abdulatipov, can tamp down the violence. In Dagestan’s Desperate Search for Peace, Nemtsova observes:
“Putin is now betting that Abdulatipov, a loyal servant of the Kremlin who originally hails from the northern Caucasus, can regain control over the situation. Abdulatipov, a former academic and diplomat, helped draft the Russian constitution in the 1990s and worked for many years to shape Moscow’s policies toward the country’s myriad of ethnic minority groups. Most of the Dagestanis I’ve asked say that, while they welcome Abdulatipov’s professed interest in reviving their national culture, they’re all too aware that folk songs cannot bring peace to a republic that is already on the verge of a virtual civil war between the families of police officers killed in the insurgency and the families of those who have seen family members arrested or ‘disappeared’ as suspected guerillas.” (Nemtsova, Foreign Policy Magazine, September 20, 2013)
Further, Nemtsova makes particular note of how Russian efforts to combat and root out the insurgent elements in Dagestan have been received by Dagestanis:
“For several years now I’ve been hearing Dagestani human rights activists, journalists, defense lawyers, and residents complaining about threats to their lives and violations of their rights. Since the spring of 2012, police have detained a large number of Muslims on suspicion of supporting the insurgency (also known as ‘the forest,’ since that’s where the guerillas tend to hide). Law enforcement officers often grab suspects on the street without a warrant and without informing families about the whereabouts of the detainee.” (Nemtsova, Foreign Policy Magazine, September 20, 2013)
This last portion of Nemtsova’s piece is especially important to highlight. If the tactics by which a government engages an area rife with terrorist support networks and havens is inspiring a backlash among the civilian population, questions arise as to the effectiveness of the policies and whether counter-terror efforts serve to create more anti-government forces than the policies eliminate. In an ominous concluding paragraph, Nemtsova quotes a pro-Kremlin analyst’s assessment of just how the problems of the North Caucasus are viewed from Moscow:
“Justice and the rule of law are in short supply in the region these days, says pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov. ‘The North Caucasus presents in concentrated form all the problems that plague Russia,’ Markov told me. ‘Yes, innocent people sometimes experience violations of their rights, sometimes even leading to death. But there is no time to reform the courts. The main goal of our struggle is to destroy the enemy.'” (Nemtsova, Foreign Policy Magazine, September 20, 2013)
The conflicts and insurgencies in Dagestan and the North Caucasus are lesser priority conflict areas to many Western analysts. As the Olympic Games in Sochi approach, the international media will descend upon southern Russia and the Caucasus. Terrorist groups in the Caucasus are likely to view the increased media exposure of the region as an opportunity to expose their message to the greater world community. Conducting terrorist attacks and committing acts of political violence in front of a wider audience are ostensibly cost effective ways in which to garner financial and moral support from likeminded terrorist organizations around the world. Russian security efforts conducted to ensure that The Games go off without serious incident could in fact prove detrimental to the achieving of that end if operations succeed only in inspiring support for support of the extremists in the region with heavy handed approaches. Salafists in particular have garnered a tremendous amount of support in the wake of Russian security operations which civilians complain unfairly target segments of the Dagestani population. As Anna Nemtsova observed in her Foreign Policy article in 2012, noting on the reaction of local Dagestani civilians to a raid by Russian federal forces in the capital city of Makhhachkala, Dagestan on May 19, 2012:
“The inhabitants of the house were suspected of participating in the Islamist underground. Gannushkina and her team tried for hours to convince the commander of the operation to let the women and children out and allow the men to surrender. But in the end, federal forces raided the house, killing one of the men, who was indeed armed; keeping the three women in custody for a day; and arresting and beating the other man at Kirovsky station. It was this arrest that precipitated the demonstration at the station the next day.
The situation at the station quickly spiraled out of control. Soon enough, blood was on the pavement. Several Salafi men grabbed this reporter’s notebook and camera, but returned them. A reporter for a web news portal went down in a scrum of fists, was pulled out and rescued by police, and later flew to Moscow to receive treatment for shock and bruises. The police started making arrests. The crowd threw chunks of pavement, hitting one policeman in the forehead, leaving a bloody gash. Before the crowd dispersed, 11 more people were in cells in Kirovsky station.” (Nemtsova, Foreign Policy Magazine, June 8, 2012)
Recent events, specifically the bombing in Volgograd, suggest that the willingness of insurgents in Dagestan to conduct more spectacular attacks such as suicide bombings is unlikely to wane. Russian security efforts to prevent high profile terror attacks will be central to Kremlin plans for securing Sochi during the Olympic Games this coming February. As The Games approach, observers and analysts will be watching carefully while anticipating efforts by both the Russian government and insurgent groups to shape the way the rest of the world views the conflict and the region.
Some additional resources for further study of Dagestan and recent related events are linked below.
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst
Latest posts by Eric Jones (see all)
- Overwatch: the Foreign Intrigue Podcast, Episode 2 (United States Presidential Candidates and Foreign Policy) - 15 February 2016
- Overwatch: the Foreign Intrigue Podcast, Episode 1 (Foreign Policy and the US Presidential Election) - 8 February 2016
- Central Asia at a Crossroads: Introduction and Overview - 30 December 2015