In the days following the metro attacks in Moscow, media coverage has coalesced around two distinct narratives that ‘make sense’ of things. The options seem to be these: (a) militants operating out of the North Caucasus represent a link in the global chain of Islamic terrorism, or (b) these acts of violence are the consequence of the Kremlin’s military occupation of the region, which sustains an extremist separatist movement.
Before considering the details of these theories, let’s first identify the biases contained therein.
Hypothesis ‘A’ appeals especially to the Kremlin, but it has its supporters in the West, too. As blogger poemless pointed out in a comment on a previous post, tying Chechen terrorism to the larger War on Terror is a mutually beneficial interpretation for Russian siloviki and American hawks. To the degree that such attacks are international, the Kremlin is accordingly ‘let off the hook’ for governance failures internally. Terrorism wonks, on the other hand, gain the opportunity to highlight another proof of Islamism’s threat (and, therefore, another justification for their field’s existence and funding). Or perhaps Islamic terrorism analysts just see Islamic terrorism wherever they look, it being their job to study Islamic terrorism.
Hypothesis ‘B’ is, I think, the more traditional story Westerners like to tell about Russia’s Chechen terrorism problem. The payoff here is that militants’ attacks on Russian civilians, understood as motivated by nationalism, are the direct consequence of Moscow’s imperialist polices in the North Caucasus. Applying this line of thinking to American confrontations with terrorism (i.e., to implicate U.S. foreign policy in the causation of terrorist attacks on the U.S.) would be considered wildly leftist, if not treasonous. When directed at Russia, however, this interpretation is a favorite means of criticizing the Kremlin’s security policies and the efficiency of the Russian state on the whole.
This brings me to Robert Pape’s op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, titled “What Makes Chechen Women So Dangerous?” The article is a regurgitation of the same argument he’s been making for the past five years, since publishing his book “Dying to Win: the Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” Pape completely and uncompromisingly endorses of Hypothesis ‘B.’
There are, to put it mildly, a lot of problems with Robert Pape’s op-ed. As his colleagues have already pointed out (see American Political Science Review, Volume 102, Issue 02, May 2008, pp 269-273), he only samples suicide attacks in his research, making it impossible to assess the motivations of wider, mixed-tactics terrorist campaigns. (For instance, Pape’s calculus would ignore the first of yesterday’s two bombings in Dagestan, on the grounds that the first attack involved a remote car bomb – not a suicide explosion.) Even if Pape is correct that the individuals who strap themselves to bombs indeed operate under non-religious imperatives, we can hardly conclude that the support networks enabling these attacks would be possible without the role of religious extremism.
More than anything, reading “What Makes Chechen Women So Dangerous?” demonstrates the author’s weak grasp of Russian and Chechen history. The following transition left me particularly enraged:
In the 1990s, the rebels kicked out tens of thousands of Russian troops who had been sent to the region to prevent Chechnya, a republic within the Russian Federation, from declaring independence. In 1999, the Russians came back […]
The Russians didn’t simply “come back” in 1999. Reengaging Chechnya was, of course, Putin’s initiative – a campaign he undertook in response to hundreds killed by a series of apartment bombings (this story is disputed by conspiracy theorists) and Shamil Basaev’s invasion of Chechnya’s eastern neighbor, Dagestan (this story is disputed by nobody). Pape’s language doesn’t just dismiss these extremely well-known provocations – it implies that nothing happened between 1996 and 1999, the period between the Khasav-Yurt Accord (ending the first war) and Basaev’s invasion of Dagestan (sparking the second). With Yeltsin at the low point of his presidency and Russia paralyzed by the financial crisis, Chechnya experienced a flowering of liberal democracy and property rights a sharp Islamic radicalization and general (further) impoverishment that transformed a bombed and war torn region into an even less hospitable bombed and war torn region. While Russia would have eventually reattempted the pacification of Chechnya regardless, it’s not irrelevant that Chechnya’s years of independence actually exacerbated its problems with religious fanaticism, crime, and anarchy.
Apparently there was a three-year pause in suicide attacks between 2004 and 2007. Pape explains it in this way:
The answer is loss of public support in Chechnya for the rebellion […]. [One reason] was revulsion against the 2004 Beslan school massacre in which Chechen rebels murdered hundreds of Russian children. “A bigger blow could not have been dealt on us,” one of the separatists’ spokesmen said at the time. “People around the world will think that Chechens are beasts and monsters if they could attack children.”
I suppose the idea here is that Chechen militants lost moral credibility when they murdered 186 schoolchildren. So, according to Pape’s logic, they realized the need to shift their tactics, somehow. And six years later, they kill forty random people on the Moscow metro? Is this Pape’s “public support” causality at work?
And, finally, what about Pape’s assessment of Doku Umarov, who is universally known as a 1990s-rebel turned-jihadist. Here’s what Pape says about Umarov:
He also made clear that his campaign was not about restoring any Islamic caliphate, but about Chechen independence: “This is the land of our brothers and it is our sacred duty to liberate these lands” [my emphasis].
This is a perfect example of the degree to which Pape is willing to distort the facts in order to justify his thesis. Forgetting that Umarov is a notorious and self-declared jihadist, Pape actually quotes him saying “our sacred duty” in an effort to disprove that his aims are “Islamic.”
So are Chechen terrorists’ aims, in fact, just Islamist? Are the Hypothesis ‘A’ people right, after all?
No, I don’t think that, either.
It should come as no surprise that – whatever the hell is happening in the North Caucasus today – it is clearly a combination of many factors, and cannot possibly be limited to either international terrorism or separatist, anti-occupation campaigns. Have a look at Doku Umarov’s official explanation of why he ordered the Moscow subway bombings (summarized here on Sean’s Russia Blog): he did it as a response to the February 2010 “massacre” of “peaceful civilians” in the villages of Arshty and Datykh in Ingushetia. Indeed, the president of Ingushetia himself, Yunus-Bek Evkurov, acknowledged the deaths of four innocent bystanders in this “special operation,” though he attributed the casualties to accidental crossfire.
So Umarov does indeed respond to what might be described as the “occupying pressures of Russian military forces.” But the man is also a religious nut. Glance at any interview he’s given to Kavkaz Center and you’ll find sermons peppered with “иншааЛлах” (if God wills it) and open invitations to international mujahedeen. “Right now, there aren’t even enough means to support all the mujahedeen who want to join our jihad in the name of establishing God’s Word across the Earth,” he boasted last month.
The odds are that both the militants and the Kremlin would prefer to exaggerate the presence of international men and materiel in the Caucasus. Everybody’s status goes up if the North Caucasus is a theater in the GWOT. Pape and the occupation-theorists, on the other hand, clearly wish to downplay the role played by violent religious beliefs.
The one perspective I’ve yet to see well articulated in the press happens to be the angle that most interests me: the criminal dimension. The reigniting of the North Caucasian ‘hot spot’ occurred largely in synch with the financial crisis. The region is notoriously poor and dependent on federal subsidies. Could it be that this surge in violence is the consequence of a clan war over increasingly scarce resources? Or are gangs exploding bombs in some effort to sustain the federal government’s attention and investments?
I am thoroughly curious to hear more about this.