Roots of terrorism in Russia — an expert weighs in

An interview with former BBC journalist and Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal about what's driving the ongoing terrorist attacks in Russia.

Q&A with Caucasus specialist Thomas de Waal

Thomas de Waal, former BBC journalist and co-author of Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus.
Too often, Russia — which, sadly, is consigned generally to the back pages of newspapers these days — bursts back into world headlines after yet another particularly gruesome bomb or terrorist attack. 

Since 1996, more than 1,000 people have died in terrorist attacks there. Only last spring, the world was sickened by a devastating bomb explosion in Moscow's crowded subway system that killed 40 people and injured more than 100.

A particularly horrifying terrorist stunt in 2002 involved Chechen terrorists who padded themselves with explosives and then took a Moscow theatre audience of some 800 people hostage. The explosion was averted, but a botched government rescue attempt resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.

Another hostage-taking and controversial rescue attempt by Russian forces two years later led to the deaths of 334 hostages, mostly children, at a school in the southern town of Beslan.

A police officer checks the hand luggage of a woman as people wait in a line to pass through a metal detector at Moscow's Domodedovo airport Jan. 25, 2011, a day after a suicide bomber caused an explosion that killed at least 36 people. ((Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters))

The culprits behind these and other dramatic acts of violence have been, for the most part, terrorists from Chechnya and the North Caucasus region, where enmity toward the Russian government runs bitter and deep.

Thomas de Waal knows more about this historic hatred than most people. A former journalist for the BBC and the Moscow Times, he is the co-author of Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. He is currently a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, specializing in the Caucasus region.

He spoke with CBC's Jennifer Clibbon, who was the news producer in the CBC's Moscow bureau from 2000 to 2003, about the context of the terrorist attack and the likely political fallout for the two men who run Russia, President Dimitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. 

CBC News: Medvedev has placed much of the blame for the Jan. 24 attack on security officials at Domodedova airport. But if, as many people suspect, the attack was the result of terrorists from the North Caucasus, then this is a deep-rooted problem stemming back years and connected to the government's policies in that region. Would you agree?

Yes. This is a very complex problem whose roots date back to at least 1994, the date of the disastrous and bloody Russian military intervention in Chechnya. That set in train two wars in Chechnya and the loss of tens of thousands of lives, most of them civilians.

Moscow has more or less pacified Chechnya, but in 2009, the Russian federal security forces still lost more than 300 men in the wider North Caucasus region — more than the U.S. has lost in Afghanistan or Iraq. And since 2002, the year of the terrorist raid on the Moscow theatre, North Caucasian militants have attacked soft targets outside their home region and in the rest of Russia. The Russian government has made a lot of tactical decisions in this region, and a lot of bad ones, but it still looks as though it lacks an overall strategy.

CBC News: Could you summarize the state of relations between Putin and Medvedev's Russian government and the North Caucasus regions?

Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, a 34-year-old mini-despot who has near-total control of the region and is an ally of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dimitri Medvedev. ((Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press))
Since around 2003, the policy has been to pull back most ethnic Russian soldiers, hand off control to local pro-Moscow leaders and declare the conflict won. Now, Chechnya is ruled by an extravagant 34-year-old mini-despot named Ramzan Kadyrov who has near-total control of the region and is enforcing many features of Islamic rule but who is left alone by Putin and Medvedev because he swears loyalty to them.

So, this is very much a case now of the tail wagging the dog, and Putin and Medvedev find it hard to exercise central control over the region.

CBC News: Many people in the West forget about the wars in Chechnya. The situation in that region is still very tense and produces many terrorists keen on revenge. Can you explain this enmity toward Russia.

This is a region with a long history of conflict with the Russian state, stretching back into the long colonial wars of the 19th century when the tsars sought to conquer the mountains of the North Caucasus and the Islamic peoples who lived there and resisted them.

In 1944, Stalin deported four of the nations of this region en masse — down to the last child and infant — to Central Asia, killing tens of thousands of people in the process. They were only allowed to return home in 1957. The Chechens were the largest of these national groups. So, there is a difficult history there. Having said that, I believe war could have been avoided in 1994 if the then government of Boris Yeltsin had met the Chechen pro-independence movement halfway, not granting them full independence but giving them proper respect for their national aspirations.

CBC News: The Jan. 24 attack, many say, was targeted at foreigners. How might it been an attempt to humiliate the Russian government internationally?

A man carries an injured child who escaped from a school in Beslan, southern Russia, during a hostage taking by Chechen militants on Sept. 3, 2004, in which 334 people died. ((Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press))
The tactic of the militants, like many other terrorist movements, is to remind their enemies in as graphic and bloody a way as possible that they exist. They say, 'You can succeed many times, but we only need to succeed once.' And the problem for Russia is that it is so big, so multi-ethnic and so corrupt that it is impossible to monitor all possible suspects and to maintain absolute security in all public places. The rather depressed look of the Russian leaders must reflect their sense of powerlessness in the face of this problem.

CBC News: The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are meant to be a showcase for Russia. How might attacks like this and last year's metro bombing impact the execution of those Olympics?

The 2014 Sochi Olympics are a big challenge for Russia, being held on the Black Sea coast not far from the ongoing violence of the North Caucasus. That is a huge security headache, and I don't believe they can cope with it without enlisting very extensive international support. But there is no way that Russia will back out of the Olympics now. For better or worse, everyone involved has a stake in making them work.

CBC News: Is there a resolution to the conflict in the North Caucasus or is there too much ill will now directed at Putin's and Medvedev's policies in the region and against nationals of that region?

There is certainly no short-term solution to the ongoing violence in the North Caucasus. The best thing that can be said about the conflict is that the militants do not enjoy widespread support. Most of the population is not so radical and wants to get on with their lives.

But there is now what looks like a permanent radical minority who have the means and the will to carry on perpetrating acts of violence and terror like this. And it will take years, if not decades, to make the region more stable and economically viable to persuade marginalized people that it is not worth their while joining the insurgency.