As Russians prepared to celebrate the New Year, two horrendous explosions shook the city of Volgograd. Monday’s terrorist attacks -- both carried out by suicide bombers -- killed more than 30 people and injured more than 60 others.
Given the severity of the injuries, the death count will surely climb. And new attacks are possible.
The bombings came just five weeks before the opening of the Winter Olympics at Sochi, a Russian city that sits by the Black Sea. Many analysts view the bombings as an attempt to deter tourists and foreign leaders from attending the games.
Another explanation is that they were payback by Sunni radicals for Russia’s support of Syrian dictator Bashar el-Assad. Last summer Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual guide of the Moslem Brotherhood, named Russia as the “Enemy #1 of Sunni Islam.”
The tactics, the choice of targets, and the size of the bombs (more than 20 pounds of TNT) suggest multiple objectives: to kill as many Russians as possible, to destroy New Year’s cheer, and to disrupt President Vladimir Putin’s flagship project—the Sochi Olympics.
Putin’s reaction has been muted thus far. He flew to the Russian Pacific Far East to celebrate the New Year with the victims of unprecedented floods there. He mentioned the attacks in his New Year address.
He also ordered Russian law enforcement agencies to tighten security measures.
But he failed to address the nation on national TV immediately after the bombings, nor did he announce national days of mourning.
Volgograd has become a prime terrorist target in Russia. The bombings marked the sixth time Islamists have attacked the city.
A few years ago, female suicide bombers blew up two passenger planes flying from Moscow to Volgograd.
This past August, terrorists targeted police headquarters, but failed to execute the attack. On October 21, a female suicide bomber from Dagestan detonated her explosives in a passenger bus, killing five and injuring some 30 more.
Dagestan has become the epicenter of Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. The Russians have been unable to fully identify and neutralize the armed Salafi underground there. The political and religious struggle between traditional Caucasus Sufi Islam and the Wahhabi extremism imported from the Middle East continues, and the local elites and their Russian bosses do not know what to do.
A major player there is the Caucasus Emirate, a Salafi-Wahhabi terrorist organization with connections to al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is headed by Doku Umarov’s, a man with a price on his head, courtesy of the UN and the U.S.
Earlier this year Umarov declared that his forces would do everything possible to derail the Sochi games. In July, he cancelled the moratorium on strikes on Russian civilian targets he introduced in winter 2012. Now he urges his followers to attack the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which lies close to the North Caucasus.
In the run up to the Olympics, Russian authorities tried to assure the public that their war against terrorism is succeeding. Yesterday’s attacks demonstrate that it is not. The separatists in the North Caucasus understand that they need to strike now, when the world's attention is riveted on Sochi.
The terrorists hope their attacks will serve multiple purposes. They aim to intimidate the Russians, gain support from fellow Moslems in the Caucasus, curry favor with Syrian extremists and their radical sponsors, and scare away tourists and foreign dignitaries.
Russia’s leaders see terrorism as an unavoidable evil. They are collecting saliva from women in North Caucasus, so that the security services can use DNA analysis to identify bombers. It is a tacit admission that future attacks are inevitable.
Meanwhile, the region’s security crisis and inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflict may have irreversibly shattered civic peace in Russia. Slavic and Christian Orthodox extremism has risen in response to expanding Salafi/Wahhabi influence and violence.
Increasingly in Russia, Muslims—especially Muslim youth—are seen and treated as aliens. The North Caucasus are viewed as a kind of “internal abroad.” Instead of integrating Muslims into Russian culture and trying to boost tolerance and acceptance of Muslims among ethnic Russians, Moscow has kept pushing Muslims away—and into the hands of terrorist recruiters.
Moscow has never developed, much less implemented a strategy to end the Caucasus insurgency. Instead, it has delegated responsibility for solving the problem to corrupt and authoritarian leaders like Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Moscow-run security services do provide, however, poor intelligence work against terrorist targets and sloppy security procedures. (Bags, for example, are routinely not checked where they are supposed to be, and non-functioning metal detectors are used at transportation hubs.) Throw in rampant corruption among the secret police and law enforcement and you have all the ingredients needed for continuing security disasters.
As the world mourns the victims of Volgograd, it should brace itself for more—and bloodier—terror attacks in Russia, including during the Sochi Olympics.
Instead of antagonizing the West, Moscow would be better off expanding its security cooperation with countries that are successfully keeping terrorists at bay.
Ariel Cohen, PhD, is Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.