The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Investigative Committee officers at the bomb site. Photo: AFP

Russian Security Expert: FSB Not Equipped to Fight Terrorism

"This will lead to an explosive growth in xenophobia.”

A massive security operation has been launched in Volgograd following the December 29th and 30th bombings in the city that have claimed at least 34 lives. Hundreds have been detained, mostly migrants from North Caucasus. With the Sochi Olympics only 5 weeks away, a Russian security expert warns that the FSB, The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, is not designed to catch or stop the kind of terrorism we’re seeing in Russia, and the security operations are, in his view, mainly for show. — Ed.

In late December 2013, two terrorist acts took place in Volgograd; on 29 December, there was an explosion at the railway station, and on the 30th, on a crowded trolley bus. Furthermore, two months earlier, a female suicide bomber had blown herself up on a Volgograd bus. All these terrorist acts led to human casualties. And all of them, according to the statements of sources in law-enforcement agencies, were staged as part of the same series; they have “a common signature” and common organizers. learned from Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian “special services,” i.e. the intelligence services, who could be behind the terrorist acts, why the Federal Security Service (FSB) in its current form is insufficiently effective in fighting terrorism — and to what, in the end, the terror on the Volga will lead.

Andrei Soldatov is editor-in-chief of, and is one of the main Russian specialists studying the work of the intelligence agencies. In a conversation with, he acknowledged that the actions of the FSB and the police in Volgograd are of a “desperate populist nature.”

“Such measures can calm those who are unhappy with the government but can hardly help fight the terrorists and suicide bombers,” he said.

In Soldatov’s opinion, in the second half of the 2000s, while the Russian intelligence agencies were reforming, radical Islamists in the North Caucasus were also re-organizing their structure. They rejected “quasi-military formations, regiments and brigades” in favor of small cells which were distinguished for their high effectiveness. Soldatov believes that the terrorist acts in Volgograd vividly illustrate that one of the leaders of Doku Umarov’s Islamist underground there now has “both people and opportunities” in order to engage in terrorism in central Russia.

SR: How would you describe the situation in Volgograd from the side?

AS: Panic broke out in the city, which is quite understandable – we now have not one terrorist act but a series. These measures [a ramp-up of security, with widespread arrests -- Ed.] which are being taken now – many of these are of a desperate populist nature, like the introduction of volunteer patrols. We went through all that in Moscow in 1999; understandably, such measures can calm those who are unhappy with the government but such measures hardly help fight terrorists and suicide bombers.

Andrei Soldatov. Photo: RFE/RL


SR: Why?

AS: Because the patrols are good only for preventing the attack of a large group of armed people – they help to rapidly identify and rapidly react, but this is utterly unsuitable for lone terrorist acts. In order to catch a person with an explosive device, you have to have the necessary training. Therefore, by the way, the current panicked calls to vigilance are not sufficiently effective – in order to identify a suicide bomber, you have to possess certain skills, and the ordinary person doesn’t understand that very well. It ends up with people overwhelming the FSB and local departments of the Interior Ministry all over the country with phone calls describing suspicious persons who turn out to be drivers, people of a different ethnicity or people who behave a little strangely. Unfortunately, this leads to an explosive growth in xenophobia.

SR: What skills do you need to possess to catch a terrorist suicide bomber?

AS: In fact, people are trained for a rather long time to do this, and I repeat, I won’t even give advice, because an ordinary person cannot determine this – and on the whole, he shouldn’t get involved, it’s a matter for the intelligence agencies. Moreover, 80% of discovering a suicide-bomber involves [already] collected information. Unfortunately, now the main problem [for the FSB] is the rapid and sometimes instant exchange of information between various sub-divisions of various agencies, in fact throughout the whole country, from the North Caucasus to Moscow and other regions. And here the Russian intelligence agencies always had a big problem and it hasn’t been solved to this day. Mainly, it’s connected with a lack of trust; people have poor trust in information which comes from the FSB departments for Chechnya, Dagestan or Ingushetia. In turn, the Moscow Chekists [the secret police] are reluctant to share their information with the North Caucasus departments. This problem has snowballed.

SR: But still – is there any distinguishing characteristics in the way a suicide bomber behaves versus an ordinary person?

AS: It could be someone like girls who are very nervous in public places, and when people in uniform approach. But you see, it is such a diffuse category that a large number of my acquaintances who get nervous just passing through the airport could fall into it. I don’t want to give any advice to avoid a large number of false signals.

SR: You worked on most terrorist acts in Russia, from the apartment house explosions in Moscow to Beslan [school hostage crisis], and as far as I recall, you were in close contact with FSB representatives. Did they start teaching people to distinguish suicide bombers?

AS: Here’s the situation: the thing is that the Russian intelligence agencies and counter-terrorist divisions passed through their period of reform in 2006-2007. The problem is that at that time, they were reformed with the emphasis on opposing one specific form of threat, that is, the appearance of a large group of fighters in a city. That is, when a crowd of fighters appears in a city, and seizes control over the regional or republican center. To a large extent, they tried to prevent what happened in 2005 in Nalchik, or earlier in Ingushetia, when fighters controlled almost all of Ingushetia for two days. For the sake of this, and for this purpose, they reformed all the intelligence services and thanks to this, such things appeared as operations headquarters and anti-terrorist commissions. The accent was made on the coordination of intelligence agencies in one city; if you had a crisis in a city, everyone starts telephoning each other, everyone knows where to run, and coordination at some level becomes more effective.

The problem is that in the case of the lone suicide bombers, this scheme didn’t work, and the bitter irony was that while the Russian intelligence services were going through their period of reform, the Islamists in the North Caucasus passed through their own period of reform.

SR: What, exactly?

AS: It was right at that time, in late 2006, that they rejected the quasi-military formations, regiments and brigades and went over to the cell structure – operating in small groups, little cells of five or six people, is much more effective both from the perspective of security and from the perspective of [preventing] penetration into the organization of people from the FSB. Furthermore, such a cell is sufficient in order to organize a terrorist act with the use of the shakhid [suicide bomber].

Our intelligence services were not prepared for this, and this is a very serious problem. You have to take into account one other thing – if we speak in Moscow about several divisions throughout the North Caucasus, the Russian FSB to this day lives within the framework of a structure created, I dare say, back in Stalin’s day.

The regional services of the FSB are direct successors to the NKVD, which were created in order to pass through them a large quantity of people for persecution, when they had to run through a crowd, try them and then quickly execute them. So this system, with very minimal changes, survived to the present time; it was not touched during the time of Andropov [in the 1980s] nor in the 1990s. Putin was afraid to touch it, because it’s not clear what can be done with it – it is too enormous and is not suitable for the modern type of threats, since the bottleneck, again, is the exchange of information between regional departments. Everything has become bureaucratized and while a report goes from one point to another…

Yet another severe problem which appeared several years ago is a crisis of faith inside the intelligence agencies themselves — between people at the level of majors and colonels and their bosses. The middle ranks do not trust their leadership very much, since they considers it to be corrupted.

SR: So what happens?

AS: The channels of information become stopped up, and no one inside the intelligence agencies is inclined to show initiative. And it’s completely unclear what can be done about this.

SR: More than seven years have passed since the time of the transfer to the “cell structure for terrorist acts.” Could nothing really be done in that time?

AS: The battle with terrorism has quietly come to naught – due to the fact that the number of terrorist acts has grown smaller. I remember several years ago, they tried to implement a program to battle with the propaganda of terrorism. They created some sort of resources, including media, they made websites. When I began to ask [at the FSB] what was going on, I was told, “Just wait, nothing has happened here for a year, and it [terrorism] has receded from the focus of attention.” In the absence of any oversight over the activity of the intelligence services (and the intelligence services in our country have one client in the person of Vladimir Putin, and they long ago came to an agreement with him, by which criteria he will evaluate their effectiveness) and the Chekists have no desire to push themselves toward reacting to a change in circumstances.

SR: By what criteria is the work of the intelligence agencies evaluated?

AS: In the law on combating terrorist activity which existed under Yeltsin, the definition of terrorism was as follows: a terrorist act that costs the lives of a large number of people. Under Putin, terrorism is formulated as “a policy of intimidation and pressure on government bodies.” And the message on the part of the Kremlin was this: don’t allow the possibility that terrorists will dictate to the authorities what they should do. So when you have an explosion of a suicide bomber, and no one puts forth any political demands, accordingly, threats of pressure and dictation of terms to government bodies do not occur.

After the Nevsky Express explosion, a former judge appeared on Ekho Moskvy; she said a brilliant thing, that under the current law, even an explosion in a train cannot be qualified as a terrorist act because political demands were not put forth. The entire system of the FSB is focused on not letting situations occur in which terrorists force a prime minister to call somewhere and let people out of prison. They wanted to make the state system impenetrable, and it is impenetrable. It is impossible in Russia to pressure the state system with the aid of terrorist acts, but the state system is not suited for preventing blasts.

SR: What security measures do the FSB take?

AS: This list does not change; everything is put on round-the-clock duty; everyone’s vacations and days-off end; everyone sits on the telephones or in buildings and headquarters of the relevant divisions and waits for something. A huge number of meetings take place. This creates the appearance of vigorous activity but the results are low, because in this case, only a long-term strategy works – if good work is established with low-level agents in Dagestan and agents that serve in the FSB department for Volgograd, then something might be done. But if the channels are not very good, then it is impossible to do anything in a day.

SR: Should we expect new terrorist attacks?

AS: That’s a difficult question. Taking into account the coming Olympics in Sochi, we must have in mind the worst-case scenario: this series [of terrorist attacks] is important not in and of itself, since it is understood that there were no special demands from the terrorists in Volgograd Region. They are never put forth, Volgograd was never part of the North Caucasus, the population there didn’t suffer from the war, there is only a small group of nationalists there and so on. We have to take into account scenarios in which this series of terrorist acts are a diversionary attack to distract attention – that is a very well-known tactic which [Shamil] Basayev [one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria] used even before Beslan. If you recall, in order to distract the attention of the intelligence services, there was arranged a series of terrorist acts in Moscow, there was the explosion at the Rizhskaya metro station – and only later they seized the school in Beslan. This is a very effective tactic to shift attention.

A man carries a wounded child out of a school building seized by terrorists in Beslan in 2004. Photo: Ivan Sekretaryev/AP


SR: Why did the terrorist acts occur precisely in Volgograd?

AS: First, this is a city in central Russia, it is important psychologically – the fighters are demonstrating that they can organize terrorist acts outside the boundaries of the North Caucasus. Plus, the road to Dagestan passes through Volgograd. This is convenient—you accentuate the attention on one city, siloviki [power ministry officials] began to flow there for several months, and during that time, you can do something else.

SR: Are the powers of the FSB sufficient to prevent terrorist acts?

AS: Again, this is a massive and enormous structure, but they are not all occupied with the fight against terrorism. It is impossible within one day to shift them to oppose exactly this form of threat.

SR: What are people trained to do in the FSB system?

AS: Above all, to preserve the political security of the system, that is their main task. In Russian terminology, this is called “defense of the Constitutional order.” All the rest is part of the big idea.

SR: Then what about the counter-extremism center?

AS: The “E” center [as the counter-extremism center is known] was reformed in 2007 in order to counteract another form of threat. Before, this was the “T” center, the department to counter organized crime and terrorism; now it is occupied with countering the dissemination of protest sentiments in society.

SR: There were no terrorist acts in central Russia for two years. What was the reason, do you think?

AS: The thing is, after the beginning of the Moscow protests, Doku Umarov [the last president of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria] announced that he does not intend to stage terrorist acts precisely because protests were under way. Then he removed the embargo on terrorist acts in July of 2013. The main question was the following: were there no blasts because the intelligence agencies worked well, or because Umarov had declared an embargo? And does he have people and opportunities in order to commit terrorist acts in central Russia? Unfortunately, we have obtained affirmative replies to all our questions – yes, he has both people and opportunities.