Volgograd and the Caucasus Emirate

December 31, 2013
The bus destroyed in Volgograd on December 30, 2013 | Reuters

The recent bombings in Volgograd and a car bomb in Pyatigorsk (3 dead) have captured the attention of the international community, not only because of the horrific nature of the attacks but because they have taken place in cities outside the Caucasus republics that are normally the scene of such attacks, and due to the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi. The International Olympic Committee has stated that it has the full confidence in Russian authorities to protect the games. Since the bombings, The Interpreter has been following the story and providing a detailed picture of the still-emerging information. Keeping in mind that information is just starting to come together, it is still a safe bet that the bombings can be attributed to the Caucasus Emirate, Russia’s homegrown Islamist insurgency. With that, and the upcoming Olympic Games, in mind, we can analyze the threat and potential for further attacks in the region and in Sochi by attempting to understand who the terrorists are and what they are capable of.

As I have written before, the authorities have taken extensive measures to provide for a safe and secure Olympic Games (which is the reason that they said no further steps are going to be taken because “everything necessary already has been done.”) A security zone has been established that stretches 100 kilometers along the coast and 40 kilometers inland around Sochi (Federal Law 310-FZ),  there is a ban on gun sales, traffic is strictly controlled and an electronic surveillance program (SORM) has been established that has been labelled “PRISM on steroids.” There will be Su-27 aircraft, S-400 air defense systems, and even brand new patrol boats to protect the coastline. The security operation will also consist of 25,000 police, 20-30,000 soldiers and 8,000 Interior Minsitry (VV) troops which will include a special forces unit (as NYU Professor Mark Galeotti and I wrote about in an article detailing the security preparations in the International Centre for Sports Security, the unit would most likely be “17th ‘Eidelweis’ Special Purpose Detachment from Mineralnye Vody –which specializes in mountain operations—or the 15th ‘Vyatich’ Special Purpose Detachment from Armavir). Border Troops patrols will also be increased along the Georgian border to prevent infiltration, and the FSB’s elite Alpha special forces unit will be beefed up. All told the estimated cost of these security measures is $2 billion, more than twice spent on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (but not surprising, with the security threats and the rampant corruption that have led to the Sochi Olympics becoming the most expensive ever). A window into the Kremlin’s thinking on this issue is the fact that the Kremlin placed Sochi’s security operations under the supervision of Oleg Syromolotov, who comes from the FSB counter-intelligence division as opposed to a counter-terrorism expert, which tellingly displays the real fear of Russian authorities.

However, despite the massive security operation—and the aggressive targeting of terrorist cells and leaders in recent months—there can never be 100% security, and the terrorists of the Caucasus Emirate have time and again proven their ability to carry out attacks outside of the Caucasus. Rightly, the Russian authorities consider the threat as high enough to warrant the impressive security efforts. And the attacks in Volgograd are just the latest examples of the Caucasus Emirate using suicide bombers and attacking Russia’s transportation infrastructure (2009 Nevsky Express train attack, 2010 Moscow Metro Bombings, 2011 Domodedovo Airport attacks). But like many terrorist organizations today, the Caucasus Emirate—which was established in 2007 and was the gradual transformation of a Chechen nationalist/independence inspired resistance to a more regional Islamist insurgency—serves as an umbrella organization that, as Galeotti notes, has “no centralized command, and real operational control is exerted at the level of local jamaats and individual cells.” The head of the Emirate (also known as Imarat Kavkaz) is Doku Umarov, who spends most of his time trying to outrun Ramzan Kadyrov’s henchmen who occasionally purport to have killed him (the latest time was on December 18th when Kadyrov delcared,: “I officially state that Umarov is long dead”). But as noted before, his ability to control and direct operations is limited at best, especially considering the fact that his leadership has been criticized and even led to a split among the Caucasus Emirate, with four of the most respected commanders disavowing their allegiance to him and which took a considerable amount of time and the ruling of its Sharia Court to re-legitimate his leadership. The Emirate is nominally broken into five Vilaiyats or sectors (Vilaiyats were the administrative regions of the Ottoman Empire) which in turn oversee a patchwork of Jamaats and individual cells who operate relatively autonomously.

Despite the disparate nature of the insurgency and the increasingly ruthless tactics of the North Caucasus authorities that have led to the killing of several high level commanders in recent years, Volgograd has displayed the continued presence of not only willing terrorists, but the ability to create effective suicide bombers and bombs, no matter how rudimentary (Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee has stated that the bombs—initial reports say TNT packed with shrapnel—had “identical” shrapnel alluding to the fact that it could have been created by the same bomb maker.) One of Umarov’s deputy is Aslan Byutukayev, also known as Emir Khamzat, who is in charge of the logistical support and psychological preparation of the Emirate’s suicide bombers. Yet, it is unclear if he played any role as it seems that the attack had its origins in Dagestan, and considering that suicide bombers have to be utilized (manipulated) within a relatively short time frame and cannot be stockpiled for use in the future at an opportune time.

But the attacks in Volgograd display their weaknesses as much as any threat to the Olympics. As Mark Galeotti noted: “unless and until the terrorists are able to come up with something qualitatively or quantitatively different (and yes, some major attack on Sochi might qualify), then it is hard to see the misery they create having any major impact.” As was mentioned before, the security preparations at Sochi are quite extensive and a successful attack would require extensive planning, preparation, logistics and an overall level of coordination and tradecraft that the Caucasus Emirate really does not possess.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia’s security services, does believe that there is a significant threat to the Olympics because of the havoc that even a small cell, operating independently, could create: “First, the fact that in order to disrupt the Olympics there is no need to hold large-scale terrorist attacks, which involved a large number of people. By and large, the explosions can be arranged literally terrorist cells or a single cell, it will be enough.” And while it is absolutely correct that a single autonomous terror cell can create havoc, the fact that the latest attacks inside Russia—but still within the Southern Federal District which is next to the North Caucasus Federal District—were not in Sochi could mean that the security preparations were effective in deterring an attack and the cells looked to an easier locale to attack. Additionally, as the attacks in Volgograd was most likely the work of an autonomous terror cell in Dagestan (like the bus attack in October in the same city), they likely did not have the financial or logistical support necessary to reach Sochi or even Moscow as was the case in 2009, 2010 and 2011. That is why Volgograd was targeted; it is still close enough to Sochi to threaten the Olympics and also serves as a major regional transportation center, but is relatively unprotected compared to Sochi or the rest of the North Caucasus. The attacks are meant to cast a pall over the games and to serve as a rallying point for the insurgency in the run up to the actual games, along with the fact that attacks were likely launched because the bombers were ready, as opposed to waiting for the most opportune moment (as said before, suicide bombers have a short shelf life). It also means that it is highly likely that there will be more Volgograd and Pyatigorsk style attacks against less protected locales in the coming weeks.

Putin has staked his reputation on a smooth and incident-free Olympics (that includes any protests against the draconian anti-LGBT laws). But Umarov has also staked his leadership and reputation on his ability—or at least his ability to encourage others—to disrupt the same games. On July 2nd he released a video in which he ended his moratorium on attacks against civilians and inside Russia that he established in February 2012, and he called for, “all mujahedin fighters in the region and Russia’s other subjects not to allow Satanist games to be held on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea.” While it remains to be seen whether an attack can actually pulled off against the Olympics, the threat is certainly there and the terrorists have certainly stated their intent.

If the Games pass without interruption it is certainly not for a lack of will that the Emirate is unable to disrupt the display of athletic prowess and international competition. Whatever the future hold for the Olympics, unfortunately it is almost certain that Russia is set to see more bloodshed and reactions from the authorities against the populace of the region.