Resurgence of suicide attacks in the Caucasus

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Aftermath at Nazran (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)

Over the last few months there has been a spate of suicide attacks in the Russia regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia. On 22 June a suicide VBIED was used to attack the convoy of the President of Ingushetia, Yunnus Bek-Yevkurov. The vehicle was reportedly carrying 70kg of high explosive and the subsequent explosion damaged all four vehicles, including the President’s armoured Mercedes. Yevkurov’s driver and a bodyguard were killed by the blast while both Yevkurov and his brother were wounded. Subsequent to the attack, a claim of responsibility was made by a group calling itself the Riyad-us-Saliheen (Gardens of the Righteous) Martyrs’ Brigade (also known as the Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion). This was the name of the group led by the infamous Chechen militant Shamil Basayev, who, before being killed by Russian forces in 2005, was responsible for a number of high-profile attacks in Russia, including the school siege at Beslan. [1] The group is now apparently led by a Chechen rebel named  Doku Umarov. Reports over the identity of the bomber appear confused; one source claims the attacker was a man, while others state the bomber was the widow of a militant killed by Russian forces. The latter is certainly in keeping with the modus operandi of previous Chechen suicide attacks, which have seen so-called ‘Black Widows’ utilised in a range of different attacks.[2]

A second attack occured on 26 july at a concert hall in the Chechen capital city of Grozny, killing five people, four of whom were police officers. Reports on the attack implied that the attacker was stopped by the police officers and detonated himself. It is not clear from available sources what the specific target of the attack was (e.g. a mass casualty attack or a more discriminating strike against an individual attending the concert hall).

Then on 17 August, in a return to more traditional Chechen-style suicide attacks, a VBIED (truck) was driven into a police station in the Ingush town of Nazran, killing over 30 people and injuring another 120.[3] The vehicle reportedly crashed through the gates of the building early in the morning, just as police officers were lining up in the courtyard for an inspection parade. Presumably this was not coincidental and the attack was planned to occur at this time in order to maximise casualties among the police. The vehicle, said to be carrying 400kg of high explosive, was fired upon by police, but they failed to stop it from reaching its target and detonating. The Narzan attack was subsequently also claimed by the Riyad-us-Saliheen (Gardens of the Righteous) Martyrs’ Brigade. According to this report it appears that the authorities may have had prior warning of the attack, but failed to prevent it.

The authorities admitted police had been tipped off about preparations for an attack by a van. The revelation prompted [President] Medvedev to lash out against sloppy police work.”This terrorist attack could have been prevented,” he said. “You know that the car that was used in the attack had been reported stolen. In general, this situation is unacceptable. The police should protect the people and the police should be able to protect themselves”.

A few days later, on 22 August four separate suicide bombers, riding bicycles, individually attacked police officers in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Four policemen and a civilian were killed in the resulting explosions, which all occurred within half-an-hour of each other. The attackers were apparently all male.[4]

The first week of September saw a further flurry of incidents. On 1 September, a car stopped at a police checkpoint in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, exploded, killing one and injuring nine. Reports suggested that it had been a suicide VBIED and the driver had detonated the explosives when his vehicle was about to be searched by police. This was followed on 4 September by claims from the president of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov that his forces had arrested four men aged 18-20 who were planning to carry out suicide attacks against a police headquarters and a mosque in Grozny. A number of explosives belts and other weapons were reportedly discovered. In what was clearly a busy week for Chechen security forces, the next day (5 September), a mn identified as a militant was killed in firefight in the Chechen city of Gudermes. This report identifies the dead man as Bejhan Ospanov, who was said to have had explosives hidden in the soles of his shoes when he was killed by Chechen police. A further attacker, Islam Batayev, was detained in north-eastern Moscow and was in possession of a suicide belt. Also on 5 September, a woman in the Chechen village of Alkhazurovo shot at police when the tried to detain her and, when they returned fire and wounded her, she detonated an explosive device.

Clearly these incidents represent a significant surge in Chechen and Ingush militant activity. I’m not a Caucasus expert by any means, but it has been clear from media reporting over the last couple of years that Ingushetia has been simmering, partly caused by the repressive security policies instigated by Moscow and its clients. What is interesting from my perspective is the sheer number of incidents and foiled attacks over a relatively short period of time – eight actual detonations and a further potential six in the course of approximately 12 weeks. This suggests the makings of a concerted campaign of attacks, presumably directed by the Riyad-us-Saliheen Martyrs’ Brigade who may be taking advantage of high levels of discontent aroused among young men in the region by repressive security measures, a view supported by Human Rights Watch in Moscow, who have stated

“They [the rebels] are very young, teenagers mostly. They are different from their older brothers in that they don’t have many recollections of the war. They are not as worn out. They feel humiliated and oppressed. There are a higher and higher number of recruits, whose families are then targeted. It’s a vicious circle”.

If the Martyr’s Brigade do indeed have a large number of young, radicalised but inexperienced recruits, this might go towards explaining the sudden uptake in suicide attacks. If they lack the resources or capacity to train these individuals in practical guerilla tactics, (and it appears that the Chechen militants are under pressure from Chechnya’s security forces) using them as suicide attackers is an easier option, allowing the group to strike at a range of targets at a high tempo.

Of all the incidents, the two VBIEDs against the Ingush presidential convoy and the police station are the most significant. Assassination of a specific individual is always going to be a challenging task, particularly one moving in a well protected convoy. The Martyrs’ Brigade likely had access to useful intelligence about his movements (gleaned either from an informant or from ongoing surveillance), and where able to construct, emplace and deploy a VBIED and its driver in a position in which is was able to successfully intercept and attack the convoy. It appears that Yevkurov was fortunate to have survived the attack. In the attack against the police station, the militants were falling back on a tried and tested tactic, and despite an apparent operational security lapse (the authorities were aware a VBIED attack was possible) were able to attack the target at a time likely to increase the number of police casualties – again suggesting some sophistication in terms of planning and reconnaissance. The detail about the concealment of explosives in shoes is, if true, also interesting – it sounds similar to the failed attack by British jihadist Richard Reid, who attempted to bring down a transatlantic airliner using explosives concealed in his footwear. This suggests that the intent may have to attack a target with a high degree of security – therefore requiring a highly concealable device to gain access. These three incidents all suggest a group with a fair degree of operational capability, capable of constructing a range of devices suitable for specific targets – the temp of the attacks also indicates they have considerable resources (both human and material) at hand.

It will be interesting to watch how this situation develops over the coming weeks and whether these attacks represent the beginning of a drawn out campaign or are the last gasps of a group placed under severe pressure by a ruthless counterinsurgency effort on the part of the pro-Moscow Chechen government.

References

1. Yevkurov bomb attack claimed, Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, 3 July 2009

2. For example see: Speckhard, Anne & Akhmedova, Khapta (2006) “Black Widows: The Chechen Female Suicide Terrorists, in Yoram Schweitzer ed. Female Suicide Terrorists Jaffe Center Publication, Tel Aviv, Israel

3. The first Chechen sucide attack occured in June 2000, when 22 year-old Khava Barayeva drove a VBIED into the headquarters of a Russian military unit in the village of Alkhan Yurt. See John Reuter, Chechnya’s Suicide Bombers: Desperate, Devout, or Deceived?, The American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, September 16, 2004

4. Shaun Walker, Bombers on bicycles strike Grozny, The Independent, 22 August 2009

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