Russia's Long (and Brutal) War on Terror

Unlike Western nations confronting terrorism in their midst, the Kremlin has little time for legal niceties and human rights as it deals with an Islamist insurgency. But does brutality work?

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Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

Rasul Magomedov's daughter Maryam Sharipova was one of the March 29 bombers

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The Kremlin's statements after the March 29 bombings were surprisingly moderate in another respect: no generals went on TV saying that Islam is a religion of violence, as had happened before. Alyautdinov credits this, ironically, to Russia's reliance on Kadyrov: the handpicked Chechen president is a devout Muslim. Moscow has given Kadyrov a free rein that has of late become increasingly unseemly. In an unprecedented March meeting in the Kremlin, human-rights workers complained personally to Medvedev about Kadyrov's threats against them. Medvedev seemed sympathetic, one participant told me, but in July, rights groups again had to evacuate Chechnya after Kadyrov called them "enemies of the people." Kadyrov's henchman have also been accused of assassinating dissidents and political opponents at home and abroad. But Putin needs Kadyrov, and Russia has important trading partners in the Middle East. The Kremlin, it appears, has ordered its generals to stop using terrorism as a pretext for verbal attacks on Islam.

An Unquestioned Strategy

If the generals were muzzled, their guns were not. After the metro bombings, massive ground operations were carried out in select Dagestani villages. Details are sketchy, but the local authorities are said to have used overwhelming force. Journalist Yulia Yuzik was there and said that in one raid, police simply blew up a house with two wanted men inside instead of apprehending them. TIME photographer Yuri Kozyrev met many victims of the authorities in Dagestan, including a mother whose son was killed by police, she said, after he was singled out for having a long beard.

But there was a media blackout on the offensive, and most Russians paid little attention to what was happening in the mountains. "People forget they are living in a country at war," says Andrey Cherkasov, of the human-rights group Memorial. Nor were lawmakers especially keen to know what was going on. Among the "reforms" suggested by the Russian parliament right after the bombings was a proposition to crack down on any media outlet that quoted Umarov or gave him a platform in any way.

The Kremlin's brute counterterrorism tactics are rooted largely in the fact that there is little free press or political opposition to hold it accountable for the deaths of civilians. Imagine the clamor in Britain if a police action against a terrorist group in London ended with scores of dead civilians. In Russia, Putin is lauded by many for ordering the violent end to a standoff with hostage-taking terrorists in a Moscow theater in 2002: 130 hostages died. Putin "deserves respect for being man enough to give the order to storm the building," says Aleksey Filatov, a retired special-forces lieutenant colonel who runs an association of veterans of Alfa Group, Russia's elite hostage-rescue unit. Putin likewise shook off criticism two years later when another hostage situation--in an elementary school in Beslan--ended with government forces charging into the premises, guns blazing: 334 hostages died, including 186 children.

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