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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Each terrorist attack, in fact, has been used as a pretext for even more Kremlin control. The Beslan crisis, for example, was blamed on local authorities, and since then there have been no regional elections; all governors are now loyal Kremlin appointees. Two months after the March 29 attacks, the parliament approved a broad expansion of Russia's counterintelligence services, giving them the right to deliver warnings to people who haven't committed a crime but are viewed as potential criminals or terrorists.

It is left to the country's beleaguered human-rights groups to collect eyewitness accounts in order to find out what's happening in Dagestan. Memorial, which started out cataloging the past abuses of the Soviet system, is now the main voice for victims of Kremlin-sponsored violence in places like Dagestan and Chechnya. The organization's Cherkasov reckons that in all, at least 3,000 civilians have disappeared--largely at the hands of Kremlin-backed security forces--since the end of the second Chechen war in 2000. (One of these was Memorial worker Natalia Estemirova, who was kidnapped and executed last summer.) The crackdowns happening now in the Caucasus are just a continuation of a long and brutal strategy, he says, and even if the Kremlin wins, it would just be "the victory of one type of barbarism over another."

The Endgame

Russia's war on terrorism is essentially a civil war. "Our Afghanistan is inside Russia" is how Lipman puts it. Even so, on most days, the war feels far away. This may well be a credit to the Kremlin's powers of misdirection and distraction. At a huge Moscow rally organized by Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, 65,000 young Russians were bused in from all over the country to celebrate victory--not in the war on terrorism but in World War II. The string of speakers hardly mentioned terrorism, choosing instead to focus on other bogeymen: opposition leaders, foreign media and foreign leaders who had apparently insulted the memory of Russia's sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War. Teenagers lined up by the dozens to turn in books--ostensibly for return to the publishers--written by Kremlin opponents like the leaders of Georgia and Estonia and opposition politicians like Gary Kasparov.

The authoritarian overtones of the rally, where everyone wore matching faux-military T-shirts and had been issued replica Kalashnikov cartridges, were chilling. But there was an added component, an orderliness that was breathtaking for Russia: 65,000 teenagers and not one of them smoking or drinking. It reminded me of the allure of the Wahhabi extremists who recruit young people in Dagestan: in a chaotic and muddy land, the clean-swept mosques and confident composure of the Wahhabi leaders is a tremendous sales pitch.

The same can be said of the Kremlin. Its pitch is that Russian authorities are strong enough to muscle their way to victory. But explosions continue to hit the North Caucasus on a daily basis, and Moscow remains at risk. In mid-July, another six would-be suicide bombers were arrested before they could be "deployed" to major Russian cities, according to police. This is the real indictment of the Kremlin's strategy: its iron fist keeps striking the Caucasus, and the Caucasus keeps striking back.

This article originally appeared in the August 16, 2010 issue of TIME.

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