How Russia Created Its Own Islamic Terrorism Problem

Behind the Moscow airport attack is a history of Russia's flawed, brutal policies in the Caucasus

  • Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

    The terrorist attack at the Moscow airport on Jan. 24 was horrific, murdering dozens of innocent civilians. It is probably linked to Chechnya or the surrounding areas in the Caucasus, from which so many such attacks have emanated. Russia has been the site of the largest number of serious terrorist attacks over the past decade (excluding Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, which are really war zones). Why? The answer to this question sheds a sorry light on Russia's counterterrorism strategy. In fact it is a case study in how not to fight Islamic terrorism.

    It's now conventional wisdom that Moscow faces a brutal Islamic terrorist movement, bent on jihad, unwilling to compromise and determined to inflict pain on Russians almost as an end in itself. That's the view presented by Russian officials and accepted by Western leaders. Over the past decade, George W. Bush and Tony Blair reacted to terrorist incidents in Russia by quickly condemning them and describing them as instances of Islamic terrorism, tied to al-Qaeda and its fanatical vision. This unthinking acceptance of the Russian narrative allowed Moscow to respond with brutal violence, often against innocent civilians and without prompting international criticism.

    A little history provides a different perspective. Chechnya's struggle against Russia, at root, has nothing to do with Islam. About 200 years ago, the Russian empire began a war of colonial expansion in the tiny area called Chechnya. After resisting for several bloody decades, the Chechens were forcibly incorporated into the empire in 1859. As soon as the Czar's rule ended in Moscow, the Chechens began clamoring for independence, which they were granted in 1918.

    By 1920, Lenin had invaded the region and brutally suppressed the independence movement and all subsequent revolts. But the problem did not go away, so Lenin's successor, Josef Stalin, applied an even more brutal solution. In 1944 he deported most of the Chechen population — nearly half a million people — to central Asia and burned their villages to the ground. Still, the Chechens retained their identity and national desires, so in the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to return to their homeland.

    In 1990, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, a national convention of all Chechen political groups united in a call for immediate independence from Moscow. In response, the Russian government invaded Chechnya. Over the course of the past two decades, it has fought two ferocious wars, killed tens of thousands of Chechen civilians and razed large parts of the republic, flattening its capital, Grozny. Moscow finally subdued Chechnya and installed as President a pliable local warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose regime has managed to make Freedom House's Worst of the Worst list of the most repressive governments on the planet. As Russia's brave human-rights organization Memorial concludes in a 2009 report, "in Chechnya there has formed a totalitarian regime based on violence ... and fear."

    As the once secular secessionist movement in Chechnya continued to be brutally suppressed, it became more extreme, taking help anywhere it could find it, including from Islamic extremists. Chechen groups, always fractious, fragmented and became uncontrollable. As Russia destroyed Chechnya's civil society, the place became a wasteland characterized by anarchy and gang warfare. And as tales of Russian brutality spread, Muslim warriors who were searching for jihad traveled to the Caucasus to do battle with the unbelievers. Muslim fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and other countries have provided funds to some of these groups. Even today, despite the surface calm in Chechnya, Russia maintains a brutal reign of terror there and in its surrounding regions. Any signs of religious behavior are viewed with hostility.

    "Retribution is inevitable" was Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's comment on the Moscow airport attack, setting up the next stage in this cycle of violence and extremism. Had Russia approached the Chechnya problem with less brutality, tried political outreach or offered greater autonomy, the opposition to its rule might have turned out to be vigorous but still manageable. Now, given the nature and ferocity of the terrorists it faces, Russia might not have a choice. At this point, it is fair to describe the Chechen rebellion as dominated and defined by Islamic extremism. But it did not start out as such, and it didn't have to turn out that way.

    Outside the Af-Pak region and Iraq, Islamic terrorism has not been able to strike with great force in recent years. Except in Russia. In fact, one could argue that the Russian government, far more than Osama bin Laden, has managed through its actions over the past two decades to create the largest and most active new center of Islamic terrorism in the world today.