Hostage Bloodbath Highlights Putin's Chechen Failure

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Escaped hostages in Beslan near Chechnya

The horrifying carnage that ended the hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, in southern Russia, was a gruesome reminder of the abject failure of President Vladimir Putin's own "war on terror." At least 320 people are reported to have been killed Friday after Russian troops stormed a school to free more than 1,000 civilians, mostly women and children, held captive by a group of masked Chechen gunmen demanding that the authorities free their jailed comrades. As Russians reeled from the impact of a savage terror assault on children, President Putin on Saturday visited the scene and promised a tough response. "We showed weakness and the weak are trampled upon," he said, promising to take steps to improve the performance of his security forces and vowing to fight a long war to eliminate the perpetrators.

The bloodbath at Beslan came scarcely a week after twin suicide-bombings brought down two Russian airliners and a third wrought havoc outside a Moscow subway station, leaving more than 100 dead. The latest wave of attacks appeared calculated to mock President Putin's claim that he had defeated the Chechen separatist insurgency, and that the situation in the rebel region had was returning to normal following the election of Moscow's handpicked candidate as president of the region, in a poll widely criticized by observers. Indeed, the election was necessitated by the fact that Moscow's previous pick to lead Chechnya, Ahmad Khadyrov, had been killed by a suicide bomber three months ago.

Russian observers see the latest wave of attacks as further evidence of a qualitative shift in the conflict. Putin's crackdown, which began with a full-scale military invasion of Chechnya in 1999, has not only failed to deliver on his promise to eliminate the nationalist rebellion in the largely Muslim territory; it has altered the nature of that rebellion, hardening its fighters, narrowing the differences between secular nationalists and radical Islamists, and putting the Islamists in the driving seat. Having failed to drive Russian forces out of Chechnya via guerrilla warfare, the rebels have resorted to a wider offensive in neighboring territories such as Dagestan, Ingushetia and Ossetia, and have also placed a far greater emphasis on spectacular long-distance terror attacks in Russia proper.

Observers believe the rampant corruption in the poorly-paid Russian armed forces has contributed to the mobility of the Chechen fighters — wads of cash (raised through criminal extortion or donations from jihadi-sympathizers abroad) has often proven a more effective weapon than a rocket launcher in the hands of separatist fighters looking to break through Russian lines. The heavy-handed tactics of Moscow's forces has alienated even many of those Chechens who had initially welcomed their arrival as deliverance from the violent chaos of criminality and warlordism that had prevailed under the de facto independence won from Moscow in 1996. And the state of the Chechen economy after five years of war also works to the advantage of the men of war — with unemployment at around 80 percent, the job prospects for many fighting-age Chechen men are restricted to joining the pro-Moscow militias or doing contract work for the rebels. (Bombing an oil pipeline, for example is believed to earn a Chechen fighter in the region of $400, a princely sum in a pauperized population.) And for many, particularly the "black widows" who have seen fathers, brothers and husbands killed by the Russian security forces, revenge is as powerful a motive as money — the suicide bombers of both airliners and the subway station are believed to be Chechen women who had lost loved ones in the war. But the cycle of violence spirals downwards, as increasingly savage terror bring new crackdowns from the authorities and further dim the prospects for a political solution.

President Putin's stock response has been to blame the offensive on "international terrorism," a phrase that invokes al-Qaeda and sidesteps any acknowledgement that Russia may, in part, be reaping the whirlwind of what Putin has sown in Chechnya during his almost five years at the helm. Even in its most explicitly jihadist form, Chechen terrorism is a homegrown affair, although factions of the Chechen separatist movement have received financial and political support from Qaeda-aligned elements abroad — and a handful of Arab mujahedeen have long played a role in the Chechen insurgency. The Russian crackdown, which began late in 1999 as Putin sent in troops to reverse the autonomy granted the region by former President Boris Yeltsin following a series of unsolved apartment bombings in Moscow — a brutal campaign that struck a popular chord and served as the would-be president's introduction to Russian voters — has certainly given Chechens plenty of reason to contemplate attacking Russians. Thousands of Chechens have been killed in the course of the crackdown, and scores of fighting-age men continue to simply disappear following visits to their homes by Russian forces.

By invoking the specter of "international terrorism," President Putin looks to align himself with the U.S. and Western Europe in its campaign against al-Qaeda, at the same time as demanding their political support against the ongoing Chechen insurgency. And he got strong support this week from President Bush and the leaders of France and Germany for pursuing his fight. But if anything, Putin's experiences in Chechnya offer some important lessons for the global war against al-Qaeda.

The first such lesson, obviously, is that even when it echoes the tactics, rhetoric and broad worldview of al-Qaeda's global jihad, some terrorism remains rooted in specific national conflicts. Indeed, part of al-Qaeda's game plan has been to do everything in its power to draw localized insurgencies involving Muslims in different parts of the world under its own global banner. The Chechen insurgency is, first and foremost, a nationalist struggle to secede from Russia, and the rise of a more extremist and Islamist element within that insurgency is, in part, an effect of the often indiscriminate brutality of the Russian crackdown, and Moscow's rejection of any political dialogue with the secular-nationalist leadership under Aslan Mashkadov, whom Moscow had previously recognized as the president of Chechnya.

There had always been a "global jihadi" perspective in at least a section of the Chechen insurgency, not least because of the arrival of foreign fighters in the 1990s fresh from their war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. A more radical element in the Chechen resistance, personified by the notorious commander Shamil Basayev, had made common cause with this element in recruiting a new generation of fighters more extreme in their commitments and Islamist ideology — and it may well be elements of this group behind the current wave of attacks. (Basayev had, for example, boasted some time ago about training a legion of women suicide bombers.)

At the same time, even under the pressure of relentless Russian military action, many Chechen commanders had vigorously resisted efforts by Qaeda emissaries to enlist their men in schemes to attack U.S. targets in Russia. Still, the bitterness and despair engendered by the five year crackdown have seen Islamist influence grow. This is manifested in the emergence of suicide bombers, although the Chechens depart from conventional Qaeda practice by using women in this role — a habit learned, perhaps, from the secular nationalists of Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, the movement that claims authorship of suicide bombing as a terror weapon. Simultaneous attacks on two airliners, of course, is another Qaeda operational signature.

The more important lesson from President Putin's war, of course, is that military means alone cannot snuff out a politically motivated insurgency. Instead, in Chechnya — as, perhaps, in the Palestinian territories — a military response that has left open no political track to more moderate nationalist elements has tended to work in the favor of the Islamists, and broaden their influence at the expense of secular nationlalists. Indeed, Chechnya today sees elements ranging from Mashkadov and Bashayev to disparate local commanders and even bandits and gangsters in broad consensus over fighting the Russians.

The resilience of the Chechen insurgency — and the increasing barbarity of its actions — put Putin in something of a bind. He staked his political career on his promise to eliminate the Chechen separatist movement, and he has obviously failed to achieve this. The failure may be not simply tactical, but strategic. By closing down the political track of dialogue with the nationalists, Putin has committed himself to pursuit of a military victory. And not only has such a victory proved elusive; its pursuit has seen the Chechen insurgency evolve into something a lot nastier and more dangerous. Then again, Chechens blowing up airliners and taking children hostage simply compounds anti-Chechen militancy among ordinary Russians, and that translates, once again, into political support for Putin's hard line. The Russian president's "war on terror," then, and the Chechen rebels' war on Russia, may have simply become a permanent part of Russian life.