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?

  • Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

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

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    The March 29 bombers, Dzhennet Abdullayeva, 17, and Maryam Sharipova, 28, were so-called black widows--young women radicalized by the death or disappearance of their husbands--from Dagestan, a tiny, mountainous republic south of Chechnya that, together with the rest of the North Caucasus, serves as a strategically important buffer between Russia proper and its enemies (like Mikheil Saakashvili's Georgia) to the south.

    Dagestan's sorry recent history mirrors that of the rest of the region. The post-Soviet era was chaotic and corrupt. Regional governments co-opted Sufism--a variant of Islam popular in Central and South Asia--by building government Islamic schools and mosques, but their own venal appetites tainted the faith by association. So when students and preachers began bringing Wahhabism--the strict Saudi version of Islam--to the North Caucasus, it seemed clean, devout, otherworldly. The ensuing struggle between Kremlin-backed Sufi authorities and the growing tide of Wahhabis has been bloody and clannish, and it has reached far beyond the mountains of the Caucasus. In Dagestan, a Chechen former engineer named Doku Umarov has declared himself the emir of the nonexistent emirate of the Caucasus. Umarov claimed responsibility for the Moscow-metro bombings, telling Russians in a video message, "I promise you that the war will come to your streets and you will feel it in your lives, feel it on your own skin."

    It is not surprising to hear a terrorist leader making ghoulish threats, but in Russia, the authorities talk just as tough. Putin, who flew to a Russian base in Chechnya shortly after becoming President in 1999 to hand out daggers to the soldiers, was relatively restrained after the March 29 bombing when he said that those responsible "will be eliminated." President Medvedev flew to Dagestan shortly thereafter and was heard on national TV telling his commanders that although Russia had been able to "take the heads off the most notorious gangsters," they may need to use "harsher" methods. Kadyrov was blunter yet, writing in an editorial for the Russian paper Isvestia that "terrorists must be hunted down and found in their lairs, they must be poisoned like rats, they must be crushed and destroyed."

    Boris Dubin, a sociologist and pollster with the Levada Center in Moscow, says that Putin's rhetorical flourishes over the years--he once promised to kill terrorists "in the outhouse," to scrape them from the sewers--are calculated political theater. "There is a Russian code of political language," Dubin says. "From time to time, you should use crude language." This bravura echoes on national television news, which is largely controlled by the Kremlin. A characteristic of the Putin era is that TV news avoids coverage of disaster. (It took several hours for the major networks to acknowledge the Moscow attacks.) And when coverage does begin, it is carefully focused on acts of composure and resolve by the authorities. "The general message of Russian television is that we--Putin and Medvedev--are in charge," says Masha Lipman, a media expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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