Terrorism and the Newly Independent States: Good News, Bad News

Scanning the Spring 2000 news from Russia’s North Caucasus region might suggest that terrorism and insurgency there are on the run: Chechen resistance leader Shamil Basayev lost a leg to a mine while fleeing a Russian assault; Chechen ‘president’ Aslan Maskhadov and Chechen Mujahedin leader Ibn al-Khattab are at large; and Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev suffered an inglorious capture by Russian special forces. Russian authorities under President Vladimir Putin have dealt ‘terrorism’ a serious blow, no? No, actually, they haven’t.

The second Chechen War represents a clear case of scratching the itch and making it worse. More importantly, the Russian approach to solving the terrorism problem is the model for other former Soviet republics, like Uzbekistan. That’s the basic reason that transnational terrorism will continue to grow in Eurasia and the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS]. Naturally, that’s bad news.

Take a quick look across some of the countries that once fell under Moscow’s domain before 1991. Russia itself suffered an apartment-bombing campaign in late Summer and early Fall 1999, as well as a war intended to end kidnapping, lawlessness and terrorism in the south. At roughly the same time in Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan both attempted to deal with an eight-week hostage-taking crisis at the hands of the Islamic Revival Movement of Uzbekistan. The militant Uzbek opposition group declared jihad on both nations, overtook a village and border posts in Kyrgyzstan, and evaded international military troops before escaping through Tajikistan back into Taleban-controlled Afghanistan.

Instability doesn’t necessarily mean government reactions that threaten to fan the flames of terrorism. In the South Caucasus, just across the border from Chechnya, the nation of Georgia has just completed a successful presidential election. The newly reelected president, Eduard Shevardnadze, does head a precarious government and an unstable country — one of his main enemies, former Georgian security minister Igor Giorgadze, is still at large and may still harbor designs on the president he allegedly tried to kill in 1995. Shevardnadze’s response has been measured, though. Democratic institutions in the country appear wobbly but alive; the Georgian president’s security agency is probably still looking for potential threats, but it doesn’t seem to run the country. All this is good. This pattern isn’t the rule across the region, however. That’s bad.

Russia’s and Uzbekistan’s responses have proven heavy-handed, to use a well-worn phrase in this setting. Russia’s Interior Ministry and Defense forces have forced refugee status on millions of Chechen civilians during the prosecution of an often elusive Chechen resistance. During the bombing campaign that killed approximately 300 Russians, Russian authorities rounded up many Moscow residents with dark-skinned or Caucasus-like features and expelled them. During the early prosecution of the war in 1999, Russian troops actually killed civilians in towns in the Republic of Dagestan, according to some reports. Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, likewise views overwhelming force as a useful tool in fighting terrorists. He was the apparent target of an assassination attempt in the capital, Tashkent, in February 1999. The Islamic Revival movement apparently tried to assassinate him while also setting off simultaneous explosions in several locations around the city. The group has carried out other attacks around the country, too. Karimov has ordered the arrest and trial of other Islamic fundamentalists, as well as those associated with the militants fighting in the field with the Revival movement. Members of the group Hezbut Takhrir are particular targets — usually arrested while distributing propaganda leaflets in cities around the country. Human Rights Watch has criticized the Tashkent regime for harsh and capricious treatment of people who are prosecuted merely because they are pious Muslims. The terrorist problem has become the latest justification for a security state that has existed since 1991.

Neither Russia nor Uzbekistan will see a short-term end to their troubles with terrorists. These organizations are transnational, taking advantage of porous borders and weak security controls in many of the countries in which they operate. Both countries are taking steps to try and control terrorists: in Russia, the answer to the bombing campaign was Operation Whirlwind, an official push to check attics for bombs and to round up ‘visitors’ from Russia’s southern republics. Moscow’s answer to Chechen insurrection has been full scale war. In Uzbekistan, the answer has been a series of public trials, sealed borders, and a police crackdown nationwide.

Neither countries’ efforts get at some of the root causes of these movements though: economic poverty, massive unemployment, lack of religious freedom coinciding with a revival of Islamic fervor. These kinds of terrorist stimuli are hard to fight: countering them requires economic assistance programs, psychological countermeasures, and public relations efforts in a ‘hearts and minds’ framework. Also helpful in fighting such terrorist movements are a strong economy and very focused special operations designed to imprison or remove the ‘true-believers’ who motivate the rest of the group. US observers can hardly cast too many stones: we failed miserably at winning hearts and minds in Vietnam a few decades ago. Doing so in any setting is not an easy proposition. But it is a necessary complement to a military campaign against terrorists. Several CIS countries recently participated in a joint, international counterterrorism military exercise in Tajikistan, called OPERATION SOUTHERN SHIELD. It demonstrated that at least some of these governments are serious about offering a military solution. They’re not pursuing a clear political or PR counterpart, though. Such a counterweight is important. There will always be murderous thugs and terrorist organizations, but they don’t necessarily have to have such an easy time when it comes to building a terrorist infrastructure and signing on supporters.

Militant Islamists in Russia and Central Asia have never had a better recruitment environment than they do now. Putin’s and Karimov’s efforts to date have made the long-term security picture worse, not better. Unfortunately, the ‘pickings’ are rich for radical groups in Eurasia looking for young uneducated men or those without jobs. And that’s a bad thing.

The views presented in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Terrorism Research Center or any other organization.

OODA Analyst

OODA Analyst

OODA is comprised of a unique team of international experts capable of providing advanced intelligence and analysis, strategy and planning support, risk and threat management, training, decision support, crisis response, and security services to global corporations and governments.