Monday, December 30, 2013

Double bombing in Volgograd - a first assessment

The recent double bombing in Volgograd (ex-Stalingrad) represent a definitive escalation in the low-level but constant war which has opposed Wahabi insurgents to not only the Kremlin, but also to all the traditional Muslim authorities in Russia.  Before looking into what these latest attacks could mean for Russia in general and for the upcoming Sochi Olympic games, it would be helpful here to go over some basic fact.


First, it would be a mistake to assume that any "Islamic" terrorist act committed in Russia would have to involve Chechens.  The reality is that Chechnia has not only been pacified, it is actually peaceful.  The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov literally pulled-off a miracle when he turned the war-ravaged Chechen "black hole" into a prosperous and *truly* peaceful republic.  The fact that this miracle was either not reported or ridiculed by the Anglo-Zionist pundits, who had all gone on record saying that the Chechen insurgency would never be defeated, makes sense: recognizing it would simply be politically unthinkable.  Still, the fact that the young man who had all the external appearance of an average Chechen thug turned out to be an extremely capable and wise political leader is undeniable and even though no "war on terror" is ever truly "won", it would be fair to say that, at least for the time being, the Chechen terrorist phenomenon has been brought down to almost zero.  Unfortunately, if the future looks really bright for Chechnia, things are infinitely worse in neighboring Dagestan.


Chechnia and Dagestan are neighbors, but they could hardly be more different.  For one thing, Chechnia is mostly inhabited by Chechens, whereas there is really no such thing as a "Dagestani": more than a dozen different ethnic groups live side by side in Dagestan.  In fact, Dagestan is the most diverse of all the Russian republics where no single group can form a majority.  This aspect is absolutely crucial because the fact that there is no one dominating ethnic group means that there cannot be a "Dagestani Kadyrov".  Second, the Dagestani economy is run by very corrupt elites who fight against each other and each other's clans.  In practical terms this means that the "recipe" used in Chechnia (to give a local Chechen leader a maximal level of autonomy and authority) would be a disaster for Dagestan.  The "solution" for Dagestan does probably involve a very forceful intervention from the Federal Center and a destruction of the current ethnicity-based clan system - not something anybody in the Kremlin would look forward to.

For the time being, however, Dagestan is the hotbed for Wahabi terrorism.  You could say that the Wahabi cancer that first took hold in Chechnia, spread to Dagestan while it was being destroyed in Chechnia.  The extreme poverty of Dagestan, combined with the millions of dollars provided by the Saudis to their allies and agents made it very easy for them to very successfully market their brand of Wahabism in Dagestan and to recruit local agents of influence and terrorists.

The Dagestani terrorists have learned the lessons of Chechnia well, and they are never trying to hold on to any territory or to create some kind of Wahabi statelet in Dagestan:  quite to the contrary, day after day after day, the security forces engage the Dagestani terrorists who each time end up either captured or dead (mostly the latter).  The reason for that is obvious: the Dagestani terrorists are weak and they cannot take on even the local cops.  But they are just strong enough to strap explosives on some young man or woman and send them to blow themselves up on a bus or train station.

Wahabis in the rest of Russia:

It also would be wrong to assume that all Wahabi terrorism in Russia has to come from Dagestan or even the Caucasus.  The Saudi-backed Wahabis are recruiting literally everywhere - from the south of Russia to Saint Petersburg and from Tatarstan to Moscow.  As a result, there are cases of ethnic Russians who are involved in Wahabi terrorist acts.  The bottom line is this: Wahabi terrorism in Russia is not a regional problem or an ethnic problem - it is an ideological problem.  So we should not jump to conclusions here and assume anything about who might be behind the latest attacks.  It literally could be anybody

From Volgograd to Sochi?

Volgograd has been the scene of several terrorist attacks in the recent past and the last two are only the latest in a series of events.  Why Volgograd?

Well, Volgograd is - along with Rostov-on-the-Don and Krasnodar - one of the major cities of southern Russia and it is close enough to Dagestan to make it fairly easy for the Dagestani Wahabis (assuming that they are involved) to organize a terrorist attack in that city.  In fact, Volgograd is pretty much at the same distance from Dagestan as Sochi.  Not a pleasant thought.

Another factor which might have played a role in the terrorist's decision to strike at Volgograd is that most Russian counter-terrorist efforts are currently concentrated in, and around, Sochi.  One of the basic rules of counter terrorism says there are always more targets to protect than resources to protect them.  Even if Volgograd had been put on total lockdown, the terrorist could have chose Astrakhan, Elista, Stavropol or any other city.  My guess is that the local and Federal security are primarily focused on keeping the Olympic infrastructure safe and that, as a result, Volgograd was unusually exposed.

What do we know so far?

Several of you have written to me (by email or the comments section) asking me if I thought that these latest attacks were a result of the recent Saudi threats.  Honestly - I don't know, this is way too early to tell.  The Russians are working fast and Russian media sources report that the suicide-bomber which blew up the railway station yesterday has been identified as Pavel Pechenkin.
Pavel Pechenkin
D. Sokolov and N. Asiialova
As far as I know, this has not been officially confirmed and DNA analyses are still being conducted.  If true, however, this would point to a group of ethnic Russians which would include Dimitri Sokolov, who was recently killed by the security forces, was an ethnic Russian who lived in Dagestan and who joined a terrorist group in the city of Makhachkala.  However, it is interesting to note that his contact with the Wahabi underground did not begin in Dagestan, but in a mosque in Moscow were he had signed up to take lessons of the Arabic language.  Sokolov was the common law husband of Naida Asiialova, a suicide-bomber who blew herself up in a crowded bus in Volgograd in October of this year.  Pechenkin, Sokolov and Asiialova apparently all were part of the same terror cell which, while based in Dagestan, included ethnic Russians.

This group was very well known to the Russian security services and the parents of Sokolov and Pechenkin both made desperate statements to the Russian media begging their sons not to commit any violent acts and to give up a life of terrorism.  While these people definitely had accomplices, Sokolov and Pechenkin were clearly the public image of this group and, as far as I know, there are no more senior figures of this cell on the run from the security services.  As of now, and that is a very preliminary assessment, there are no "Saudi fingerprints" on these attacks.  They appear to be what the Americans call a case of "home grown terror" and, if there is a Saudi link, it is through the massive funding of Wahabi mosques in Russia (and worldwide).

Russian internal options

As H. L. Mencken wrote, "for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong".  In this case this simple solution is to shut down all the Wahabi linked mosques in Russia and some simple minded individuals in Russia have already expressed their desire to see that happening.  There are many problems with such a "solution".

1)  That would be simply illegal.  Russia has (finally!) more or less become a country where the rule of law matters or, at least, Russia is on its way to become such a country.  What is certain is that the vast majority of Russians want their country to become a normal, civilized, country where the rule of law is central to the political life.  To shut down mosques would be simply illegal.  On what grounds should they be shut down to begin with?  On "suspicion of Wahabism?".  There is no such crime in Russian law.  For receiving foreign money?  That is not illegal either.  For being linked to terrorist networks?  Yes, that would be illegal, but that is also very hard to prove and there is no way that the FSB or the Investigative Committee could make such charges stick in a court of law against most such mosques.  The bottom line is this: Putin is not a dictator and he cannot act outside the Russian law, nor would he want to.

2) That would be immoral.  I lived for many years literally right next to a big mosque fully financed by the Saudis and, to my knowledge, not only did that mosque never ever have anything to do with terrorism, the people attending that mosque were not even involved in a single case of petty crime.  God knows that I hate the Wahabi ideology with all my mind and heart, but I cannot say that most Wahabis are bad people at all, or that they are linked to terrorism.  They are not and they should not be the scapegoats for the actions of others.  I am fully in favor of the physical destruction of every single Wahabi terrorist on the planet, but as long as they don't take up arms and start murdering and maiming their fellow human beings, the followers of Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab should not be made to pay for the actions of others.

3) It would be counter-productive.  The one good thing about leaving such Wahabi-linked mosques free to operate is that that gives the security forces a perfect target to penetrate and keep an eye on.  Shut down these mosques and you will push them into an underground where they might be much harder to infiltrate.  In fact, such Wahabi-linked mosques can even be used as honeypots to attract, identify and arrest homegrown terrorists.

No, the best way to deal with the Saudi financed propaganda and terror is to support anti-Wahabi, traditional, Islamic organizations and religious leaders.  There are plenty of smart and well educated Muslims in Russia, including quite a few well-known imams, who can take the ideological and spiritual fight to the Wahabis and denounce them for what they are.  What the Russian state should do is a) physically protect these people b) listen to them and their assessment of the situation c) explain to the non-Muslim population that these are vital allies in the struggle against Wahabi terrorism.

What if a Saudi trace is found?

That is a big "if"!  But let us assume, for argument's sake, that the Russians do find some kind of Saudi "fingerprints" in these attacks, or in upcoming attacks during the Sochi Olympics, and look at various Russian responses:

1) An overt retaliatory strike on Saudi Arabia:

In purely military terms, this is a no-brainer.  The Russians could strike with bombers, submarine based cruise missiles, ballistic missiles - you name it.  And while the US would express all sorts of outrage, CENTCOM would do nothing about it because the original purpose of CENTCOM was to prevent a Soviet invasion of Iran, not to defend the Saudis against a Russian retaliatory strike.  The problem with this option is that it would be illegal under international law and that is something Russia does not want.  If Russia decided to publicly and officially accuse Saudi Arabia of terrorist attacks against Russia, it would have to go to the UNSC or the International Court of Justice and make the case legally.

2) File an official complaint at the ICJ and try get a UNSC vote to condemn the KSA:

Actually this is a very neat option because it would put the Saudis in a very embarrassing political position.  Depending on the wording of the resolution, the US would either abstain or veto it since, no matter how much problems there have been between the two sides recently, the US and the KSA are still strategic allies.  Still, such an official complaint by Russia against the Saudi regime would put even more egg on the faces of the medieval monkeys in power in Riyadh.  I would personally like that a lot, but this would not be in Putin's style - he prefer a much more low key kind of diplomacy.

3) A covert retaliatory strike on Saudi Arabia:

Also well within the means of the Kremlin not only because it could use Russian capabilities to hit some Saudi prince or two, but because it could easily subcontract that job to an allied force.  The problem with that is even if this would be a retaliatory strike it would still be an act of terrorism.  So far, the only case that I am aware of the Russians assassinating somebody is when they killed the notorious terrorist Ibn al-Khattab: the Russian special services intercepted a letter for Khattab, and laced it with a special poison which would be harmless for anybody except Khattab (a far more effective and sophisticated method than the idiotic accusation that they would use polonium to kill somebody).  In this case, however, the Russians admitted their role and even made more or less official declarations giving the details of the operation.  While this assassination was conducted using covert methods, this was not a true covert operation because the Russians voluntarily admitted that they were behind it.  Khattab was such a piece of scum that nobody sane expressed any problems with it: this was one of those very rare, black and white, slam dunk, case where pretty much everybody agrees that the killed person truly had it coming and that justice was served.  But that is the exception.  All too many so-called "covert operations" are simply a pious euphemism for terrorist (counter-)attacks i.e., something a civilized country should not do.

4) What then?  Aiming at the long term:

In a struggle against terrorism keeping the moral high ground is absolutely vital: you have to do your utmost to deny your enemy the status of "freedom fighter".  To do that, you absolutely must keep your hands as clean as possible and you have to only engage in those actions which, if discovered, would make you look honorable.  Dick Cheney's notion that "now the gloves are off" is just a reflection of his lack of sophistication.  The same thing can be said of the CIA's "plausible deniability".  The result of such self-delusion is that the USA is hated and despised worldwide and there literally isn't a vile, dishonorable or stupid action which anybody would put past the US covert operations community.  Does Russia really want to become the "next villain" (again!)?!

I personally think that it is crucial for a civilized country to have its official, declaratory, public policy in harmony with what it does behind the scenes.  There is nothing inherently wrong with covert operations as long as they are conduced in such a manner as to make those who ordered them look reasonable and honorable if the operation is discovered.  Russia cannot constantly speak of the absolutely crucial role which should be played by international law in international relations and then happily go on violating the basic rules of international law.  For this reason, any use of force (military or covert) by Russia has to be predicated on the following principles:

1)  All other non-violent options have either been already attempted or are impossible to implement.
2) The use of force is proportional to the attack which triggered it.
3) Every effort is made to avoid innocent victims.

Sounds Pollyannaish?  Well, it shouldn't!

Decades of absolutely irresponsible and reckless use of force by the USA, the Israelis, the Europeans and the Soviets have thoroughly desensitized us to the fundamental immorality of violence.  Raised as most of us have been on John Wayne movies and Ronald Reagan presidencies, we have lost the disgust of the civilized man for the ugliness and immorality of violence.  Worse, we are so conditioned by decades of watching CNN special reports from the Pentagon showing the latest "briefing" about some US military intervention that we forget that "shooting from the hip" is a most ineffective way of dealing with a problem.

When dealing with an issue like terrorism, it is always better to plan for the long term.  From that point of view, I would argue that the Saudi regime is a big enough problem to deserve to be considered a inherent national security threat to Russia and that, in turn, means that it should be a Russian national security strategy to achieve regime change in the KSA.   This goal, however, should be pursued only or, at least, mainly, through legal means such as, for example, arming the Iranians and the Syrians who, in turn, will arm Hezbollah.  This goal can also be achieved by isolating Saudi Arabia on the international scene by means of "consultations" with allies and friendly nations.  Furthermore, Russia should seek to expand its role and influence in the Muslim and Arab world in order to counteract the current influence of the Saudis and the other Gulf monarchies.  

In the short term, the Russian public needs to be openly told that terrorism cannot be eradicated, that this is a pipe dream cooked up by dishonest politicians.  But if no nation or government can really eradicate terrorism, one can learn how to live with it.  After all, the actual amount of victims of terrorism is extremely small, far less than, say, road accidents.  The real power of terrorism resides in the psychological effect it has not on its direct victims, but on those who witness it.  As soon as the general public accepts the notion that even if terrorists attack can be brought down to a minimum, some will always remain possible, terrorism will lose its real force.  Terrorism can either be accepted as a fact of life, or a nation can be drawn in an endless spiral of futile counter-terrorist measures which are far more damaging than the terrorism which triggered them.

Does Russia really want to become a terrified and paranoid Fascist state like the USA?  Or does it prefer to accept the fact that terrorism will never be "defeated" and keep on living as best as can be in an always dangerous world?

Russian politicians are already hotly debating whether to cancel the current moratorium on the death penalty: Nikolay Pligin, United Russia MP and head of the Duma’s Constitutional Law committee, declared that "no social groups will be discriminated against, no special activities will be carried out against any specific group – all activities will be conducted solely within the constitutional norms and in accordance with existing laws” while Ramzan Kadyrov urged the parliament to “infinitely increase the penalty for those, who not only commits terrorist acts, but share the ideas of the terrorists, spread their ideology and train them. I’m absolutely sure that we won’t cope with this evil by playing democracy and humanity”.  

Well, at least both agree that the correct place to discuss this issue and decide on what policies to adopt is the Parliament.  I expect that Duma to speak in one voice and give the Kremlin pretty much any law the latter would want, so the real decision will be in Putin's hands.  I am personally confident that his choice will be to abide very strictly to the letter and spirit of Russian national law and international law and that there shall be no Russian over-reaction.

The Saker

PS: Sorry about all the typos, weird sentences and poor grammar - I am writing that under a lot of time pressure (-: yes, I do have a life :-) and I simply don't have the time right now to sit down and proofread this text.  My apologies for that!  The Saker
PPS: most (all?) of the numerous typos and other horrors of the text above have been kindly corrected by S. to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude for all his kind help!