“Keep Calm and Carry On”: Russians and Terrorism

by Mark Galeotti January 13, 2014

Photo by @rt_russian via

At least for the moment, the Volgograd and Pyatigorsk explosions have managed to shape the Sochi narrative, at least for the international media. Debates as to whether the Winter Olympics will be dangerous for athletes and spectators overshadow any sporting considerations. (Apparently the US team have engaged a US private security company to extricate them if need be; I wonder how Americans would react if the running shoe were on the other foot and Russian athletes wanted Spetsnaz commandos on call…) The Kremlin has every reason to be peeved, but it would be best served by remaining calm and avoiding the temptation to change policy in response to every reversal. After all, it needs to remember four key points:

What attacks have happened are largely defined by opportunity rather than strategy.

1. There is no grand terrorist plan. The “Caucasus Emirate” is a collection of local and often small-scale cells and movements, jamaats, which operate sometimes collaboratively, but essentially autonomously. Chechen rebel leader and self-proclaimed “Emir” Doku Umarov speaks like a commander but is in practice has only minimal authority. When he called on the jamaats to disrupt these “Satanic Games”, he was in part making a general exhortation intended to assert his authority and relevance, in part setting himself up to be able to claim the credit if anything did happen, and in part speaking for the jamaat consensus. What attacks have happened are largely defined by opportunity rather than strategy.

Efforts to construct some elaborate explanations for why attacks have taken place in Volgograd, for example, are largely irrelevant. Suicide bombers generally strike close to where they live or else where there is a cell able to manage and unleash them. After all, once the bomber has been brought to the state of being willing to die, then he or she must be “used” quickly, before that artificial state recedes—and even then often needs to be watched to ensure that determination lasts to the point of pulling the trigger. It’s the hard-eyed men and women who recruit, groom, direct and—if need be—detonate the bombers, without themselves ever doing anything so foolish as to strap on a bomb-vest, who are often the overlooked element of the process. There is almost certainly such a cell in Volgograd, and so there they do their work. Attacks will generally happen where there is a cell, and when there is a willing bomber, not directed by some notional plan.

2. The boundaries between terrorism, insurgency and crime are often pretty hazy. The recent murders of six men in Stavropol region were at first regarded as a terrorist act. Subsequent investigations have suggested that they were taxi drivers, killed by terrorists from Kabardino-Balkaria when refused to pay the zakat, the Islamic “tax” the latter levied. Such “enforced donations” are a familiar one for insurgent movements to raise operational funds, but in the North Caucasus it is clear that “taxes”—as well as the proceeds from kidnapping—as often go into private pockets as insurgent budgets. Indeed, insurgents and organized crime figures have more than once been connected, such as in 2004, when insurgents attacked the offices of the Kabardino-Balkaria FSKN anti-drug service, in part to destroy records as a favor to local drug traffickers.

In November, the police arrested seven Central Asians allegedly involved in an organized crime group centered on Moscow, that was funding Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party), a movement, banned in Russia for its links to international Islamist terrorist organizations. Overall, not everything which looks like terrorism necessarily is (just as, for that matter, terrorist support may be masquerading as something entirely different).

3. The authorities are struggling in some aspects but not doing a bad job. The one key weakness of the authorities is their relative lack of sources inside the jamaats; for all kinds of reasons, they have found it difficult to turn or embed agents inside groups which are often inchoate and recruit from neighbors, kin and friends. They are making up for this by leaning all the more heavily on what they have (numbers, resources, an affinity for carefully-planned set-piece operations) and what alternatives they can find (especially stepping up their operations in the North Caucasus: insurgents who are working hard at not being arrested or shot have less time and capacity to plot).

Even the British security apparatus, which was extensive, highly professional and able to penetrate the IRA and other Northern Irish paramilitary groups, could not foil every attack. That the Russians have been unable to prevent attacks is hardly surprising, especially given the overstretch of existing resources, exacerbated by the need to allocate so many to the white elephant that is Sochi. Every attack, every death, is a tragedy, of course. But to extrapolate from these attacks that somehow the Russians are “losing” or not up to the task is simply wrong.

Normalization is a powerful force: a population that has come to terms with terrorism as an inescapable risk of modern society is that much harder for the terrorists to move.

4. The most important weapon against terrorism is determination and endurance. There was an immediate alarm in Volgograd, as one would expect, and the high-profile Operation Vikhr (“Whirlwind”) that saw more than 4,000 police make more than 700 arrests was more than anything else a gesture to reassure a jittery public. However, beyond local security operations, there has been a striking lack of public or official responses: a ritual threat from Putin, some “see something, say something” warnings to the citizenry, and little more. Moscow has certainly not seen any particular escalation of its security provisions, and the deployment of military patrols in the south do not represent, as some suggest, panic or desperation, but a routine way to “surge” extra uniforms onto the street (comparable to the routine use of National Guard forces to patrol New York’s Penn Station).

This is important. Terrorism almost never poses a direct, existential threat to a state. Instead, it is a political-moral weapon seeking to undermine the will of a public and elite to continue to resist. To this end, its normalization is a powerful force: a population that has come to terms with terrorism as an inescapable risk of modern society is that much harder for the terrorists to move. It does not mean that the dead are not mourned, or that an imminent perceived threat is ignored. But it does mean that the disruptions will tend to be transitory and manageable: “Keep Calm and Carry On,” in the words of the British wartime poster.

This is not just an exhortation to the Russian masses. The government also needs to maintain its cool. One of the subtextual aims of the terror campaign is to trigger an over-reaction, one that would help delegitimize the regime further in the eyes of the people of the Russian south, and also create new generations of martyrs, widows and orphans who would then swell the ranks of the jamaats and the suicide bombers. In the face of this challenge, Russia wins if it manages to balance tough security measures with a steady improvement in the governance and economic management of the North Caucasus.