It looks like the dust is beginning to settle after yesterday’s raid on the Southern Russian city of Nalchik, and the city is securely in the hands of the Russian military. In this post I’m just going to restrict myself to a roundup of news and views that have been published over the last few days, interspersed with a few thoughts of my own.
Firstly, I should say that the best roundup of yesterdays events came from Jim Hoft, at Gateway Pundit, who seemed to be able to publish a link to every relevant piece of news, almost as soon as it came out. And today, he’s posted a link to this BBC News video, dramatically showing Russian soldiers attacking a police station, where 8 terrorists, and rescuing 7 hostages.
You may also want to check out this fascinating analysis by Dan Darling, at Windsofchange.net, where he gives a lot of background on Yarmuk, the group believed to have carried out the attack (more on that further down this post)
Now that combat operations in Nalchik are over, and the city seems secured, thoughts are turning to the number of casualties. Yesterday, I noted that up to 60 people were killed, mostly the terrorists attacking the city. Today, as you would expect, the reported death toll is rising. In the latest report I’ve seen, from RIA Novosti, the Interior Ministry is quoting a total of 108 dead.
A total of 24 security personnel and troops and 12 civilians were killed during the militant attack on the North Caucasus city of Nalchik, Russia’s deputy interior minister said Friday.
Andrei Novikov also confirmed that 72 gunmen had been killed and 31 detained. Dozens of people were wounded.
In reports such as these, there is always the temptation to over-estimate the “other side’s” casualties, whilst minimising your own, but I don’t think they’ll be too far off the mark. Overall, I’d expect these figures to change over the coming days, but not by too much. If they come down at all, it will most likely be the number of terrorists (gunmen) killed that decreases.
Assuming these figures are roughly accurate, however, they do indicate that the raid was in many ways a failure. True, the attackers have achieved their aim of sowing terror, and have embarrassed the Russian government for it’s inability to prevent the attack itself.
But those undertaking the raid would have had much higher hopes for it, especially given the number of men involved. I would assume that they were either planning to get in and out with far fewer casualties than they eventually suffered or (more likely, I think) they were planning to take a large number of people hostage and then drag the drama out for as long as possible. Their failure to achieve these objectives means effectively that they have thrown away a large proportion of their organisations strength (in terms of manpower, for example) for very little return. They’ve also shown that, while they have the ability launch a raid, they do not appear to have the ability to launch a successful raid.
I think the Russian government will attempt to portray this raid largely as a victory for themselves, and their preparedness. That the raid took place at all does show that intelligence weaknesses still exist – and no doubt a few relatively minor heads will roll for them – but overall, I don’t think that any intelligence agency can be very successful in preventing attacks of this nature from a determined enemy. One only needs to look at the problems the US is having in Iraq to see how difficult it can be to prevent terrorist attacks, even when a region is crawling with military personnel. The Russian government instead will emphasise the success of their military in beating off the attack, arguing that it demonstrates they are beginning to succeed in the North Caucasus. And, in a sense they are right – in past years they may not have been well enough organised to beat back an attack of this magnitude. Given the generally pro-government stance taken by most of the Russian media when it comes to reporting events in and around Chechnya, I would imagine that, domestically, the government’s attempts to portray this as a victory will largely succeed.
Perhaps the most challenging problem coming out of yesterday’s events will be to identify exactly who undertook the raid, and what their motives were. The Russian government is strongly pushing the line that the attackers were Wahhabi’s – an extreme strand of Islamic thought, and a label that the Russian government seems to apply to every Muslim it dislikes these days. For an example of how some sections of the Russian press are reporting the attack, you might want to take a look at this Kommersant article. Kozak is a Presidential envoy to the region:
We can judge what kind of Muslims they are, after we examined a dacha where the militantss base was located, Kozak said. We found two bottles of vodka and wine there, lying by the Koran.
It is becoming clear, though, that most of the attackers came from a group named Yarmak, based in the Kabardino-Balkaria republic itself, and not from Chechnya. Even the Kavkaz Center, well known as a Shamil Basayev mouthpiece, confirms that the attackers were predominately locals:
As KC’s source transmitted from Nalchik, the basic attack force of the Mujahideen consists of subdivisions from the Kabardino-Balkarian sector of the Caucasian Front, with associated forces from the Karachai-Circassian sector of the CF and several mobile subdivisions from other sectors of the Caucasian Front.
As locals, they may have had wider Islamic motives, but there are also many, such as Simon Saradzhyan, writing here for ISN Security Watch, who believe that local grievances played a major part in the motivations for the raid.
Poverty, historical grievances, and the indiscriminate suppression of unofficial Islam in Russias Kabardino-Balkaria have created a fertile ground for the growth of a virulent strain of religious extremism in this North Caucasian republic – a harsh reality that became apparent on Thursday when rebels raided the capital, Nalchik.[…] The long-time leader of the republic, Valery Kokov, used the same tactic employed by other strongmen running North Caucasian republics in launching a campaign of harassment against all religious groups except the local branch of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Russia.
Kokov – who made it clear from the start that his regime would not tolerate any political or religious dissent – resigned earlier this year and was replaced in September by pro-Kremlin State Duma (Russian parliament) deputy and businessman Arsen Kanokov.
But the change was too little, too late, and the 15 years of Kokovs iron-fisted rule had already taken their toll by radicalizing unofficial Muslim organizations in the republic to such a degree that some of their members had gone underground and taken up arms to fight the local regime in alliance with insurgent networks operating across the North Caucasus, experts told ISN Security Watch.
Ahmet Yarlykapov, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology, says Kokovs regime attempted to suppress religious dissent among local Muslims by branding those who would not pledge loyalty to the Spiritual Board of Kabardino-Balkaria as Wahhabis.
I don’t think it would be right to characterise this purely as a local issue, however. There are clear links between radicals in Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechens such as Shamil Basayev. Simon Saradzhyan goes on to note that:
Basaev, who refers to himself as a terrorist, allegedly maintains close ties with extremists in Kabardino-Balkaria – reportedly close enough that he even trusted them with his life when he slipped into the town of Baksan in the republic, where he hid out for more that a month in 2003.
Failed Chechen suicide bomber Zarema Muzhakhoeva is also believed to have lived in Nalchik, being sheltered by local Wahhabis before setting out on an unsuccessful mission to detonate a bomb in downtown Moscow in the summer of 2003.
In addition, former Nalchik resident Murad Shuvaev, also a former local court official, is said by authorities to have housed Nikolai Kipkeev, the alleged organizer of the Rizhskaya subway station bombing, in his Moscow apartment last year.
[Thanks to Dan Darling, by the way, for the McGregor link].
While Chechens are routinely blamed for all bombings and other terrorist acts, it is the Turkic-speaking Karachays and Balkars that have actually been prosecuted for these incidents. An example is the 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, where blame was laid on Chechnya but all the individuals actually charged for these acts hail from Karachaevo-Cherkessia or Kabardino-Balkaria.
I must say that, although I can bring your attention to these links, I don’t know too much about them, or the particular political situation in Kabardino-Balkaria. If anyone out there has any more information, I’d be very grateful to hear it.