TOPICS : Russia sees global jihad on southern flank

Fred Weir

A powerful explosion ripped through a half-empty carriage of a commuter train near the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt Sunday, killing a young woman and wounding several people. Police announced the apparent terror bombing as an almost routine event, the latest of nearly 80 deadly attacks by Islamic extremists that have rocked the multiethnic mountain republic of Dagestan so far this year. The Kremlin insists the wave of attacks that threaten to unhinge Russia’s mainly Muslim Caucasus region is being orchestrated by the same global jihad groups that have struck in London and Sharm-el-Sheikh in recent days. Many experts, however, dispute this interpretation, arguing that Moscow’s handling of the still-smouldering war in next-door Chechnya, as well as local poverty and corruption, have more to do with the roots of violence here. But most agree that there has been an alarming influx of foreign jihadis into Russia’s vulnerable southern underbelly over the past year.

Recent incidents, including a bathhouse bombing that killed 10 Russian soldiers in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala two weeks ago, suggest the attackers have absorbed sophisticated tactics used by jihadis in Iraq and elsewhere. A report issued last week by Igor Dobayev, an expert with the official Academy of Sciences, found that 2,000 Islamist insurgents, many belonging to the Al Qaeda-linked Sha-ria Jamaat, are behind the violence.

Dagestan, with just over 2 million inhabitants belonging to 37 fractious ethnic groups, is the largest and potentially most volatile piece of the Russian Caucasus. The main pipeline for Russia’s share of Caspian oil runs through the coastal city of Makhachkala. The republic governed since 1991 by Magomedali Magomedov, has an estimated 60 per cent unemployment rate.

A secret report by the Kremlin’s special envoy, Dmitry Kozak, leaked to a Moscow newspaper earlier this month, warned of the emergence of “Islamic Sharia enclaves amid the high Caucasus peaks.” Many experts say the Chechnya war, which began almost 11 years ago in a bungled military effort by Moscow to put down a separatist rebellion, remains the key destabiliser. Violence in Chechnya has been rising lately. In the past week alone a military helicopter crash killed eight soldiers, and an ambush on security forces killed 14. The first Chechnya war, 1994-96, was effectively won by the nationalist, independence-seeking rebels. But experts say that since rebel president Aslan Maskhadov was killed by Russian security forces earlier this year, the Chechen insurgency is led by Islamic radicals such as Shamil Basayev, architect of a mass hostage-taking in a Moscow theatre two years ago and last September’s bloody school siege in Beslan. Basayev, along with a small jihadi army, invaded Dagestan in 1999, but was driven back after local militias mobilised to support Russian forces. Experts are not sure Moscow could hope for that kind of popular backing in any future emergency. — The Christian Science Monitor