Use + Remix

Vladimir Putin’s reputation was built on fighting terrorism, yet a month after the deadly Crocus City Hall attack, his policies make Russia more exposed to it.

Vladimir Putin addresses the Russian people following the Crocus City Hall attack on March 22, 2024. : CC by 4.0 Vladimir Putin addresses the Russian people following the Crocus City Hall attack on March 22, 2024. : CC by 4.0

Vladimir Putin’s reputation was built on fighting terrorism, yet a month after the deadly Crocus City Hall attack, his policies make Russia more exposed to it.

Vladimir Putin relies on his identity as a man focused on Russia’s security and in particular fighting terrorism to cement the legitimacy of his control over Russia.

For the former KGB operative, it is an easy role to play. However, with the failings of Russia’s security apparatus in stopping the Crocus City Hall attack one month ago, the increasingly fertile ground for jihadi recruitment in Central Asia is a growing threat to Putin.

The question remains if he can use the same card to convince the conflict-weary Russian people and organisations like ISIS-K that he is not bluffing.

In September 1999, when he was deputy prime minister to Boris Yeltsin, Putin responded to a series of apartment building bombings that killed more than 300 people, with a famous pledge to the would-be terrorists:

“We will pursue them everywhere. If, pardon me, we catch them in the toilet, we’ll rub them out right there.”

A few months later Putin became president and has continued a determined fight against radical militants of all stripes to the present day.

The fight has not been easy and often relied on measures of dubious legality and excessive force. However, it has been successful, at least in quantitative terms.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Islamic radicals based in Chechnya and neighbouring southern regions of the Russian Federation were responsible for the lion’s share of terrorist incidents.

Between 2000 and 2018, the Caucasus Emirate (CE), a loose agglomeration of jihadi groups, organised 86 major terrorist acts including the massive attacks on the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004 causing hundreds of civilian deaths.

After 2010, the number of “crimes of a terrorist nature” in the North Caucasus began to fall sharply, reaching a record low of four in 2019 compared to 778 a decade earlier. This dramatic improvement in the security situation was achieved through a combination of brute force, enhanced law enforcement and accelerated economic development of the region.

For their part in the crackdown, the Kremlin gave loyal local strongmen such as Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya carte blanche to expunge the radicals regardless of human rights violations and abuse of power.

As the urgency of the terrorist threat from the Caucasus receded, the public mood relaxed: the share of Russians fearing terrorist attacks fell from 86 percent in 1999 to 56 percent in 2015.

The respite proved to be brief. Terror returned to Russia through the medium of international jihadi networks such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). These groups used to see Russia as a legitimate target during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89, and now the country was back on their priority list due to Moscow’s support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Another aggravating factor was the exodus of militants from Chechnya and Dagestan to the Middle East. Up to 5,000 radicalised Russian citizens joined IS in Iraq and Syria between 2011 and 2015 accounting for eight percent of all IS fighters and providing some of its leading cadres. IS formally declared jihad on Russia in 2015.

The internationalisation of jihad produced a handful of high-profile attacks such as the 2017 suicide bombing in the Saint Petersburg metro, still, overall, it did not aggravate the security situation in Russia critically.

In fact the Kremlin portrayed its operations in Syria as a resounding counter-terrorism success. It claimed to have killed 87,000 militants there in three years thus inflicting “colossal damage” upon terrorists, as Putin put it. Decimated and deprived of a territorial haven in the Middle East, their threat would be reduced to a minimum.

Yet Al-Qaeda and IS managed to survive and stage a comeback through a jihadi franchise based in Afghanistan called the Islamic State’s Khurasan Province (ISKP).

ISKP started in 2015 as a marginal group attracting militants from Central Asia who harboured radical sentiments towards secular authoritarian governments in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, it has developed the capacity not only to fight the anaemic Taliban regime but also to stage attacks abroad.

By 2023, Moscow had identified ISKP as its No.1 terrorist threat. The head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) noted that the number of its fighters in Afghanistan had risen to 6,500 from the original 500.

Even more alarming to Moscow was the increasing level of radicalisation among 4 million migrant workers from Central Asia fuelled in part by ISKP’s sophisticated propaganda. Social media and virtual communication platforms enabled the ecosystem of Central Asian terrorist cells to recruit, move funds, and coordinate action efficiently.

Russian law enforcement tried to match this efficiency by lifting its own game. The FSB boasted that it averted 96 percent of all planned terrorist attacks in 2020, up from a paltry 10 percent in 2010. As recently as March 7, 2024 it thwarted an ISKP plot to raid a Moscow synagogue, killing two perpetrators from Kazakhstan. Yet two weeks later, four Tajik migrants mounted a successful attack on the Crocus City Hall for which ISKP claimed responsibility.

The Beslan massacre in 2004 led to a serious political crisis in Russia. The assault in Moscow on 22 March 2024, despite its brazenness and magnitude, did not produce similar outcomes.

Putin’s approval rating and public trust in government stayed high. The authorities’ main concern was about the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in Russian society. Putin called for inter-ethnic and inter-confessional harmony while Kadyrov warned that the West would try to exploit the tragedy to undermine the Russians’ unity.

Notwithstanding anecdotal evidence of citizens’ outbursts against people from Central Asia, opinion polls show that anti-migrant sentiments have not jumped critically and are gradually returning to pre-March levels.

It appears that Russian society still has confidence in the state’s ability to combat terrorism with the recent attack seen as a tragic but perhaps inevitable incident.

It is noteworthy that contrary to the war in Ukraine, the Crocus City Hall disaster has not become a polarising issue separating Putin’s supporters and opponents: both cohorts assess the acuteness of the terrorist threat in the same way.

The Russian president promised inevitable punishment to “all perpetrators, organisers and instigators of this crime”.

It took the FSB five years to hunt down all jihadis involved in the 2017 Saint Petersburg bombing. On this occasion, it may not have as much time to get its men. And should another bloody attack take place soon, Putin’s legitimacy might actually suffer.

Associate Professor Kirill Nourzhanov is Deputy Director and Convenor of Higher Degree by Research Studies at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia) at The Australian National University.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Are you a journalist? Sign up for our wire service