On August 26 1999, Russia launched the Second Chechen War in response to a a Chechen-based Islamist group’s invasion of Dagestan. A couple of weeks later, a series of apartment bombings in Russia killed more than 300 civilians. Responsibility for the terrorist attacks was claimed by an entity no one had heard of before – and never heard of after. In an anonymous phone-call to ITAR-TASS on September 9th 1999, the “Liberation Army of Dagestan” took responsibility for the bombings, saying they were “in response to the bombings of civilians in the villages in Chechnya and Dagestan”
Several Russian historians, and former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko claimed later that the apartment buildings bombings were a false-flag operation by the FSB, in an effort to consolidate Russian public opinion behind the nascent full-scale war against secessionist Chechnya. Notably, the then, separatist, Chechen authorities said the same.
For the sake of argument, lets assume that the false-flag scenario is a secondary, unproven hypothesis. The main hypothesis – also Russia’s official version of events – is that extremist Islamist groups attempted to terrorize Russian society as retribution for Russia’s military foray into Ichkeria’s territory.
Again, for the sake of argument, let’s note that there was a third theory, promoted by US historian Prof. Peter Reddaway and Russian researcher Dmitri Glinski. They believed the actual terrorist attacks were indeed perpetrated by Wahhabists, but not without the actual prior knowledge of, if not passive assistance by, the FSB.
If we stick with the main hypothesis, we have to assume that the bombings taught Russia an unforgettable institutional lesson, and Russia’s security services learned that terrorist attacks are a foreseeable consequence of specific government policies. All the more that Russia was subjected to several more terrorist attacks in the period 2000-2003, causing the loss of another 300 or so lives. In all cases, brought about by homegrown Islamist extremists.
Indeed, as a reaction to Chechen-linked terrorism, and especially after the Beslan siege, Russia introduced all-encompassing, heavy-handed preventive controls aiming to eliminate any risks of recurring attacks. The bew 2006 Russian anti-terrorism law grants virtually unlimited, state-of-emergency powers to the FSB and police during unannounced “counter-terrorism operations” which are not subject to any parliamentary or other oversight, and grants unrestricted surveillance powers to the security forces. Entering the perimeter of a Russian airport requires going through a metal detector – before you even get to the check-in desk.
Come 2015. Russia intervenes in the Syrian civil war and attacks “ISIS positions”. The Kremlin publicly announces that one it its primary goals is to defeat ISIS’s potential to bring back its terrorist war on Russian soil – for instance, via the latent Wahhabist cells in the North Caucuses. The Kremlin publicly declares, after its first bombing raids, that it has prioritized hitting “Russian-speaking cells” among the ISIS militants. Meanwhile, Ramzan Kadyrov goes around arresting ISIS suspects in Chechnya, suspected of trafficking people to – or planning to emigrate and join the ISIS. Last week, he even foils a plot by ISIS-linked Wahhabists to assassinate him – and lets his would-be assassins go home, after a sermon.
It would seem logical, assuming the main hypothesis above, that Russia would have an airtight institutional preparedness for any terrorist back-clash to its air-raids in Syria. All the more that the raids are claimed to have killed dozens, of not hundreds, of civilians, if accounts by opposition groups and international conflict-watchers are to be trusted. The latter, whether a fact or just a legend, are a typical catalyst of terrorist reactions.
Thus, the heightened terrorist-risk context for Russia should be assumed and modeled by Russia’s security services. That model does not need to need specific, explicit threats by groups known to seek exposure for their terrorist intentions.
But Russia gets even that. Four days before the crash of A-321, ISIS threatens publicly that it will avenge – on Russia and the West alike – over “the murder of Muslims in Syria and Iraq”.
With all of that in place, Russia not only does not issue a public warning to its citizens traveling abroad (the last travel warning on Russia’s foreign ministry’s website – from May – advises Russians to beware of USA’s intent to hunt down and kidnap Russians who may be under suspicion of financial crime under US law). Russia also takes no preventive measures to heighten security of civilian flights to and from risky air destinations. And that is in stark deviation from Russia’s own anti-terrorist domestic policies, let alone from best practices, such as Israel or the US, for instance.
A-321 then gets shot down, or blown up. For a few days after the incident, Russia sticks to an agnostic stand, but slowly leaks – via its controlled media – the “explosion” hypothesis. Almost as if it wants to temper its electorate to the thought of a terrorist act, while minimizing the downside to itself by the shock value. Ultimately, once the bomb theory has diffused sufficiently, Russia officializes it, by grounding all flights to and from Egypt, and announcing an emergency plan to repatriate nearly 80,000 Russians vacationing in Egypt.
Something doesn’t fit in this sequence of events. I just don’t buy the story that Russia’s security apparatus is so careless, or callous, or incompetent. Even without for a moment considering the second hypothesis from 1999, one must ask oneself: is this not what security services anticipated, and did not mind, happening?
If so, why would they ever want this tragedy to happen? To rally public support for a deeper, ground intervention in Syria?
Or to elicit the West’s sympathy, and to engender a context for detente, leading to potential dropping on sanctions?
Or is it even the contrary to #1 above… Russia, having realized that its intervention in Syria is in a deadlock, certainly without ground-troop support, and it needs a domestic excuse for terminating its ad-hoc assistance to Assad?
Or is it, indeed, that Russia just dropped the ball – and failed to plan?
I guess the Kremlin’s unavoidable upcoming decision on what to do in Syria: escalate, cooperate, or terminate – will give us the precise answer.
Last night, ISIS released an execution video of what they called was a “Russian spy” among them. The person being executed appears Chechen. The executioner addressed the camera in Russian, and claims that the person being killed was an FSB informant.
Shortly after this release, Ramzan Kadyrov released the following statement:
“This Russian is a Chechen. His head was whacked off. I have confirmation of these facts….About the fact that he worked for some agency…I don’t buy that. I think he was framed. Chechens know him, remember him, and won’t leave him unavenged. Whoever murdered our compatriot, should not live. We will send him to the next world on a one-way ticket”
Kadyrov thus tried to deflect ISIS’s accusation that the person was an FSB informant, however this assertion runs against his own statement from January 2015, when he said the following:
Within this terrorist organization we have a good network of agents. This allows us to track their movements. Moreover, it gives us advance information, allowing us time to send in on a one-way ticket to the next world those who would point a gun at Russia