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opinion | robert pape

Chechen rebels’ complicated agenda

Nearly one year after the Boston Marathon bombing, American eyes are turning once again to the Caucasus — this time for the Sochi Winter Olympics. With suicide terrorists still at large in the region, an attack at or near the games seems increasingly possible.

If a bomb goes off, it will be tempting to draw comparisons with last April. The narrative practically writes itself: ethnic Chechens bombing another international sporting event. And indeed, there are similarities. Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Chechen suicide terrorists are almost always self-recruits. They actively seek out radicalization and training, signing up for the mission themselves.

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However, the most notable suspect at large, Ruzanna Ibragimova, has different motives from the Tsarnaev brothers. She is a “black widow,” the wife of a deceased Chechen rebel who devotes herself to the cause of Chechen independence, and is believed to be planning a suicide attack.

Therein lies the distinction. Whereas the Tsarnaev brothers were apparently motivated by perceived injustice by the Western world toward Muslims, Ibragimova’s cause is purely nationalistic. She is not fighting “The West,” but simply Russia. Nor does she perceive herself as fighting on behalf of all Muslims worldwide. She likely believes she is fighting for all Chechens, regardless of their religion.

Here at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, we have been closely tracking the activities of the Chechen rebel movement. Using rigorous methods in social science, we compiled and analyzed detailed records of every suicide and non-suicide attack since start of the conflict. Our analysis, commissioned by US Office of Naval Research and submitted in September 2013, predicted an imminent suicide attack campaign by the Chechen rebels against civilians in Russia. Since that time, our warning was confirmed by three suicide attacks in Volgograd — one in October and two in December. Ibragimova was dispatched as part of this same wave of attacks.

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Our findings also show that Chechen terrorism against Russia ebbs and flows, usually following a distinct pattern: When rebels cannot attack Russian security forces, they start attacking civilians; once they are able again to attack security forces, civilians are spared.

For instance, it was only when the rebels were driven out of Chechnya that their former leader, Shamil Basayev, made clear that civilians were appropriate targets. Major suicide bombings in Moscow in 2003 and 2004 are prime examples of this. But once the rebels regrouped in the Republic of Ingushetia, they were able to form a base from which they could attack security forces again — violence against civilians declined during this period. Civilian attacks peaked again in 2009, in response to Russian antiterrorism efforts in Ingushetia, only to decline in 2012. In July 2013, rebel leader Dokku Umarov announced again his intention to attack civilians, forming the newest campaign.

The Olympics are a particularly symbolic target. Sochi was a major site in Russia’s conquest of the North Caucasus during the 19th century, which resulted in the expulsion of tens of thousands of Muslims to Turkey. Generally speaking, the host cities are a relatively easy target for terrorists looking to make a splash on the world stage. Munich (1972) and Atlanta (1996) were both targets of successful terrorist attacks, for instance.

With that in mind, the rebels’ goal during the Olympics will be to punish and embarrass Russia, most likely by targeting Russian civilians and/or security forces at the Olympics. Another possibility would be to attack civilians elsewhere in Russia, taking advantage of the security vacuum created by the diversion of Russian antiterrorism resources towards Sochi.

Either way, attacking non-Russians — for instance, by detonating a bomb in the heart of the athletes’ village — would actually be counterproductive to the Chechen independence movement. The result would likely be full international support for Russia (financially and perhaps even militarily) in its efforts to crush the Chechen rebels.

Granted, Russia has taken extraordinary measures to secure Sochi. The athletes should be quite safe, not only because Russians are the most likely targets, but because the athletes’ village and sporting arenas have been made impenetrable.

We must also ask ourselves: If a bomb goes off during the Olympics, what is the appropriate response?

A hardline Russian response — such as bombing Grozny (Chechnya’s capital) in retaliation — would only create more recruits. Instead, the proper response should be to improve economic and political conditions in Chechnya. This would wrestle support from the rebels, a fringe group whose support is maximized when the local population is aggravated.

The bottom line is that we should not expect the Chechen rebels to go unnoticed during the Winter Olympics. They have proven themselves enormously effective in carrying out attacks throughout the Caucasus. Sochi is right on their doorstep, relatively close to Chechnya compared to previous attack sites. This is the perfect opportunity for them to grab the world’s attention, to deeply embarrass Russia in what is otherwise supposed to be its shining moment.

Robert Pape is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
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