Last month was a bloody one in Russia. On December 29th and 30th, two suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd killed a combined total of 34 people and injured many more. In the process, they shone a rare spotlight on the true state of Russia's counterterrorism policy.
The picture isn't pretty. Some two decades after it was ignited by the USSR's breakup, the Islamist insurgency in Russia's troubled North Caucasus regions has proven to be remarkably resilient. In its most recent Country Reports on Terrorism, the State Department noted that 182 terrorist incidents, resulting in 659 casualties, took place in Russia just in the year 2012 (the last for which complete statistics are available). The overwhelming majority of these attacks took place in the North Caucasus.
Moreover, this state of affairs persists despite the overwhelming military force marshaled over the past two decades by the Russian government, first in Chechnya and subsequently in adjoining regions (in particular Dagestan and Ingushetia). In fact, although the number of terrorist incidents in Russia has declined significantly from an all-time high of nearly 800 in 2009, the past several years nonetheless have seen a number of major attacks — including the 2010 bombing of the Moscow subway, the 2011 attack on Moscow's Domodedovo airport, and three separate suicide bombings in Volgograd last year. In other words, despite Russian president Vladimir Putin's declaration several years ago that the country had turned a corner in its fight against what Russians generally term "Wahhabism," Islamic extremism in Russia is still very much alive and kicking.
It is also adapting. At least one of December's two attacks in Volgograd is alleged to have been perpetrated by an ethnic-Russian convert to Islam — highlighting a tactic that has become increasingly popular with Islamic radicals as a method of evading the country's security services. These changes, Russian observers say, represent a "massive problem for law enforcement agencies," which are ill-equipped to keep pace with the changing nature of contemporary Islamism in Russia.
All of which suggests the need for a more sophisticated, multifaceted alternative to Moscow's current, retrograde counterterrorism policy — which favors force over subtlety, and which fails to take into account the drivers of Islamism in Russia (from economic privation to official discrimination). "The government has (generally) been relying on standard measures of counter-insurgency to date," says Greg Simon, a counterterrorism specialist at the Swedish National Defence College. "There needs to be something more done other than (counting) body(ies), weapons captured, terror acts prevented. Otherwise, you get stuck in a game of perpetual catch-up and stuck in a reactive posture."
Unfortunately, the aftermath of Volgograd suggests that the future will hold more of the same. Already, Mr. Putin has promised a wide-ranging security clampdown in response to the Volgograd attacks, pledging that his government "will forcefully and strenuously continue the fight against terrorists until they are completely annihilated." If history is any indication, this effort is sure to be accompanied by the types of heavy-handed measures that have become the mainstay of the Kremlin's counterterrorism policy. Indeed, in the wake of the bombings, police in Volgograd have reportedly detained more than 700 in a massive anti-terror sweep, and imposed "total inspections" on all vehicles and trains in the region.
The Kremlin certainly has a lot riding on the outcome of these efforts. With the Winter Olympics in Sochi now just a month away, Moscow can ill-afford international doubts about its ability to administer and provide security for the Games. But the Volgograd bombings — and the Russian government's reaction to them — have laid bare the sobering reality that, despite the Kremlin's official pronouncements to the contrary, Russia's struggle against radical Islam is far from won.