TCS Daily

Moscow's Red Dawn

By Dominic Basulto - October 30, 2002 12:00 AM

After the dramatic terrorist siege of a theater in Moscow, there can no longer be any doubts that the various strains of global terrorism are coalescing into an ever more virulent strain with no regard for human life or international law. Most disturbingly, this mutation of global terrorism - eased by the intermingling of international financial flows and access to worldwide media on a 24/7 basis - is forcing the hand of world leaders such as U.S. President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and Russian President Putin as they contemplate appropriate countermeasures.

The Chechen attack was more than just a 'smash and grab' hostage situation in the center of Moscow or another escalation in the struggle between Russia and armed rebels in Chechnya. It was the clearest signal yet that the various strains of terrorism from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia are combining into a new, more deadly virus that constantly mutates in response to the defense mechanisms of the host. Chechen rebels have now raised the banner of Islamic Jihad - painting themselves as suicide bombers willing to die for the liberation of their homeland and invoking the name of Allah on a televised Al-Jazeera broadcast. There can be no doubt that this Moscow attack was planned in 'foreign terrorist centers' as part of an attempt to internationalize the Chechen struggle.

Ultimately, these brazen attacks on innocent civilians force countries such as Russia to adopt unyielding, unilateral responses that threaten to turn the war against terror into a war against civilizations. Already, President Putin and the "verticals of power" in Moscow are preparing to launch expanded anti-terrorist operations and even military operations in the mountainous regions of Chechnya and Dagestan after a long and bloody war dating back to 1995. In doing so, Russia will cloak itself in the symbols and language of the U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, claiming that it is acting in 'self-defense' against foreign terrorists.

After the terrorist attack in Moscow, three key themes are now clear:

  1. The war on terror is not a conventional war - and will require non-conventional responses. Just as America potentially faced the decision of whether or not to shoot down a civilian airliner on 9/11, the Russian government faced an equally painful decision: whether or not to rely on an experimental neuro-paralytic gas in a daring attempt to rescue over 750 hostages. While even the loss of one civilian life is a tremendous human tragedy, the loss of 115 lives pales in comparison to what might have been had the Chechens detonated the explosives in the theater.

    Quite simply, the terrorists gave Putin an impossible ultimatum. The Chechens promised to start executing civilians within 48 hours of seizing the theater and announced that they had mined, detonated and booby-trapped the theater such that any raid by Russian special forces would lead to a massacre of trapped hostages. In a taped broadcast that included the Arabic translation of "Allah is Great," the group of 50 Chechen terrorists (including 25 female suicide bombers) clearly stated that they were co-called "shakhidi" (suicide martyrs) who fully expected to die.

  2. Every terrorist attack will only push countries to adopt a militarized, hard-line unilateral approach - and will not drag countries to the negotiating table. Quite pointedly, Russia refused to join the two-day World Chechen Congress held in Denmark less than one week after the attack. Russia has joined the USA and Israel as countries that will not bend to terrorist demands. As Putin outlined in a speech to the country on the night after special forces troops stormed the theater, "Russia will not be brought to its knees."

    If anything, Putin will be emboldened by the relative success of the counter-terrorism measures, move further to the right on the political spectrum, and continue to strengthen the "vertical of power" that includes the former KGB, the military, and the Interior Ministry. Most likely, the terrorist attack will lead to further intensification of the conflict in Chechnya and a "chistka" (crackdown) of non-Russian minorities across Russia.

  3. The war on terrorism is increasingly dependent on powerful language and symbols, as both defender and attacker struggle to win over international public opinion - whether it is Russian voters who lost loved ones or the 'Arab street'. For the Chechen terrorists, the tag of "freedom fighter" no longer carried currency, so they adapted their tactics, borrowed a page from the playbook of Palestinian suicide bombers, and cloaked their goals in the veil of Islamic fundamentalism. As various reports from Moscow make clear, the Chechen terrorists are radicalizing their Islamic message. They specifically broadcast their video message in Arabic on Al-Jazeera, contacted representatives in Muslim countries (Turkey, UAE), and emphasized the role of women suicide bombers dressed in traditional Muslim garb.

    The Russians, too, are proving themselves adept in this game of global PR. With the war efforts in Chechnya flagging, Putin has been all too willing to link the attacks of 9/11 with the conflict in Chechnya, painting Chechen rebel bases as training grounds for militant Arabs and other mujahadeen - including bitter Afghan rebels. One Russian media source even labeled the theater in Moscow as the 'Third Twin' of the New York World Trade Center, specifically noting the 75 foreigners trapped inside. (In perhaps the most farcical moment, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein weighed in on the Moscow situation, arguing for the Islamic terrorists to lay down their weapons - presumably in exchange for Russian support in the UN).

Putin rode to power on the strength of a campaign to stamp out the Chechen problem once and for all, leading one to expect that this Red Dawn in Moscow will only intensify these efforts. In fact, in October 1999 it was Putin who stated (in uncharacteristically coarse Russian prison slang): "If need be, we'll rub them out in their outhouses." He has already stated that he will not negotiate with terrorists - especially those armed to the teeth with grenade launchers, wired with explosives, and willing to kill innocent women and children. In his address to the people of Russia, Putin called them "armed scum."

From a global perspective, countries such as Russia and the USA cannot eradicate this 'armed scum' only by military strikes or a tightening of homeland security. It will take a united, worldwide effort to tighten porous borders, stanch financial flows that fund terrorist groups, and minimize the inflammatory role of religious fanaticism.

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