Putin pledged decades ago to conquer the horrors of Islamic extremism. Deadly Dagestan attack again proves he failed

Only a fraction of the violence that raged across Dagestan on Sunday is visible at the moment, and it is already horrific. Co-ordinated attacks in Dagestan’s two main cities, hitting synagogues and churches. Reports a priest had his throat slit, hostages taken, and the sons of a local official and an MMA fighter among the five attackers.

Videos of the violence showed police responding, racing down Makhachkala’s panicked streets, as darkness fell. And police casualties appear improbably greater than the civilian toll, hinting worse news about civilian deaths may be yet to emerge.

The partial information available is entirely by design. Moscow has tried for decades to keep a lid on the raging Islamist extremism its years of brutal suppression and poverty have fomented across the North Caucasus. Some times it is through brutal force, others through the selective release of information. But neither has conquered the problem.

This attack – almost three months to the day after gunmen stormed into Moscow’s Crocus City Hall killing 133 – compounds the unpleasant fact that Russia’s Islamist threat has metastised, like it has across the world, and the next, younger generation retains the same vile hatred for the Kremlin’s past and present.

The extent of the law enforcement response will be key as Russia’s political elite picks through the wreckage. The high death toll among police suggests they were either heavily targeted, or met fierce resistance when they intervened. The war in Ukraine – with police officers sent to the front – has left Russia’s law enforcement depleted nationwide. But it is particularly bad in Dagestan, where protests broke out in the earlier months of the war, as their sons had been disproportionately mobilized.

This is a poor, febrile pocket of Russia on the Caspian Sea, in places devoutly Muslim, where the war in Ukraine will have left many empty places at the dinner table, and fomented discontent against the Kremlin and its often corrupt local proxies. Dead and absent sons are hard to stomach, but if they come with worse security at home, it can be a critical problem for the Kremlin’s grip on Dagestan.

Extremist Islamism became Russia’s curse after the savagery of its two wars in Chechnya. Putin came to power in 1999 graphically pledging to wipe out “in the toilet” the extremists apparently behind apartment bombings in Moscow. Chechen separatist militants like Shamil Basayev grew more radical in their ideology as Moscow’s “clean-up” campaigns raged through Chechnya’s villages in the early 2000s, often executing military-aged males randomly. Over the coming years, the two protagonists fed off each other; militants would reach yet more disgusting depths, and be answered by security forces who saw no limits on what they should do in response.

The attacks on Christians in Dagestan on Sunday echo the militants’ most ghastly crime – the siege of the school in Beslan, in 2004, where an Orthodox Christian area was targeted and more than 300 people died, most of them children. The security forces’ response was woeful back then, until special forces arrived and bravely suppressed the siege, suffering great casualties in their ranks. Russian President Vladimir Putin sneaked into the area to see the wounded in hospital in the dead of night. Beslan was a manifestation of the sore he had pledged to cure when he came to power. As he has now, he failed back then, and wanted no photocall with the devastation.

In this photo taken from video released by the National Antiterrorism Committee on Monday, June 24, 2024, FSB officers conduct a counter-terrorist operation in republic of Dagestan, Russia. - The National Antiterrorism Committee/AP
In this photo taken from video released by the National Antiterrorism Committee on Monday, June 24, 2024, FSB officers conduct a counter-terrorist operation in republic of Dagestan, Russia. - The National Antiterrorism Committee/AP

Chechen wars ignited entire region

The perpetrators of Beslan had complex histories that spoke of how the Chechen wars had ignited an entire region. They were mostly not Chechens, but from nearby Ingushetia, another Russian region hit hard by its brutal war on extremism and separatists. Their decision to launch such a diabolical scheme – and there could only have been one real outcome from stringing up explosives in the basketball hoops above children’s heads in a gym on the first day of school – came, they said, from the brutalities they had seen.

I interviewed the only surviving Beslan gunman’s father back in 2004, in a remote village in the Chechen hills. A tiny man, in a kufi hat and silver beard, he said little about his son’s crimes. We spoke in a hurry, as Russian forces were then busy entering homes on the other side of his village in yet another clean-up operation. He said to me only this: “It is as Lenin said. There is White and there is Red. Always has been, and always will be.” His point: there are two sides in this savage war, and they are irreconcilable.

Fast forward a decade, and the North Caucasus came into focus again when two former residents perpetrated the Boston bombing in 2013. Their links back to Dagestan extremism proved slight. Most reporting suggested the elder brother had tried to be recruited by local jihadists, and hung around Makhachkala for weeks, hoping to get the invitation. But by then, Dagestan’s extremists were hugely selective. Recruits would be expected to sit for months in isolation, without using cellphones or other contact, before jihadists would admit them to their training in the dense local forests and ranks of committed militants, eager to take innocent life.

The caution was a by-product of Moscow’s crackdown. Surveillance was omnipresent. Police would take no chances when intervening with suspects. Often a potential militant would be surrounded, his family permitted to leave, and then his home stormed, with little option for surrender.

That was over 10 years ago. Nothing has improved since, and a younger generation have the lurid propaganda of ISIS’s failed caliphate of 2014 to supercharge their fantasies. They face more potent fuel in the preaching and branding of ISIS-K, an offshoot of the Middle Eastern group in South and Central Asia, growing in its reach.

But it is still the same problem Putin faced when he sneaked into Beslan in 2004. The extremist manifestation of anger in an impoverished, suppressed and exploited satellite region. A horror the Kremlin thought it could conquer, yet just accentuated through their brutality. A place Moscow cares little for, but will never allow to secede. A raging sore for the Kremlin, and a reminder of both how Putin came to power and his limits on it.

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