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Russia: Who Carried Out The Nalchik Raids And Why?

  • Jeremy Bransten

Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility today for last week's raids on Nalchik, saying he provided "operational guidance." In recent years, Basaev has claimed credit for many of the deadliest terror attacks in Russia. But both Basayev and Russian officials agree on one thing: most of the militants who took part in the Nalchik raids were local men. What is driving people in this formerly peaceful republic to militancy and is it a sign of a widening conflict in the North Caucasus?

Prague, 17 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In hindsight, the raids on Kabardino-Balkaria's capital are strikingly similar to last year's attacks on Nazran -- the main city in nearby Ingushetia. Both attacks have been claimed by Basayev and in both cases the militants that took part were mainly local young men.

The targets were police, military, and government offices. In Nazran, the attackers mostly escaped. In Nalchik, it appears most did not. But that, according to experts, is not so significant. What the Nazran and Nalchik raids make clear is that the Russian authorities are losing their battle to contain militancy from spreading through the North Caucasus. Chechnya, Daghestan, North Ossetia, Ingusehtia, and now Kabaradino-Balkaria are being drawn in.

The fact that Russian security forces appear to have been relatively successful at killing or apprehending the militants this time around was probably due to good intelligence as well as to the militants' youth and lack of combat training.

Basayev himself, in an e-mail message posted on the website, blamed the losses in Nalchik on an information leak. In other words, police were already on the militants' trail before the attacks. The militants may have known this but decided to go ahead with their plan, hoping to go out in a blaze of glory, according to political analyst Shamil Bino.

"They decided that rather than fall into the hands of the [police] one-by-one it would be better to take up arms all together," Bino said. "This explains the fact that law enforcement bodies -- both local and federal -- were able to localize the militants very quickly. These were poorly trained [militants] who had no experience on any [war] fronts."

Nalchik remains under a Russian security lockdown, so obtaining reliable facts remains difficult. But initial indications are that most of the attackers were young locals, including many young Kabardins. If true, this could be significant because until now, most militants were believed to be Balkars, who make up about 10 percent of the population.

The Balkars have historical grievances against Moscow. Like the Chechens, they were deported to Siberia by Stalin during World War II. Ever since returning to their homeland, they have faced discrimination and remained on the economic margins of society. The Kabardins, by contrast, who make up 50 percent of the population, were favored by the authorities. Both groups -- naturally -- have remained wary of each other.

But if Balkar and Kabardin militants are now making common cause under the banner of the radical group Yarmuk Jamaat, this could portend trouble for Moscow. Twice already this year the authorities claimed to have crushed the organization. In the wake of the Nalchik attacks, they are being more cautious.

So what drives young Kabardins and Balkars to answer Basayev's call for holy war? Paradoxically, say experts, it is the government's campaign against Islamic extremism that is driving some young men to radicalism. Human-rights activists say that under the guise of rooting out extremism, police have become notorious for their brutal tactics against the local population -- especially young men.

This, combined with a hopeless economic situation, has bred a sense of anger and alienation that Basayev has tapped into. Accuse an unemployed young man of being a Wahabbi, bring him in for a brutal interrogation session -- and if he wasn't a Wahabbi at the beginning, he will likely become one by the time he is released back out onto the street the activists say.

Police targets were prominent in last week's attacks. "Police brutality in Kabardino-Balkaria is rampant," said Aslan Doukaev, head of REF/RL's North Caucasus Service. "We know that young people detained by the police are often tortured in detention. And this is not the first attack on police. You remember that in December last year, a group of militants also attacked antinarcotics police. So, yes, it's a reaction to rampant police brutality, in a way."

Kabardino-Balkaria's newly installed President Arsen Kanokov hinted last week that the campaign against religious extremism may have been counterproductive. He said that the mass closing of mosques by republic officials was a "mistake."

Svante Cornell, an expert on the region at Sweden's Uppsala University, told RFE/RL that the authorities have fallen into a trap in the North Caucasus. They have accepted the militants' premise that the conflict with Moscow is religious when in fact it began as an ethnic problem in Chechnya and remains a largely economic and social issue for most people. Instead of focusing on improving the local economy and curbing corruption, local governments – which answer to Moscow -- have become obsessed with religious extremism.

For the militants, it has been a recruiter's dream. "As this conflict has gotten an increasingly strong religious undertone, it has also developed much more of a resonance with the other groupings of the populations of the North Caucasus," Cornell said. "And you've seen the spread of radical Islamic groupings from Chechnya out into the rest of the North Caucasus very much because of the counterproductive policies followed by the Russian leadership and their utter inability to deal with the socioeconomic problems in the region." According to the latest official figures provided by Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov, 91 militants were killed in the Nalchik raids and 36 were captured. Twenty-four policemen were killed in addition to 12 civilians. Some 100 people are being treated for injuries. The hunt for escaped militants continues in the Nalchik area. (RFE/RL's Russian and North Caucasus services contributed to this report)

See also: Russia: Basaev Says He Helped Plan Nalchik Raid