By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 30, 2009
SUNZHENSKY, RUSSIA -- Her face wet with tears and framed by a black shawl, Madina Albakova sat in her ransacked living room and described how she had become another teenage widow here in Ingushetia, the most volatile of Russia's Muslim republics.
The details emerged between sobs: the arrival of the security forces earlier in the day, her husband's panicked attempt to flee, the gunfire that erupted without warning. He was a law student, barely 20 and "so beautiful," she said, but the soldiers planted a rifle next to his body and called him an Islamist rebel. Then they took everything of value -- the family's savings, a set of dishes, even baby clothes, she said.
Such heavy-handed tactics by the Russian security forces have helped transform the long-running separatist rebellion in Chechnya, east of Ingushetia, into something potentially worse: a radical Muslim insurgency that has spread across the region, draws support from various ethnic groups and appears to be gaining strength.
Moscow declared an end to military operations in Chechnya in April, a decade after then-President Vladimir Putin sent troops into the breakaway republic. But violence has surged in the mountains of Russia's southwest frontier since then, with the assassination of several officials, explosions and shootouts occurring almost daily, and suicide bombings making a comeback after a long lull. On Sunday, a popular Ingush opposition leader was fatally shot, months after the slaying of Chechnya's most prominent human rights activist.
The insurgency is a key reason Russia has been reluctant to support sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program; diplomats say the Kremlin is worried Tehran might retaliate by setting aside sectarian differences and backing the rebels in Muslim solidarity. Washington, meanwhile, is concerned that the area is becoming a recruiting ground for militias in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
At least 519 people were killed in rebel attacks and clashes with government forces from May to September, up from 299 during the same period last year, according to a study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The fighting is concentrated in the largely Muslim eastern part of the North Caucasus, an area the size of Oregon with 14 million people from as many as 50 ethnic groups.
After a brief calm following two wars, militant attacks have spiked in Chechnya, as well as in nearby Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. But the violence has been worst in Ingushetia, the smallest and poorest of Russia's provinces, where rebels and security forces compete in brutality and even rights activists carry guns.
A few hours after the soldiers killed Albakova's husband, Movsar Merzhoyev, in this rural district on Oct. 9, a car bomb exploded several miles away in what appeared to be a failed suicide attack. Over the next week, gun battles here left 11 suspected militants and three police officers dead.
Ingushetia has been on edge since June, when a suicide bomber hit the convoy of the republic's president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, putting him in a coma and killing three bodyguards. Two months later, as Yevkurov was returning to work, another suicide attack leveled the police department of Ingushetia's largest city, Nazran, killing at least 24 people and injuring 200 others.
Russia has long blamed violence in the region on Muslim extremists backed by foreign governments and terrorist networks, but radical Islam is relatively new here. In the 1990s, it was ethnic nationalism, not religious fervor, that motivated Chechen separatists. That changed, though, as fighting spilled beyond Chechnya and Russian forces used harsher tactics targeting devout Muslims.
In 2007, the rebel leader Doku Umarov abandoned the goal of Chechen independence and declared jihad instead, vowing to establish a fundamentalist Caucasus Emirate that would span the entire region. After Moscow proclaimed victory in Chechnya in April, he issued a video labeling civilians legitimate targets and reviving Riyad-us Saliheen, the self-described martyrs' brigade that launched terrorist attacks across Russia from 2002 to 2006.
A major figure in the recent violence is Alexander Tikhomirov, a young preacher known here as Sayid Buryatsky who joined the rebels last year after converting to Islam in his native Siberia and studying in Egypt.
Tikhomirov, thought to be in his late 20s, has become the new face of the insurgency and appeared in videos claiming a role in the Yevkurov assassination attempt and the police station bombing. The latter showed him sitting with a barrel of explosives in the truck purportedly used in the attack.
Tikhomirov's fluent Russian and religious training set him apart from other rebel leaders, and he appears to be playing a key role in uniting loosely linked ethnic and local factions under the banner of the Caucasus Emirate, said Grigory Shvedov, editor of the Caucasian Knot, a Web site that reports on the region.
"He's exactly what they needed," Shvedov said, arguing that Tikhomirov's status as an outsider and his unusual heritage -- half-Russian and half-Buryat, a Buddhist minority -- have made him a powerful symbol for the movement.
In a sign of Tikhomirov's rising profile, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin's strongman in Chechnya and the most powerful politician in the region, has disparaged his Muslim credentials and accused him of using drugs to brainwash recruits. Kadyrov's forces appear to be gunning for him, too. In August, soldiers at a checkpoint shot and killed a Russian police officer they mistook for him.
Tikhomirov's sermons on the Internet have resonated in Ingushetia, where unemployment is as high as 75 percent, corruption is rampant and the young see few chances to improve their lives. He has also tapped into anger against the security forces, who are widely thought to engage in abductions, torture and killings.
Even leaders of the moderate opposition have expressed admiration for Tikhomirov, who mixes passages of the Koran with jabs at Putin and Kadyrov.
"He has charmed so many young hearts. The youths of Ingushetia just love him. . . . At least somebody is pushing back against Kadyrov and his men," said Maksharip Aushev, a prominent Ingush businessman and opposition figure, who argued this month that Tikhomirov was no worse than security officers engaged in "state terrorism."
Though he opposed the Caucasus Emirate, Aushev said that most Ingush believe they would be better off living under Islamic law than with the government's excesses, and that many of the rebels had been "forced into terrorism" by the abuses of the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB.
Such criticism of the authorities, he added, made him a target. On Sunday, two weeks after welcoming journalists to a son's wedding and foiling an attempt to abduct some of them from a local hotel, Aushev was gunned down in his car on a major highway.
When Ingush join the rebels, locals say they have "gone to live in the woods." Timur Akiyev of the human rights group Memorial said the recruits are often young men seeking revenge for relatives who have been killed by the authorities. Police make matters worse, he added, by targeting Muslims who reject local traditions in favor of what they consider purer forms of Islam.
Akiyev cited the case of two brothers, Khusein and Khasan Mutaliyev. Because Khusein had studied in Egypt, police detained him for questioning and beat him. After he filed a complaint with Memorial's help, they returned and fatally shot him when he tried to flee.
His brother filed a complaint, but it was ignored. When Memorial next heard from him, Khasan had joined the insurgents. He died in February with rebels who detonated a bomb during a police raid, killing four officers.
Magomed Khazbiev, an opposition leader who was blocked from running in local elections this month, said the rebels promise something that the government has been unwilling or unable to deliver: justice.
Several months ago, a few rebels showed up at his home wearing long beards and carrying assault rifles, he said. They urged him to stop organizing protests for democratic reform, saying his efforts were futile and drawing recruits away from them. "They said, 'We don't want a constitution written by people who refuse to follow it,' " he recalled.
In two years at most, the rebels vowed, "we would be living under the law of Allah," he said. "They really believed it."