Russia's Muslim south is hideout for robust insurgency

By Amie Ferris-Rotman
Sunday, February 6, 2011

NAZRAN, RUSSIA - Neiba scrapes out a meager income selling soil-caked clumps of wild garlic she picks in the forests of Russia's poorest province - an occupation that a growing Islamic insurgency has made increasingly hazardous.

"I will only go to the forest with my husband, and even then, we are terrified every time," said Neiba, 43, as she adjusted her bright red hijab at the sprawling outdoor market in Nazran, Ingushetia's largest town. "What if we see a rebel?"

"But we must make a living," she said, flashing her remaining four teeth, each of them encased in gold.

In the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, woodlands reaching up to Russia's mountainous southern border are haunted by rebels trying to carve out an Islamic state. It is a hideout and home base for an insurgency that the Kremlin has failed to quell or contain.

Authorities blamed the militants for a suicide bombing that killed 35 people and injured about 130 at Russia's busiest international airport last month, saying that the attacker was a 20-year-old native of the North Caucasus.

No group has claimed responsibility, but the attack bore hallmarks of the North Caucasus rebels, who have vowed to take their bombing campaign to Russia's heartland in the year before presidential elections, hitting transport and economic targets.

The robust insurgency in Ingushetia - a sliver of land next to Chechnya, the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars that underpin the militant movement - underscores the threat.

The head of Nazran's central district was gunned down in his car recently near the market where Neiba has her stall, in one of dozens of attacks in Ingushetia this year and a symptom of a broader problem.

Islamist attacks in Russia were up by 14 percent in 2010 on the year, almost all of them in the North Caucasus, according to terrorism experts at the U.S.-based Monterey Institute of International Studies.

President Dmitry Medvedev also cited an increase, telling security officials that terrorism is Russia's biggest threat.

In impoverished Ingushetia and other North Caucasus republics, experts say feelings of rootlessness and a lack of acceptance by ethnic Russians add to a dispiriting mix that pushes young men into the insurgency.

With Ingushetia's official unemployment at 57 percent and the average salary at $234.80 a month, bored and desperate young people turn to Islamist extremism.

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