MAKHACHKALA, Russia — The latest episode in Moscow’s struggle with rebellious Muslims is unfolding here in Dagestan, a forbidding North Caucasian realm where peaks as high as 13,000 feet descend sharply to running rivers.
Suicide bombers have emerged. Each week, an average of three policemen are killed and numerous civilians become casualties. Tanks and helicopters, weapons blazing, pursue guerrillas in the woods.
Until recently, it was the insurgency in neighboring Chechnya that had posed the biggest challenge to Russian leaders. But now, it is the traditionally independent and Muslim Dagestanis whose resentments are turning violent, finding expression in a conservative form of Islam taking root in the beautiful severity of the mountain landscape.
Authorities blame Muslim extremists for the unrest. Conservative Muslims blame government repression. The fighting sometimes appears dangerously close to civil war, with imams attacked and killed, liquor stores blown up, and angry young men taking up arms and going into hiding — which in the North Caucasus is called going to the forest.
“They terrorized the people,” a 30-year-old religious leader known as Abu Umar said of regional authorities. “And now, the people terrorize them.”
When the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of 1991, Russia emerged independent, its new president, Boris Yeltsin, promising democracy and prosperity in a multiethnic nation. Twenty years into statehood, a minority has accumulated great wealth while the average citizen has been disappointed by lack of opportunity and an increasingly authoritarian government run on corruption and disregard for law. Ethnic tension has grown.
Few protest. Chechnya has been subdued. But Dagestan roils with religious disputes and anger at Moscow, mixed, almost indistinguishably, with vicious commercial and political struggles.
“Russia will never make Dagestan prosperous,” Abu Umar said. “We are a third-class people for them. They want us humiliated, and we feel it.”
On a late-summer afternoon, only the mosquitoes look bloodthirsty in a muddy field where Abu Umar politely offers insect repellant and a tour of a self-sufficient Islamic community about 70 miles northwest of Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. He is a Salafi, what Russians call a Wahhabi and consider synonymous with extremism.
The walls are already up on the three-story madrassa, or religious school, where Salafis say they intend to provide social services , sports, education and opportunities untainted by corruption. As a bulldozer rumbled, Abu Umar pointed out the spot reserved for an orphanage to care for children he says the government neglects.
He imagines citizens obeying the law of Allah, making police and other accouterments of the state unneeded, allowing Muslims to live in peace and prosperity. The government considers such talk a dangerous cover for subversion and terrorism. Abu Umar says the authorities have lost their moral bearings and are wrong about the Salafis.
“We are building,” he said, “not destroying.”
Islam arrived here in the late Middle Ages, becoming a moderate Sufism infused with local customs. But religion was mostly forced underground during the officially atheistic years of the Soviet Union, and in Dagestan, believers buried their Korans in the forest and suffered silently as their mosques were destroyed.
When religion began to reemerge in Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, Salafism — a puritanical form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia — began to drift here through Afghanistan. The disillusionment and chaos of the 1990s as Russia struggled to replace communism with democracy provided fertile ground for it to take hold.
Salafis believe a Muslim has a direct relationship with God and should study the words of the prophet Muhammad. Sufis in Dagestan follow the instruction of their sheiks, who stand between them and God and have anywhere from 500 to 20,000 deeply loyal followers.
Salafis dislike the Sufi alliance with the government. Sufis run the government-sanctioned Spiritual Board of Muslims, to which the official clergy belong. They also support a secular state. Salafis do not.
“Whether he’s Sufi or Salafi,” Abu Umar said, “if a man is not dreaming about sharia, he’s not a Muslim.”
Violent and unsolved deaths have become a routine part of life here. At a Makhachkala sports center, a tiny grandmother named Nisakhan Magomedova who presides over the front desk takes a rat-a-tat-tat pose as she describes how the director of the judo program was gunned down recently, just after getting a bigger job at another club, targeted perhaps by a professional rival.
Residents can point out the spot at the beach where a bomb went off last year, a protest against women in bathing suits that cost one woman her leg.
Police have killed 100 people they identified as rebels since the beginning of the year, Interior Ministry officials said in June, and human rights activists accuse police of killing first and then finding a crime to assign to the body.
Local journalists estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 armed men are in the forest at any one time, with perhaps 5,000 others prepared to join them. The forest shelters organized terrorism as well — the U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Doku Umarov, a Chechen terrorist with al-Qaeda connections suspected of hiding in Dagestan who has been accused of terrorist attacks on Moscow.
In Dagestan, all policemen are targets, because they represent government authority and because they are accused of treating the population brutally. In one Makhachkala district, police line up for morning roll call behind heavy fortifications, yards from where a suicide bomber smashed into a gate, only to be rammed by a police van. Six police officers died as both vehicles exploded.
“Property is being divided” as it was in the U.S. era of the robber baron, said Abrek Aliev, the head of protocol for the city of Makhachkala.
Greeting visitors with sweet fresh apricots, dark red cherries and juicy local strawberries, he opens a bottle of cognac in a City Hall anteroom and offers a toast to the mayor’s health.
Said Amirov, mayor of Makhachkala since 1998, has survived 15 assassination attempts, one of which severed his spine and left him unable to walk.
“There are people who try to live outside the law,” the mayor said, “and I don’t let them do what they want.”
Amirov heads Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in Makhachkala. He said he is busy building the housing and infrastructure required for a city of 710,000 whose population is expected to grow to a million. The birthrate in Dagestan is much higher than in the rest of Russia, and people are moving to the city looking for work.
“We want a secular state here, as part of the Russian Federation,” he said. “If those in the forest stop fighting and drop their guns, they can rejoin the peaceful population. They are our people, too.”
On a hot, sunny afternoon, a half-dozen police officers in street clothes are talking about the forest. Publishing their names would put them in grave danger from the authorities.
“All this fighting is the consequence of bad political, social and economic policies,” said a 47-year-old captain with gold teeth, quoting Jean Jacques Rousseau on the social contract and Thomas Jefferson on the rights of man. “All the institutions in the country are corrupt, and Russian federal power is the source of it.”
On a Saturday night, a young Salafi couple offered tea and cake in their small Makhachkala apartment, as their 14-month-old son toddled on newly walking legs and their 6-year-old son played quietly.
“Russians came here to our land and told us how to live,” said Ayat Abdurakhmanova, 28, who wears the hijab, or head scarf. “They brought prostitution, alcohol and cigarettes and told us if we didn’t like it, we should leave.”
As Abdurakhmanova kissed her giggling toddler, her husband, Rashid, played a YouTube video, recorded by a store surveillance camera, that showed an acquaintance entering a liquor store, clearing out staff and customers, and setting off an explosion.
The friend’s 21-year-old wife, wearing a hijab and pink dress, watches, drinking tea and saying nothing, as her husband becomes a hero. He strides out of the store before the bomb goes off, wearing camouflage and holding a gun. The video does not show him and his accomplices coming under police fire soon after, dying in their exploding car, leaving her a widow with a baby.
“We don’t want to impose our beliefs on anyone else,” Rashid said, “but we want them to let us live as we wish. We want to live under sharia.”