As Russia commemorates the 10th anniversary of the tragic Beslan terror attack, signs of U.S.-Russia counter-terrorism cooperation are almost nowhere to be found.
A woman mourns at a destroyed school, where her relatives were killed in the 2004 school siege in Beslan on September 3, 2008. Photo: AP
In the North Ossetian town of Beslan the new school year begins not on September 1, as in the rest of Russia, but on September 5. This year will mark the tenth anniversary of this sad tradition. One decade ago, a group of terrorists seized the school and 1,200 hostages, mostly students, parents, and teachers. As a result of this barbaric act, 186 children lost their lives.
Back in 2004, the tragedy in Beslan transformed many people’s attitude to what was happening in Russia’s North Caucasus. This terrorist attack against peaceful civilians in a small town in the republic of North Ossetia was even described as Russia’s 9/11.
Those who blamed Moscow’s repressive policy with regard to “small nations” and human rights violations finally realized that the picture in that turbulent region of the Russian Federation is not black or white, but a good deal more nuanced. Moreover, they realized that any terrorist threat emanating from the North Caucasus is targeted at Russia and the West alike.
Since 2004, rebel forces in the North Caucasus have had no need to demand a separate state of their own. Instead, they have relied upon the slogans of radical Islamism. The ideological drift of Chechen separatism towards radical Islamism was over a year in the making. The late Aslan Maskhadov and Doku Umarov's predecessor Abdul-Halim Sadullayev tried to combine the two trends, but Beslan served as a kind of ideological transition point.
One could cite the fact that the jihadists in the North Caucasus lacked education and basic literacy. As correctly noted by expert Sergei Davydov, “The leaders of the Algerian jihadi movement at least knew how to write a khutbah (sermon), whereas the glaring ignorance of the authors of some North Caucasian Islamist sites have been brutally mocked by their opponents.”
But no matter how woeful the level of theological training of this latter-day North Caucasian Mujahideen, the political language they use is fundamentally different from the language of separatists. Their output is a stream of anti-Russian, anti-American, and anti-European propaganda.
For instance, U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were labeled no less than “occupiers” and “enemies.” Moreover, the North Caucasian jihadists appeal not only to followers in Russia. They claim to be participants in the “global war” against the infidels. And the involvement of people from the North Caucasus in the events in Iraq and Syria points to the seriousness of these intentions.
In this context, it is worth recalling that on June 23, 2010, the U.S. included the leader of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, in its list of international terrorists. At the time, the Coordinator of Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, Daniel Benjamin, remarked that the move was a direct response to the threats that Umarov posed not only to Russia, but also the United States.
A year later the Caucasus Emirate was similarly blacklisted by the U.S. State Department. This structure was and remains the only terrorist organization of Russian origin deemed worthy of Washington’s attention.
The biggest terrorist attack in the United States after 9/11 — at the 2013 Boston Marathon — brought worldwide notoriety to two brothers of Avar-Chechen descent, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And although the final word in the matter belongs to the jury, the debate around the “Tsarnaev affair” caused Washington to step up cooperation on security at the Sochi Olympics.
In November 2013, Matthew Olsen, Director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, publicly affirmed that the level of cooperation between the two countries’ security services going into the Winter Olympics had improved significantly.
Unfortunately, these individual steps and official statements did not lead to a systematic joint strategy for bilateral cooperation on the challenges faced by both countries. Why did this series of positive steps taken by Washington towards Russia result in nothing of strategic value?
First, rapprochement between the two countries has invariably been hampered by the disjointed nature of U.S. political circles. Although ready to support Russia in its fight against domestic terrorism, they did not see, unwittingly or wittingly (so as not to compromise long-standing ties with the countries of the Gulf), the blatant link between Russian security and events in the Middle East, primarily the civil strife in Syria, despite the connecting threads being highlighted not only by Russia’s intelligence services, but also Western journalists.
To a large extent, U.S. policy with regard to Russia’s actions in the post-Soviet space follows according to a similar algorithm. At the dawn of the “reset,” one opinion was that, without a qualitative breakthrough in this area (namely the recognition of Russia’s special interests in the post-Soviet space), U.S.-Russian relations could not possibly move forward.
It bears repeating that the issue has less to do with the offensive aspirations or “imperialism” of Moscow than with the fact that too many problems in the former Soviet Union (Central Asia and the South Caucasus are two other complex regions) have a direct impact on the internal situation inside Russia. One need look no further than the Pankisi Gorge controversial situation in Gerogia.
[This gorge, located in located in the northern part of historical Kakheti region, Georgia, not far from the Russian-Georgian border, brought together young Chechens and conservative radicals who fled Russia after the Chechen war and then joined the terrorist activities. Now some locals are reported to be self-radicalized as well as to cooperate with the Caucasus Emirate and join juhadists in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq). After coming back, with much more training and radicalism, they pose a greater threat to Russia. – Editor's note]
The upshot is that mutual distrust and a reluctance to consider the North Caucasian threat in the broader context of Russian and U.S. policy have brewed a cocktail of contradictions and stymied much-needed cooperation.
And cooperation between Russia and the United States in combating terrorism (and securing Eurasia as a whole) is absolutely critical, not least because the center of world activity has shifted from Europe to the South and East.
Moreover, it would be naive to suppose that petrodollars and other revenue streams are strategically capable of quelling the hostility for Western civilization (which includes Russia and the U.S.) that is felt by those who admire the villains of 9/11, Boston, Beslan, or Budyonnovsk. It is only a question of how long it takes and how costly it will be to realize this fact.
In the meantime, Russia and the U.S. are charting different courses. And it is a great pity that the casualties of this divergence are those areas in which a glimmer of mutual understanding is already perceptible.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.
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