The Kremlin has prepared for the soccer tournament by cracking down on terror threats — the wrong kind.
Russia is no stranger to terrorist threats to international sporting events. The Kremlin faced a major challenge in securing the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi at a time when the violent insurgency in the North Caucasus was very much alive. The games, of course, passed without incident, which would seem to be an auspicious precedent for this year’s World Cup tournament in Russia, especially as scholars are questioning whether the North Caucasus militant underground still even exists.
Appearances can be misleading, however. Russia’s terrorist threat has evolved in a way that will make securing the current tournament harder than ever.
When most people think of terrorist attacks in Russia, their minds go to the dramatic assaults of the early 2000s. The seizure of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002 and the Beslan primary school siege in 2004 are probably the most notorious of these, planned by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev at the height of his power. The first half of the 2010s saw mass casualty events shift toward bombings, with the 2011 Domodedovo airport attack and the Volgograd public transit bombings in late 2013.
In the past five years, Russian security services have decidedly secured the upper hand against Chechen terrorism. Ahead of the Sochi Olympics, authorities launched a wide-ranging crackdown, deploying their most elite counterinsurgency forces to the North Caucasus. The effects were felt quickly: Militant groups were isolated from one other and targeted by heavy weapons, while their leadership was decimated by targeted assassinations. Following the September 2013 killing of Doku Umarov, the longtime leader of the region-wide Caucasus Emirate jihadist organization, the reign of each of his successors was measured in months, rather than years. The last known Caucasus Emirate leader, Zalim Shebzukhov, was killed in St. Petersburg in August 2016. No successor was announced, and the group effectively ceased to exist as a cohesive entity.
While commandos targeted the leadership, Moscow employed another novel strategy. Starting in 2013, the Federal Security Service (FSB) began arranging for the departure of would-be radicals to Syria and Iraq, where jihadist groups were gaining strength. In the North Caucasian republic of Dagestan, FSB agents met with village elders, who helped them identify potential militants and religiously minded young men. These men, many with criminal charges that would otherwise have precluded them attaining travel documents, were then given a passport and a one-way ticket to Turkey, where they would then cross the border south. With many veteran militants already considering jihad in the North Caucasus to be all but impossible given the crackdown, the policy was effective. Local recruitment dropped substantially, while more than 4,000 Russian citizens traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations.
Naturally, this had a major effect on the type and scale of terrorist attacks these groups have been capable of carrying out. The last mass casualty attack attributed to the Caucasus Emirate was a pair of suicide bombings in Volgograd in December 2013, in which 34 civilians were killed. The only comparable attack since was the bombing on St. Petersburg’s metro in April 2017, attributed to a poorly identified group ostensibly calling itself the Imam Shamil Battalion.
This has not, however, marked the end of terrorism in Russia, merely its shift. As larger militant groups were eliminated and infiltrated by security forces, Russian insurgents, increasingly under the influence of the Islamic State, shifted their strategy. They began to organize in very small cells of two or three men apiece, small enough that detection became nearly impossible. By early 2017, Russian security services noted that these cells had become the default form of militant organization: not major forest bases or training camps as in the past, but tiny, compartmentalized structures operating outside the knowledge of counterterrorist services.
As their numbers shrank, so too did their resources. Lacking access to finances from foreign donors, taxes levied on locals, or smuggling, the remaining leaderless fighters in the North Caucasus had to adapt. And adapt they did: Over the past two years, most attacks in Russia have been perpetrated by lone wolves who often do not even wield firearms, only knives or axes. Not coincidentally, this is the exact kind of terrorist attack that the Islamic State has called upon its supporters to conduct in Europe and elsewhere.
This has also been reflected in a demographic shift in those carrying out the attacks. With veteran militants nearly all eliminated, a new generation has taken their place. Attacks are presently conducted almost entirely by young men who were born at the end of the 1990s and thus have no experience of the Chechen wars and the ensuing high-intensity insurgency. These individuals conduct attacks sometimes under very localized circumstances of abuse, as with one 20-year-old man in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, who on March 20, under apparent harassment by security forces, drew a pistol from his belt and shot a police officer before being killed himself. Militants are now appearing among a heretofore unaffected demographic: Russia’s large Central Asian migrant worker population. The perpetrator of the St. Petersburg metro bombing was born in Kyrgyzstan, while radicalization among these migrants is growing amid worsening work conditions. Moscow’s intelligence services have struggled to adapt to this new vector and often rely on poor-quality information from their Central Asian counterparts.
This sluggishness in adapting is reflected in the methods Russia has used in an attempt to secure its territory ahead of the World Cup. A wave of counterterrorist operations swept the North Caucasus over the past three months, with eight separate operations being conducted across the regions. In mid-March, three counterterrorism operations were carried out in under a week, resulting in four militants dead in Chechnyaand one killed in southwest Dagestan. Another wave occurred on April 21, when three operations were conducted simultaneously in Stavropol and Dagestan’s Derbent and Kizilyurt districts. Meanwhile, hundreds of soldiers, accompanied by tanks, have been combing the Chechen countryside for militants. These moves are contradictory to the regular proclamations by regional officials that “terrorism has been eliminated” or, in the case of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, that his republic is the “most peaceful region” of Russia.
There is one area where a more traditional threat may emerge: the neighboring federal subjects of Stavropol Krai and Karachay-Cherkessia, which have seen an increase in violence recently and are located only a few hours’ drive from the World Cup host cities of Stavropol and Rostov-on-Don. Overall, however, while these were appropriate measures in the face of a still-vibrant insurgency ahead of the Sochi Olympics, they do little to address the more proximate threats to the present games.