In Nazran, the old capital of the troubled Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, a large chart is hanging on a wall at the headquarters of the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency. It resembles a family tree at first glance. In fact, it documents a life-and-death struggle.
The chart depicts 50 cells of the Islamic underground operating in Ingushetia alone -- a republic not much bigger than Luxembourg. They are part of a rebel movement that wants to create a "Caucasus emirate" in the region. Its ideologues dream of a strict Islamic state stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea -- a Waziristan in the Caucasus.
The size of the cells ranges from two or three to about a dozen members each. The chart lists their names, ages, addresses and telephone numbers, as well as physical features such as burns or missing limbs. Some of the entries include a passport photo, while others show nothing but a blurred snapshot. Branches of the chart point to relatives and friends. Crosses identify fighters who have already been killed.
For some time, the intelligence agents in Nazran have had a growing sense "that terrorism is like a cancer, and that for each activist we eliminate, another tumor grows in its place."
Whistling in a Dark Forest
Even before two female suicide bombers, presumably from the Caucasus, killed 39 and wounded more than 70 people in the Moscow metro on March 29, it was clear to anyone standing in front of the FSB chart that the government's fanfares of victory in fighting terrorism sounded like someone whistling in a dark forest.
It has been almost a year since the Kremlin announced its "counterterrorism operation" in Chechnya, the republic bordering Ingushetia. And as long ago as October 2007, Russian strongman and then President Vladimir Putin boasted that the terrorists didn't stand a chance, that their numbers were shrinking, and that there had been only 25 attacks in the previous eight months -- one-tenth as many attacks as there were in 2005.
But then, last year, the number of attacks skyrocketed to about 800. According to the Russian Interior Ministry and the presidential commissioner for the Caucasus region, about 200 underground insurgents were killed and 600 arrested in 2009. And now terrorism has reached the heart of the country, Moscow, once again, plunging the Kremlin into a public relations crisis.
The 'Che Guevara of Islam'
Were all the security measures the government implemented in the last 10 years of no value? Have the police and intelligence services failed once again? Has the new Caucasus policy announced by Moscow failed even before the president has been able to initiate it? And will the Putin/Medvedev duo be forced to admit complete failure, after having repeatedly promised -- and failed to deliver -- the same thing to the country's 142 million citizens: stability and security?
After the bloody terrorist attack, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's security council, announced that there would be "retribution," to which Prime Minister Putin added that the culprits would be "liquidated." The novelist Vladimir Sorokin characterized Putin's response as the automatic threatening gesture of a political leader trying to delay the inevitable: the further disintegration of the Russian empire.
The recent killing of Islamist leaders by Moscow's intelligence services appears to have triggered the latest major terrorist operation. On March 2, 70 elite FSB soldiers surrounded a house in the village of Ekashevo in Ingushetia. One of Russia's most-wanted terrorists and 16 of his followers had barricaded themselves inside the house: Alexander Tikhomirov, the man Moscow counterterrorism investigators believe was behind the Nevsky Express bombing in November 2009. The explosion caused a high-speed train traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg to derail, killing 28 passengers.
Tikhomirov, who was from the Siberian region of Buryatia, converted to Islam at the age of 15 and changed his name to Said Buryatsky. Moscow newspapers described the hatemonger as the "Che Guevara of Islam." The special commando killed the terrorist leader and six of his fighters, and took 10 others into custody.
The 'Black Widows'
Tikhomirov a.k.a. Buryatsky had taught in mosques and was the head of a "school of shahidin," or martyrs. Intelligence officials believe that he trained about 30 people for suicide bombings. Because the shahidin include many women, Moscow's security authorities keep a watchful eye on the widows of killed insurgents. Some 19 of the 41 terrorists who took more than 900 people hostage in a Moscow musical theater in 2002 were women. Malisha Mutayeva was one of them.
Her story illustrates the spiral of violence and retribution that continues to exert a tight grip on the Caucasus, despite the Kremlin's claims to the contrary.
The Mutayeva family's home is located in the village of Assinovskaya, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of the Chechen capital Grozny. It is a cottage with crumbling plaster, not one of the stately houses typical of the Caucasus.
At the beginning of the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s, the family was still living in Bamut, a mountain village and rebel stronghold. But Russian fighter jets destroyed their house, and Malisha Mutayeva's fiancé was later killed by Moscow forces. In her early twenties at the time, she resolved never to marry and subsequently joined the rebels.
In October 2002, Mutayeva's mother recalls, her daughter calmly said goodbye to her, pretending that she had found a job in a neighboring republic. Instead, she traveled to Moscow and joined the terrorist group that would later occupy the Dubrovka Theater, where 134 hostages and terrorists were killed when military and special police units stormed the building.
Moscow took its revenge on her family. Security forces arrested Mutayeva's younger sister Luisa and took her away in the middle of the night. She hasn't been heard from since. Since 2002, the human rights organization "Memorial" has documented 1,303 cases of people being kidnapped or killed in Chechnya, presumably by Chechen and Russian special forces.
New Victims and New Perpetrators
These cases illustrate how the cycle of violence in the Caucasus constantly produces new victims and new perpetrators.
Indeed, on Friday, Russian investigators said they believe they have identifed Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova as one of the female suicide bombers who carried out the Moscow metro bombings. According to the Russian Daily Kommersant, Abdurakhmanova was the 17-year-old widow of Umalat Magomedov. He is believed to have been a commander in a rebel battalion led by Doku Umarov -- a jihadist and former Chechen separatist who calls himself the "emir of the Caucasus Emirate" and is fighting for the creation of a shariah-based, independent state -- who has claimed responsibility for the March 29 attacks.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, the daily Novaya Gazeta quoted a Dagestan-based man, Rasul Magomedov, claiming he had identified his missing 28-year-old daughter Mariyam Sharipova in photos of the suspected suicide bombers. Magomedev said his daughter, a school teacher, had disappeared without a trace the day of the metro bombings.
While Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin relied completely on the use of force to "rub out the terrorists in the shithouse" when he was president, his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, announced a "modern" Caucasus policy. At first, it seemed as if his approach could break the pattern of violence and retribution. The new leader at the Kremlin emphasized raising the standard of living in the impoverished region to make it less of a breeding ground for terrorists.
Delicate Plants of Political Change Wither Again
But it took until January for Medvedev to name Alexander Khloponin to serve as his special envoy to the Caucasus region. The 45-year-old's background is neither in intelligence nor the military. Before entering politics, Khloponin was one of Russia's leading business executives, as chairman of the world's largest nickel producer. In other words, he is a man with some knowledge of economics.
Oligarchs are also being pressured to invest in the crisis region, particularly those who fled abroad because of a business dispute and are now hoping for a ticket to return to Russia. One has already accepted the offer; he intends to build a luxury hotel in the Chechen capital and turn the mountain village of Argun, a former rebel stronghold, into a health resort.
With renewed calls for a tougher approach in Moscow, the attacks on the metro see likely to cause the delicate little plants of political change to wither again.
Russia's Federation Council, which is made up of representatives of the vast country's 83 regions, is already calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, which has not been used since a moratorium was imposed in 2006. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has instructed security forces to heighten protections for "critical infrastructure," such as subways, power plants and military bases. And an entire division of Interior Ministry troops has been patrolling Moscow streets since the March 29 terrorist attacks.
Despite these efforts, carefully planned attacks shook the Caucasus again on Wednesday, when two suicide bombers struck in the Dagestani city of Kizlyar. Twelve people died, including the city's police chief. And a suicide attack in front of a police station on Monday in Karabulak, Ingushetia, killed two police officers and injured a third.
Putin and Medvedev 'To Blame for This Calamity'
"Russia's intelligence services are incapable of protecting society," wrote the Moscow daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets. "The people wearing the epaulettes are so enmeshed in corruption and intrigues that they have no time left for their real work."
"It is your intelligence service and your police," columnist Alexander Minkin wrote in an open letter to President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. "Both of you are to blame for this calamity. The number of police officers in the Moscow metro has been growing steadily. But they only stop poorly dressed people with non-Russian faces. The aren't looking for shahidin, but for 100 rubles."
In fact, the bloated security apparatus is more or less helpless. About 1.3 million police officers and bureaucrats work at the Interior Ministry alone, and the number of spies and employees of the intelligence services is estimated at more than 1 million. Nevertheless, the Moscow terrorists apparently relied on a network established long before the attacks. The suicide bombers had supporters who found apartments for them, obtained explosives and helped the women from the Caucasus get their bearings in Moscow, a city of 11 million. Authorities believe that there are still several suicide bombers in the city.
The Kremlin leadership's automatic response -- tightening laws after each attack and relying on increasingly harsh measures -- has not produced more security, but it has curbed civil liberties.
Putin used bomb attacks on several apartment buildings in Moscow and two other cities in the fall of 1999, in which 307 people died, as an excuse to launch the second Chechen war. The 2002 tragedy at the Dubrovka Theater led to the muzzling of NTW, the country's last independent television station. And after the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004, Putin abolished the direct popular election of governors -- to "strengthen the unity of the nation."
The Kremlin has tightened the screws of security again and again, but to no avail. Putin's promise this week that the terrorists would be "dragged out from the sewers" sounded downright hollow. Although many Russians still appreciate his gutter language, the number of dissatisfied citizens is on the rise, which explains the level of tension in the Putin camp.
The mood within the administration has not been very good for weeks. There have been protest marches in more than 150 Russian cities. And even though the number of protestors, about 200,000 throughout the country, may not be particularly significant for a country like Russia, the demands for Putin's resignation were new. The protestors' displeasure was directed against rising unemployment, higher taxes and fees, police corruption and the arbitrariness of the judicial system. An Internet petition titled "Putin Must Go!" had already garnered 22,327 signatures, including names and professions, by Wednesday evening, even though the authorities have tried to limit access to the site.
The difficult security situation provides the hawks in Putin's camp with a welcome excuse to paint all protests as anti-patriotic, while at the same time devaluing the tentative liberalization efforts of Putin's opposite number Medvedev.
It is "the attempts to darken the mood in society" that have led to such tragic events as the attacks in the Moscow metro, Irina Yarovaya, a member of parliament for Putin's United Russia party. After the anti-Putin demonstrations the parliamentary leader of United Russia, which increasingly resembles the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union, darkly suggested that there is a central organization "with the task of unhinging the political situation." Was he referring to the group of modernizers surrounding the president?
A tightening of domestic policies seems to be in the offing. The intelligence services and police will only welcome the shift, particularly after Medvedev recently sent many senior officers into retirement and announced a drastic trimming of the Interior Ministry.
Cooking Shows and Historic Films
After last week's attacks, the president also vowed to destroy the terrorists and said that the fight against them would be fought "to the end." At the same time, however, he demonstratively met with Ella Pamfilova, the chairwoman of the country's human rights council, who had just returned from the Caucasus. In a televised appearance, Medvedev discussed ways to improve the social situation there. However, the staff of his new Caucasus envoy, Khloponin, doesn't even have its offices in the region.
"Whether Russia's leaders can preserve their authority depends entirely on them, and on whether they can finally protect their citizens effectively without turning the country into a concentration camp," wrote the respected Moscow daily Nezavisimaya gazeta.
It is doubtful that the Kremlin has truly learned from the bloody attacks. Government television stations were quick to equate the bombings with the attacks on Madrid commuter trains in 2004 and the London Underground in 2005, as if the Moscow attacks were an act of international terrorism.
In fact, it took several hours before television station with ties to the Kremlin even reported on the events in the belly of the Russian capital last Monday. Almost all stations continued to calmly broadcast their morning cooking shows and historic films.