THE LONG REACH OF JIHAD: ISLAM IN RUSSIAN DAGESTAN
Islamists Gain Upper Hand in Russian Republic
By Matthias Schepp in Dagestan
Nowhere in Russia is the situation so explosive as in the autonomous republic of Dagestan. An ongoing Islamist insurgency has plunged the corruption-plagued region into near civil war. Some high-ranking Russian officials believe it will take years to defeat the extremists, if it can be done at all.
An old man is trudging home through the narrow, dusty streets of Gubden, carrying a last memento of his murdered son in the pocket of his trousers. The photo of his eldest son, which the man has stored on his mobile phone, shows a gaping hole next to his left eye. “They killed him when he could no longer defend himself,” says the man, whose name is Magomedshapi Vagabov.
Vagabov takes off his grey, sheep’s wool cap. His house lies in the shadow of a mosque that towers like a fortress over Gubden, a village in the mountains of Dagestan, a Russian republic in the Caucasus region. Representatives of the central government in Moscow rarely come to Gubden without the protection of armored vehicles and helicopters. It’s not Russian criminal law but Sharia law that applies in this village of 4,000 inhabitants, many of whom sympathize with the Islamist insurgents who have spent more than a decade trying to establish a theocracy that would extend from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.
Close to 9 million people live in the autonomous republics of Russia’s northern Caucasus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of these republics, particularly Chechnya, has been plagued by terrorism and war. But nowhere is the situation today as explosive as it is in Dagestan. This desperately poor strip of land on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, which is smaller than the US state of West Virginia, is home to several dozen ethnic groups that are bitterly at odds over government posts and grazing land, while an Islamist insurgency wages a war against Moscow and Dagestan’s Russian-controlled government.
The resistance against the military campaigns of Czarist troops began in Dagestan more than 150 years ago. Russia needed a force of more than 300,000 to finally subjugate the region after a war than raged for about 30 years. The spirit of resistance continues to shape the republic today. Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, chaos prevails in Dagestan, primarily because of the activities of radical Islamists. The Caucasus republic has become almost ungovernable.
In less than four years, the world will come together in the region for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are being held in the city of Sochi. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin insists that this will not be a problem, and yet his Interior Ministry has just reported that the number of terrorist attacks in the northern Caucasus has more than doubled. Only last Wednesday, armed men stormed a hydroelectric power plant in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, where they detonated three bombs. Sometimes the attacks even hit the Russian capital: In late March, a group of young female suicide bombers from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow subway, killing themselves and 40 others.
In Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, there are reports of attacks on a daily basis. In the last two weeks alone, a high-ranking judge, a Christian priest, three police officers and mayor were shot to death, policemen were injured when a bomb exploded, and another bomb caused a train to derail.
‘All My Son Did Was to Preach Pure Islam’
Magomedali, the son of Vagagov, the old man in Gubden, also became a casualty of the de facto civil war when he was ambushed on July 18, 2007. The police had suspected him of being an insurgent and had ordered him to appear for questioning in the district capital, Karabudakhkent. As he was returning home, unknown assailants opened fire on his rickety Lada.
Magomedali was wounded, but not seriously, as the doctors later reported. He was taken to the hospital in Karabudakhkent, which the police had sealed off. They didn’t even allow his father to visit him. When old Vagabov finally saw his son, he was already dead, with a single bullet hole next to his eye.
“All my son did was to preach pure Islam,” says Vagabov. “He wasn’t an insurgent.”
Since the death of Magomedali Vagabov, the conflict between the government and Islamists in Gubden has expanded into a war between local clans.
Taking Matters into Their Own Hands
Vagabov points to a fist-sized hole in the wall of his living room. The village policeman was shot dead shortly after his son’s death. The policeman’s family immediately assumed that the Vagabov clan was to blame and decided to take matters into their own hands. The son of the policeman launched a grenade at Vagabov’s house, causing a blast so powerful that the windows were shattered in six nearby houses.
Soon afterwards, the policeman’s son torched a newly built house owned by Vabagov’s relatives. Then the widow and daughter of the policeman were ripped apart by a mine as they were visiting his grave.
“We had nothing to do with it,” Vagabov claims. He is 85 and a respected man in the village. And yet he doesn’t have enough fingers on his hands to enumerate the dead in his clan. Only recently, elite troops from Moscow killed one of his nephews in a counterterrorism mission.
Moscow Tries to Win Hearts and Minds
Can the situation in the Caucasus still be brought under control? Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has come up with a new plan for solving the region’s problems. He wants Moscow to use other means to win over the population, which is 90 percent Muslim.
For the Kremlin, Dagestan is the most important front in its battle for the hearts and minds of the Caucasians. The republic, with its 2.7 million inhabitants, was once the liveliest in the northern Caucasus. A decade ago, there were more casinos and brothels there than mosques and Islamic schools. Very few young women wore headscarves, but now they are in the majority.
Dagestan’s President Magomedsalam Magomedov was recently installed by Moscow. Magomedov, whose father ruled Dagestan for almost 20 years, seeks to portray himself as the republic’s most zealous religious warrior. He touts Dagestani Islam as “one of the purest in the world” and says that this is evident in his government’s efforts “to eradicate gambling dens, drug addiction and alcoholism.” He is trying to cut the ground from under the feet of the Islamist insurgents through a government-supported program to improve the image of Islam. The new course is risky, because the government’s policy could backfire and create an even more fertile breeding ground for radicalization.
But Moscow already seems like an occupying power in retreat. The traffic policemen posted on the arterial roads of Makhachkala have to be guarded by elite Interior Ministry units in armored vehicles. Fifty-eight police officers were killed last year alone. Because police have become popular targets for the insurgents, the Interior Ministry now allows them to wear civilian clothes on their way to and from work. Nevertheless, relatives of murdered police officers complain of “the inactivity of the authorities” and, in anonymous flyers, have announced their intention to hunt down the murderers of police officers themselves.
“They killed my husband Yusup, just because he was a traffic policeman,” says Zumrud Vazirkhanova, holding her 11-month-old son in her arms. Yusup died alongside five other police officers when a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a police station in January. The widow received the equivalent of â‚¬3,500 ($4,550) in compensation. She says she doesn’t know what will happen when the money runs out.
At the other end of the city, Gulnara Ramazanova is sitting in her tiny two-room house, surrounded by her few belongings. The power is constantly going out, and when it does Ramazanova’s black hijab, or full-body veil, merges with the darkness in the room.
A major tabloid newspaper recently printed her photo and referred to her as “the handmaiden of terrorists.” Since then, Ramazanova has been desperate to leave the city. A sign hanging on the fence outside the house reads: “For sale.”
Police investigators had leaked a list of “black widows” to the newspaper. The term is used by Russians for women whose husbands or brothers were killed by security forces and are thus suspected of seeking revenge by making themselves available to Islamists as suicide bombers. In the last 10 years, black widows have been responsible for at least 16 attacks, two of which resulted in plane crashes.
Ramazanova came into the crosshairs of investigators because of her brother Vadim, who was killed two years ago in a police raid in Makhachkala. “They don’t even return the bodies to us,” she says. “It’s said that they even sell the organs of the people they’ve killed.”
She recounts stories of police violence and of relatives and friends who have been tortured, of electric shocks and the “baklashka,” a plastic bottle filled with water that police officers use as a particularly painful weapon to beat people with. “My brother had no choice,” says Ramazanova. She insists that he was driven underground because he was constantly under suspicion and being harassed by the authorities.
A video obtained by Russian state security shows Vadim in an apartment. For 16 minutes and 7 seconds, he provides detailed instructions on how to commit a suicide bombing. He lists the ingredients for an explosive belt and names a store in Makhachkala that sells one of the ingredients, acetone, and another store where the parts for the detonator can be found. “The most important thing is that you do it for Allah. Bring chaos to the ranks of the infidels, and kill as many of them as you can,” Vadim says as he calls upon the faithful to commit murder.
An Unwinnable Struggle
“Everyone here has his own truth,” says a high-ranking Russian general who was in command of the effort to fight the Islamists in the Caucasus for years. The general, who doesn’t want to be named, says that he no longer believes that the fight against the extremists can be won quickly, despite the tens of thousands of elite troops, police officers and agents that are now deployed in the troubled region. For every dead terrorist, the general says with a sigh, two new ones rise up to take his place. “It will take years to change the situation here.”
According to the general, the Islamists cannot be controlled with the normal means that a state based on the rule of law has at its disposal. He thinks that it is naÃ¯ve for Western Europeans to hope that radical Islam can be forced into retreat by improving social conditions. “If these people seize power, we will have fascism cloaked in religion,” the general predicts.
Another problem is that the fronts in the multiethnic Republic of Dagestan are particularly unclear. In addition to Islamists, the underground consists of a mix of common criminals, hustlers and con artists. But it’s also a haven for drug addicts unable to pay their debts and vicious murderers fearing acts of retaliation by the survivors of their victims.
Islamists Obtain Funds Through Protection Rackets
The Russian propaganda machine never tires of claiming that the Islamists are being funded from abroad. In reality, however, they generally raise their own funds by robbing banks and businesses. SPIEGEL has obtained a video that shows a group of rebels dividing up their loot after robbing a mobile phone store.
The protection racket is the most important source of income for the Islamists. In many cases, all it takes to intimate a victim is a text message with a reminder about zakat, the principle of giving alms to the poor described in the Koran. The Islamists’ targets range from the owners of bakers, kiosks and sporting goods stores to local oligarchs. The victims fear for their lives, but at the same time they feel that by submitting to the protection racket, they are also protecting themselves for the event that the Islamists ever seize power in their village or region.
Conversely, Moscow’s agents try to bribe Islamists with money and thus convince them to switch back to the Russian side. But the successes are few and far between. The secular state is losing its appeal, now that Dagestan is no longer capable of guaranteeing its citizens prosperity and security.
“Is 15 minutes enough for you?” Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev recently asked one of his officers who was about to report on the situation in Dagestan. But it took the colonel three times as long to describe a litany of problems, including the ubiquitous practice of buying one’s way into office, contract killings, hostage-taking, protection rackets, drug and arms dealing. The colonel wasn’t describing the activities of criminal gangs, however: He was talking about conditions in Dagestan’s Interior Ministry.
Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika has said in Moscow, behind closed doors, that the blame for unsolved crimes is simply pinned on the Islamists, that statistics are manipulated, and that the “level of corruption is unparalleled.”
In Dagestan, subordinates reported that Lieutenant Colonel Shamil Omarov, the head of a police unit in Makhachkala, embezzled the compensation money for the survivors of police officers under his command who had been killed in action. He also sold the gasoline for police vehicles and paid salaries to relatives who were not even required to report for duty.
Police officers stationed on the highway that passes through the northern Caucasus were ordered to hand over $2,000 of the bribes they had collected to their superiors. Even the courts are rife with corruption. In late 2008, cases involving terrorism were removed from the jury trial system, because relatives and backers and defendants were buying off or intimidating jurors.
Converting to Islam
The social problems in Dagestan are also proving to be too much for Russia to handle. Some 18,500 students graduate from local universities each year, but only one in six can find a job. Dagestan, which has an official unemployment rate of 20 percent, ranks 79th out of the 83 members of the Russian Federation in terms of numbers of jobless. The situation is now so hopeless that young men in Dagestan do not buy their way out of compulsory military service, a common practice throughout the rest of the country. Instead, they pay up to â‚¬500 to be drafted.
At “Bon Appetit” in downtown Makhachkala, probably the most modern cafÃ© in Dagestan, young men sit at the tables near the window around lunchtime. Well-dressed and carefully groomed, they wait for female students from the teachers’ college next door. Half of the young women are wearing headscarves, but the other half are dressed in short skirts and high-heeled shoes.
Amina, the manager of the cafÃ©, is also wearing a gray headscarf. A year ago, she was working for a multimillionaire restaurant owner in sophisticated Moscow, but then she moved to Dagestan. Even here at Bon Appetit, an oasis of Western lifestyle in Makhachkala, Russia appears to be on its way out. Amina, an orthodox Christian, has converted to Islam.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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