HomeFeaturedRussia’s Restive Region: Dagestan’s Chequered History

Russia’s Restive Region: Dagestan’s Chequered History

Russia's Restive Region: Dagestan's Chequered History

Russia’s Restive Region: Dagestan’s Chequered History

NEW DELHI, (IANS) – Just three months after the deadly Crocus City Hall attack on the outskirts of Moscow, Russia was on June 23 struck by another terror outrage – this time on its southernmost territory, bringing diverse yet restive Dagestan back into the global spotlight, and resurrecting the menace of Islamist terrorism in the volatile North Caucasus region.

While the Islamic State-Khorasan Province had claimed responsibility for carrying out the March 22 attack — though Russia maintains the conspiracy was much deeper, no one has rushed to take credit for the June 23 attacks so far. However, the choice of targets — churches, synagogues, and law enforcement, and the brutal murder of an elderly and sick Orthodox priest by slitting his throat — bear clear hallmarks of Islamist terror perpetrators.

Given the scale of the attacks, simultaneously carried out in the regional capital Makachkala and the port city of Derbent, over 100 km south, they appear well-planned unlike IS-style “lone wolf” attacks that have long plagued western Europe, and the choice of the target was telling.

Multi-ethnic Dagestan, where the Avars (over 30 per cent) form the plurality, but the populace includes Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins, Laks, Tabasarans, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Chechens and other ethnic people, is Muslim-majority but also has Orthodox Christians, an age-old Jewish community, atheists, and almost 10 per cent terming themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (as per a 2012 survey).

Though the birthplace of the legendary Imam Shamyl, who led the decades-long armed resistance by Chechen and Dagestani tribes to the expanding Russian empire in the Caucasus in the mid-19th century, Dagestan, like Ingushetia under war hero Ruslan Aushev, remained loyal to Russia post the end of the Soviet Union, unlike Chechnya, under former Soviet Air Force officer Dzokhar Dudayev.

However, amid the First Chechen War and growing Islamist militancy in neighboring Chechnya, Dagestan could not escape the fallout with various Chechen warlords leading armed operations into it on several occasions.

The Kizlyar–Pervomayskoye hostage crisis was one prime example. Beginning as a raid by Chechen separatists on a Russian airbase in the border town of Kizlyar, it became a hostage crisis involving thousands of civilians – though most were quickly released and snowballed into a pitched battle between the Chechens and Russian special forces in neighboring Pervomayskoye village. The village was destroyed in the crossfire.

While the First Chechen War ended in August 1996 in a costly victory of sorts for Russia, due to a treaty worked out by then-Russian National Security Adviser, Gen Aleksandr Lebed (yet another war hero), and Chechen leader Aslan Makhadov, peace would not last.

And Dagestan continued to face the brunt. In November 1996, a bomb blast at an apartment building, where Russian border guards were also housed, in Kaspiysk town left 68 dead, while in December 1997, militants, including from Dagestan, led by Chechnya-based Arab jihadist Ibn al-Khattab, triggered heavy fighting in a raid on the base of a Russian Army brigade in Buynaksk.

The issue came to boil in August 1999 when the around 2,000-strong ‘Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade’ led by jihadi terrorist Shamil Basayev – who would also mastermind the Beslan school hostage incident outrage in 2004, al-Khattab, and others invaded Dagestan. They acted on the April 1999 call by Bagaudtin Kebedov, the “Emir of the Islamic Djamaat of Dagestan”, who had fled to Chechnya in 1997, for “liberating Dagestan and the Caucasus from the Russian colonial yoke.”

The Islamists made headway first as the Russian government response was delayed, but much to their dismay, they faced a stiff response from Dagestani police, quickly organized citizen militias, and individual villagers, who did not consider Basayev and Khattab “liberators” but “unwelcome religious fanatics”.

By that time, Russian forces, under North Caucasus Military District chief Colonel-General Viktor Kazantsev, organized a counterattack with artillery, airstrikes, including the devastating aerially delivered fuel-air explosives (FAEs), and tanks, beating back the invaders into Chechnya by early September.

However, the attack on Dagestan, and the Moscow apartment bombings in September 1999, led Moscow to reassert control over Chechnya, launching the Second Chechen War. Though Russian forces, better prepared this time, took Grozny, as well as most of Chechnya, by mid-2000, the insurgency continued and only ended in 2009, aided by the co-option of former belligerents, especially the Kadyrov family.

Low-level insurgency also continued across Dagestan, Ingushetia and, as far north as Kabardino-Balkaria till 2017, by the ‘Caucasus Emirate’ and, from 2015, Islamic State, but was tackled effectively. Dagestani militant Magomed Vagabov, accused of masterminding the March 2010 Moscow metro attack by two female suicide bombers, was eliminated the same year only, and ‘Caucasus Emirate’ leader Aliaskhab Kebekov in 2015.

However, Dagestan faces other problems like unemployment and pushback against military recruitment, and this is what the regional and Russian governments must address urgently.

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