Circling the Lion's Den

Russia's Secret Services: 2010 roundup

Andrei Soldatov, Irina Borogan.

2010 saw a significant increase in the levels of activity both of the Russian secret services in their counter terror operations, and of their opponents. A series of operations to take out militant leaders took place in the North Caucasus, while in Ingushetia the militant leader of the Caucasus Emirate Emir Magas was captured. The same period saw female suicide bombers blow themselves up in the Moscow metro and militants attack Kadyrov's home village. The scandal that surrounded the U.S. expulsion of illegal Russian spies in the country raised doubts about the competence of the SVRs leadership.

Assassinations . . .

It is important to note the rise in FSB activity throughout the North Caucasus, where the agency formerly preferred to avoid becoming directly involved in the fight against terrorism, instead shifting responsibility for any such operations onto the Ministry of the Interior. Although it should be said, that this activity mostly consisted of targeted killings.

In March two young and charismatic underground leaders were assassinated, the first in Kabardino-Balkaria was Anzor Astemirov, who led the attack on Nalchik in 2005, the second in Ingushetia was the ideological father of the Caucasus Emirate Said Buriatsky, who was viewed as one of the masterminds behind the terrorist attack on the President of Ingushetia, Yevrukov, and the bombing of the Municipal Department of the Interior in Nazran. (Although the special operation against Buriatsky in the village of Ekazhevo led to destruction on a comparable level to the damage done to the Beslan school during the hostage-freeing operation of 2004.)

Junes capture of Magas (Ali Taziev), one of the organizers of the Nazran attack and the Belsan school seizure, was a clear FSB triumph, of a comparable order to the capture of Salman Raduev ten years ago.

Information regularly surfaced throughout 2010 about the secret services use of force in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In Dagestan in August, members of the FSB's special operations division assassinated Magomedali Vagabov, the leader of the Gubdensky militant grouping, which is thought to have masterminded the Moscow metro bombings.

The possibility that the FSBs increased activity in the North Caucasus results from the fact that militant fighters have recently started targeting not only members of the police force, but also secret service officers, cannot be excluded.

On November 19, in Baksan, a member of the local FSB department was killed, while a day before that in Dagestan, there was a militant attack on an FSB base in the mountains, and in late August, in Kabardino-Balkaria, not far from the Chegemsky Waterfalls, a husband and wife team of FSB operatives from Krasnodar Region were shot. In September, the head of the FSB department for the Tsumadinsky region of Dagestan, Akhmed Abdullaev, was blown up in his car.

. . . and Terrorist Attacks

Despite the successful operations to take out militant leaders, the number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus in 2010 increased several times over, which is clear proof that the emphasis on solving these problems through force alone is not justified.

According to information from the Deputy Prosecutor General, Ivan Sydoruk, since the start of 2010 there has been a four-fold increase year-on-year in the number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus Federal District (information released in September). According to official data from the Interior Ministry, the 11 months of 2010 in the North Caucasus saw 609 crimes of a terrorist nature committed, 242 members of the law enforcement agencies killed and 620 wounded, in addition to the deaths of 127 civilians.

It was in Kabardino-Balkaria, where in March Anzor Astemirov was killed (who five years ago gathered 150 armed people to attack Nalchik), where the number of crimes of a terrorist nature, according to information from Interior Ministry head Nurgaliev, got a five-fold increase in a year.

In October 2005, as these tragic events were unfolding, it was thought that the republic had been put in this position by its despotic ex-president Kokov and the Interior Ministry head Shogenov, through their persecution of young Muslim men. This was a version of events supported by the republics new and energetic president, Arsen Kanokov, who was expected to put the local police in order and attract investment. As we now know, investment was attracted into tourism development in the mountainous Elbrus region of the republic, but the local Jamaat only responded by increasing the number of terror attacks.

The killing of Kabardino-Balkarias chief Mufti Anas Pshikhachev in Nalchik in December, in broad daylight, once again proved that Kanokov's policy in this sphere was failing to yield any results. In addition, the most active area of government investment, tourism development, merely served to re-ignite the conflict between the Adygeis and the Balkars. (For six months, representatives of Balkar villages, who had been squeezed out of the tourist business in the republic, and deprived of their hayfields and pasture, maintained a hunger-strike on Manezh Square in Moscow, desperately trying to get the Federal authorities to heed their plight.)

The events of this year also destroyed the myth that Ramzan Kadyrov's policy against the militants was working. In addition to all the other terrorist attacks in the republic, in 2010 the armed underground managed to organize and carry out two serious attacks, which also carry great symbolic importance. One is the attack on Kadyrov's home village, Tsentoroi, in late August, and the other is the attack on the Chechen Parliament, which took place a month and a half later. If the official account is to be believed, Kadyrovs men suffered only minor losses, 9 people died in the attack, but it nonetheless showed how vulnerable the Republics authorities were.

As well as the terrorist attacks that targeted the civilian population, and attacks on representatives of the authorities, there were frequent reports of train derailment, disrupted power transmission lines, attacks on cell phone facilities and gas pipelines. It was sheer luck that the militant attack on Baksan Hydroelectric Power Plant of June 22 did not become a large-scale tragedy, which shows that what the secret services call the armed underground, continues to practice carrying out attacks on strategic sites.

The PR value of these attacks is far greater than the damage done by the temporary interruption of the hydroelectric power plants operations: one cannot but remember the accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya HPP, responsibility for which was claimed by the leader of the militants in the Caucasus, Doku Umarov. There was no evidence to back up that claim, but the authorities' behavior, the pressure they put on the press, including on local journalist Afanasiev, who was taken to court, and the Interfax correspondent, who was chased out of the station, merely served to increase suspicion.

The most serious terror attack of the year, when two female suicide bombers from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow metro, one of whom was the widow of the Amir of Dagestan Umalat Magomedov, killed by Russian special forces, would seem to demonstrate a strategic failure of the state's anti-terror policy. That may be how independent experts and members of the public view it, but these terrorist attacks did not prompt any criticism of the secret services from the Kremlin. According to the current policy document governing the war on terror, the number of victims is not deemed particularly important: the priority is on the threat to political stability. Thus the bulk of the secret services' efforts in this regard are directed towards preventing attacks such as that carried out by militants against law enforcement structures in Ingushetia in 2004, not against suicide bombers preparing to blow themselves up in public places.

Vying for control and authority

In 2010 it became especially clear that these same events involving the secret services had been interpreted radically differently at home in Russia, and abroad. This could, potentially, prove a dangerous tendency, which might lead to a loss of direction in the outside world. Above all this relates to the scandal about Russian illegal spies in the United States. If in the West their unmasking was seen as a defeat for Russian intelligence, then inside the country this failure was represented as virtually an SVR triumph. The very fact of the illegals' existence supports the myth that Russia is despite everything still a superpower which is competing with the US as an equal. In turn the unmasking of these illegals was explained as resulting from the treacherous defections of Poteev and Shcherbakov, thus reviving the Soviet tradition of blaming mistakes on traitors.

It should be remembered that the SVR remains the only Russian secret service to have escaped reform. At the beginning of the 1990s the First Chief Directorate of the KGB was simply separated, becoming a discrete intelligence service, but its working practices never came in for criticism or underwent any review.

The celebration of 90-years of espionage in December this year showed how important Soviet mythology is for Fradkov's agency. A memorial board to Kim Philby was erected on the SVR building, bearing the quotation: I see my life as a one devoted to service, to the just cause in which I sincerely and passionately believe. Incidentally, what Philby believed in, the victory of communism (the only reason why he and his likeminded Cambridge associates chose to work for the Soviet intelligence) has nothing to do with the tasks that Russia's intelligence community currently face, something that the SVR leadership must surely understand. However the absurdity of the situation did not distress SVR director Mikhail Fradkov, or deputy-Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who also attended the ceremony.

Interestingly, it was the FSB that gained most from this whole affair. The exchange of researcher Igor Sutyagin, who has confessed to spying, for the illegals, put the human rights community in a difficult position. In turn this traitor-gate scandal prompted the media to raise the issue of the importance of a system of external control over the SVR, and the center of SVR's own security, responsible for checking personnel of the agency, found itself caught up in a wave of criticism.

The fact is that in the last decade, the FSB gained control over the security services' and law enforcement agencies' own security departments, with the exception of the SVR. When these traitors fled, it opened up an opportunity for the FSB to further expand their control to the SVR. In 2010, the FSB also received enhanced powers in the so-called fight against extremism which for the last two years was largely the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior.

The secret services lobbied for amendments to legislation, which would allow them to gain the right to issue citizens with warnings about the unacceptability of actions creating conditions for the carrying out of crimes. Human rights defenders and members of the expert community alike believe that the FSB intends to use this right to put pressure on journalists and other socially active individuals, especially in the provinces. In December, President Medvedev once again reaffirmed that the FSB is to play a more active role in the fight against extremism, declaring that this fight should be carried out systematically and that the FSBs task was to identify those behind the acts of provocation.

Agentura.Ru 10.01.2011, published in Russian in Ezhednevny Journal