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No Place to Be a Terrorist

By Yelena Biberman Russia Profile 06/12/2008

Since Vladimir Putin Came to Power, Russia Has Effectively Combated Terrorism 

If there is a place on earth that could be deemed as “the worst place to be a terrorist,” then Russia is it, claims Carnegie Endowment’s Foreign Policy magazine. In addition to Russia, the shortlist of countries that “are definitely not the kind of places you want to get caught if you’re plotting some terrorist mayhem” is made up of France, Jordan, Egypt and Singapore. 

“We looked at a range of factors, although this was by no means a scientific ranking,” explained Blake Hounshell, FP web editor and the author of the list. “What we wanted to find out was, of the states that have a terrorist problem, in which of them would you [the terrorist] least like to be operating? So, countries with effective, but sometimes brutal counterterrorism forces were considered. A place like Saudi Arabia gets ruled out because it puts so many of its detainees into ‘rehabilitation programs’ of questionable value.”

Russia was singled out particularly for its leadership’s willingness to prioritize national security over civil rights. FP cites the example of the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002, when “Russian Special Forces pumped an unknown gas into the theater’s ventilation system and then stormed the building, killing nearly all the hostage-takers along with hundreds of casualties.”

Former President Vladimir Putin banked his career as president on demonstrating that, when it comes to terrorism, he was a force to be reckoned with. He also positioned Russia as one of the leaders in “the global fight against terrorism.” For example, in 2006, the Russian president joined his American counterpart President George W. Bush in launching the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, designed to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons and currently made up of 67 participating countries. It is also a well-known fact that Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush following the September 11th terrorist attacks. 

The U.S.-Russian Counterterrorism Working Group (CTWG) is yet another venue that enables Russia to direct major global antiterrorist efforts. Through the CTWG, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collaborated on joint counterterrorism operations that led to several arrests and convictions, including the conviction of a “U.S.-based subject attempting to purchase shoulder-to-air missiles,” said the U.S. State Department Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in its 2007 country report. 

The next CTWG meeting is scheduled for June 19-20. Given past experience, it is most likely that Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak will lead the Russian side. The U.S. side will most likely be headed by Under Secretary William Burns, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia. While the details of the meeting’s agenda have not been released to the public, Vadim Kozyulin, a professor of the Academy of Military Science and a Center for Policy Studies (PIR) research fellow, hopes that the event will help both sides determine “who counts as a terrorist.”

When it comes to countering terrorism inside its own borders, Russia’s intelligence agencies are proving to be remarkably effective, commented Vitaly Shlykov, a retired Soviet Army Colonel and military analyst. “There are no more Beslans or Nord-Osts, nothing of such scale, and this is an objective sign of efficiency,” Shlykov explained. 

The period surrounding the parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia was particularly vulnerable to terrorist plots. However, the “acts of terrorism and subversion, which the gangsters planned to stage,” were successfully prevented, former FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev reported at a March 12th meeting of the Federal Task Group of the National Counterterrorism Committee (NAK). The NAK was created by Putin’s decree in February, and coordinates all federal-level antiterrorism policies and operations. At the March meeting, Patrushev also said that terrorism in Russia is radically decreasing. In 2005, 257 terrorist acts were carried out, in 2006 – 112. Last year, the figure fell to 48. 

As the new FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov pointed out, this year has not seen a single terrorist act. The Vesti.ru information portal reported Bortnikov as also saying that acts of terrorism were planned in the Moscow metro for the time of the inauguration of President Dmitry Medvedev and May’s festivities, but they were successfully prevented.

This is quite an accomplishment, especially if today’s reality is compared to that of just five years ago. The year 2003 witnessed 561 acts of terrorism committed on Russian soil. As Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev put it in an interview with The Independent Newspaper in February, “That is, on a rough estimate, one or two terrorists attack daily!” 

Kozyulin attributes Russia’s effectiveness in curbing terrorism to its experience in Chechnya and Dagestan. “The experience was good, and bad, and it taught us a great deal,” he said. Kozyulin also pointed out that Russia’s “poor human rights record, as strange as it sounds, contributes positively to the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism. The investigation may allow itself to be not very scrupulous with the way it gathers and employs evidence.”

“Russia's counterterrorism strategy is a lot more effective than it is often believed. Russian leaders made many mistakes in the 1990s, but what they now understand is that local buy-in is the key to fighting insurgencies,” explained Hounshell. “The dark side, of course, is that brutality has also played a major role – and few countries have been as ruthless as Russia in stamping out insurgents. One troubling aspect to watch [for]… is when legitimate groups or NGOs are labeled ‘terrorists’ for political reasons.”

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