To make matters worse, the region’s Muslims are not only fighting against Moscow. In many cases they’ve also begun to fight each other. The rise of ultraconservative, Saudi Arabia-style Salafism in the region has increasingly pitted its adherents against the more moderate Sufis who traditionally make up a big part of the local Muslim population. (In this context, it’s noteworthy that Tamerlan Tsarnaev used his YouTube page to denounce a video that showed Caucasian Sufis burying one of their own, alleging that their rituals make them “idolaters.”)
In fact, the dirty war in the region is accelerating. Special operations by Russian security forces and terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists take dozens of lives. In the first four months of this year alone, 67 people have fallen victim to terror attacks in Dagestan, but the news media hardly mention the casualties. Russians only pay attention to the insurgency when suicide bombers attack the Moscow subway or the airport. Whenever this happens, experts invariably urge the Kremlin to analyze why the jihad by Salafi community in North Caucasus keeps on simmering.
“We do report on victims, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and torture happening all over North Caucasus, but people are tired of hearing about it,” said Tatyana Lokshina, director of the Human Rights Watch office in Moscow. “A terror attack on Boston that is so far away from Russia concerns Russians much more than what is happening in the south of the own country,” she added.
It was a remark that struck home. I’ve been covering the turmoil in the North Caucasus for 13 years now — ever since the Second Chechen War convulsed the region yet again. I tracked the radicalization of young Muslims in the republics adjoining Chechnya as they began to talk of creating an independent state based on sharia, to be called the “Caucasus Emirate.”
Some of them took up arms, committing guerrilla attacks against Russian institutions. The Russians responded by unleashing their special forces, regular army, and police against anyone who sympathized with the movement. But with wars going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, my editors’ interest in stories from this seemingly obscure area waned. Why would anyone pay attention to places like Dagestan or Chechnya when there were conflicts aflame all over the Middle East?
I remember how much effort it took to persuade my editors to allow me to cover the murder of my colleague and friend Natalia Estemirova, the prominent human rights activist. She was shot dead in Chechnya — by whom, precisely, remains obscure. A few journalists traveled to Grozny to say goodbye at her funeral. It was sad to see how small the group was.
But it wasn’t only the West that had lost interest in Russia’s local wars. Just a few years ago I remember how some editors at a Russian radio station asked me why I’d gone to the trouble to interview Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the most powerful leader in North Caucasus. “Why do you keep going to the North Caucasus?” they asked me. Their marketing research had showed that only 13 percent of their listeners showed any interest in news from the region.
Earlier this month, as reported by monitors from the human rights organization Memorial, tanks and artillery bombarded an area outside the Dagestani town of Gimry (pop. 4,000). Hundreds of people with small children left their homes and fled to a neighboring community called Temroary, where they filled apartments and houses to overflowing. Men had to sleep in their cars or in mosques.