This is an extended version of the author’s “Mixing Turncoats and Terrorism” op-ed published in The Moscow Times on September 9, 2012.
Events of one August day in Russia’s volatile republic of Dagestan have once again highlighted how turncoats can enhance terrorists’ capabilities to carry out deadly attacks in the North Caucasus and other regions of Russia.
On Aug. 28, Aminat Kurbanova, an ethnic Russian woman whose original name is Alla Saprykina, visited Said Afandi al-Chirkawi, the spiritual leader of two major Sufi orders in the North Caucasus. The prominent sheikh was initially reluctant to meet Kurbanova, but the 29-year-old woman said she was a Russian who wanted to convert to Islam and he eventually agreed to receiver her in his village home. In reality, this former actress-cum-dancer had not only already converted to Islam, but had also joined the ranks of the believers in Salafiyyah, the so-called pure Islam. Once in the same room with the sheikh, the woman detonated the bomb concealed under her clothes to kill him and seven others, including herself.
Russian law enforcement officials were aware that Kurbanova had been assisting militant Salafites and that she may have decided to become a shahid after her second husband was killed in fighting. But they still could not intercept the woman during her deadly mission.
About 150,000 showed up for the sheikh’s funeral, who had tens of thousands of followers. His death is most likely to fuel tensions and perhaps incite violence between members of the Sufi orders and militant Salafites in the North Caucasus.
On the day Kurbanova blew herself up, another militant Salafite carried out a suicidal attack in Dagestan. Ramazan Aliyev, a border guard, opened fire on colleagues and police at a barracks in Dagestan’s Derbent district, killing seven before being shot to death himself.
Russia’s border guard force is fully professional and its members are screened more thoroughly than conscripts are in the Interior Troops that guard Russia’s nuclear power plants and other critical infrastructure facilities. Yet Aliyev, whose militant religious views were reportedly known for years, had been allowed to serve for years.
There have been dozens of documented cases in the North Caucasus when servicemen of Russia’s so-called power agencies would switch sides to assist terrorists, or when local militants would infiltrate these agencies to operate to facilitate deadly attacks.
It is also well known that a number of ethnic Slavs have earlier converted to Islam and joined the North Caucasus-based groups, including explosives expert Pavel Kosolapov and suicide bombers Vitaly Razdobudko and his wife. It should be noted that Kosolapov studied as a cadet in a Strategic Missile Forces academy before joining the Islamist terrorist movement to get involved in organizing a series of bombings across Russia. It should be also noted that Kurbanova’s second husband, Magomed Ilyasov, helped to train the Razdobydkos for their suicidal missions. Such converts could be especially dangerous because they have a better chance to successfully approach targets in Russia as policemen there tend to focus on dark-skinned non-Slavs in their racial profiling of terrorist suspects.
Terrorist attacks involving these kinds of converts and turncoats would be particularly difficult to repel in Russia, especially if the assailants are well-trained and equipped and are prepared to die, believing that the reward for their “martyrdom” is paradise. Such attacks could prove particularly devastating if they are staged against critical infrastructure facilities, such as nuclear power stations.
Havoc wrecked by Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents could be repeated as result of premeditated actions by terrorists if personnel of security services and critical facilities are not prepared to interdict attacks on such facilities assisted from inside. If you think it is improbable, then just imagine a group comprised of the likes of Razdobydkos guided by Kosolapov assaulting a nuclear power station guarded by the likes of Aliyev.
The authorities must also take measures to prevent such attacks from being staged. Apart from addressing root causes and contributing factors behind the organized violence in the North Caucasus, preventive actions should include the robust screening of personnel of power agencies and key infrastructure facilities to weed out insiders who can cooperate with terrorists to cause significant casualties and major socio-economic disruptions.
Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.