Vienna, February 25 – In what would represent a major shift in Russian tactics and, in even being mentioned, represents a serious criticism of Vladimir Putin’s approach, a senior government investigator in the North Caucasus has called for bringing militants to trial rather than simply “destroying” them lest their deaths help the radicals to recruit others.
In an interview with “Moskovsky Komsomolets,” Boris Karnaukhov, deputy head of the Russian government’s criminal investigation arm for the North Caucasus, says that “one should not say that the liquidation of the militants by itself can radically change the criminal situation” there (www.mk.ru/politics/interview/2010/02/24/436264-kak-zatknut-za-poyas-shahida.html).
While “the liquidation” of such people is sometimes necessary because of their resistance to federal officials, he continues, “from a criminal law point of view, it undoubtedly would be much more valuable to arrest the criminals and bring them to trial” in order to hold them legally responsible.”
Such an approach, Karnaukhov says, would allow the authorities “to obtain valuable information about the sources and mechanisms of the financing of terrorist activities, their structure, and the participants in the underground bands.” But it would have important political consequences as well.
“The consequences of liquidating militants can vary,” he points out. While such actions, especially if they involve “the destruction of a leader” can lead to the dissolution of a militant band, they also can “provoke” others, particularly the relatives of those who have been killed, to join the armed group in order to take revenge.
Such divergent outcomes are reflected, he suggests, in the very different trends observed over the past year in Chechnya and Daghestan. In the former, the number of crimes against government officials has fallen, but in the latter, there has been “a sharp increase in their number.”
In the North Caucasus today, Karnaukhov says, “there continue to operate conspiratorial Wahhabi groups which are part of the terrorist structures of the illegal armed formations. The terrorists have significant funds and contemporary technical means which they use for the commission of crimes and also for covering their tracks.”
According to the Russian investigator, “the extremists in essence are organized criminal communities,” many of whose members are local people who are recruited “by means of the dissemination of radical Islamic ideas and extremist literature.” Thus, the struggle against them is both a legal and an ideological one.
“The facts of the liquidation of the militants are actively used in the propaganda activities of the extremists,” he continues. And because the influence of Islam remains very strong, the militants have had some success, given the current problems in the region, of presenting them and those who have died as “’fighters for the true faith.’”
In the remainder of his interview, Karnaukhov recounts the successes Russian officials have had against the bandits in the last year as well as the difficulties they face. Among the most important of the latter are three: the spread of militant groups across the region, the ineffectiveness of local officials, and the second coming of suicide bombers.
The first wave of suicide bombers hit the region in the summer of 2000, he says, when the war in Chechnya entered its “partisan” phase. (He notes that the first Chechen war “took place under national slogans,” which did not lead to such attacks, but the second was presented as “part of the worldwide jihad” and thus did.)
Karnaukhov also points to a curious phenomenon: “terrorist acts” from a legal point of view “have become extremely rare crimes” in Russia because of changes in the criminal law in 2006 which limited the application of that charge to those who attacked civilians and because of the Russian pattern of destroying rather than bringing to trial those who engage in such violence.
Having detailed the increasing number of acts of violence against officials in the North Caucasus, Karnaukhov ends with a comment that will resonate with those fighting terrorists elsewhere. Increasingly, he says, bandits are using individually prepared explosive devices in their attacks.
In the past, Western specialists on counter-terrorism have frequently criticized Moscow for killing all those involved in militant attacks rather than seeking to arrest and interrogate them. If Karnaukhov’s argument gains acceptance, it is possible that the Russian government may be about to change course.
That will not necessarily be politically popular. After all, Putin won a lot of support for his hard-line approach. But it is almost certainly the case that Russian counterterrorism efforts could become more successful if officials were able to learn more about their opponents rather than assuming that the only outcome should be their physical “liquidation.”