After a period of relative calm, the two recent attacks in the Russian city of Volgograd serve as a reminder that, despite the government’s pre-Olympic crackdown, Russia’s heartland remains vulnerable to militants from the Muslim-majority North Caucasus region. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the bombings of the city’s main train station and a crowded trolleybus, which together killed at least 30 people, Volgograd has suffered from years of bombings, typically carried out by Islamist terrorists from the nearby North Caucasus.
Russia’s Muslim militants are especially irritated by President Vladimir Putin’s decision to hold the February Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Muslims once lived before being driven out by the czarist Russia army, which eventually subjugated the entire Caucasus region. Even so, male and more recently female bombers from Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have attacked high-profile targets throughout Russia since the late-1990s, when the Russian military occupied the region to suppress North Caucasian aspirations for independence under an Islamist banner. Volgograd has been a prime terrorist target given its location in southern Russia, near both Sochi and the North Caucasus; its symbolic importance as the former Soviet city of Stalingrad, site of a famous World War II battle; and the vicious political and commercial infighting among its local elites, which has detracted attention and resources from counterterrorist measures.
But it is only recently that the North Caucasus resistance to Russian rule has become an Islamist-inspired insurgency. In the early 1990s, the region’s various separatist movements lacked a strong radical Islamist presence. The spread of Muslim militancy throughout the Northern Caucasus followed the rise of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, and flourished after Russia’s defeat in the Chechen War of 1994-1996, which forced Moscow to remove its armed forces and grant the region much de facto autonomy. Islam became a means of uniting disparate clans and lending legitimacy to the new Chechen state. Shunned by the rest of the world, Chechnya’s leaders were compelled to turn to the Taliban and other foreign jihadists for critical financial and other support. These groups inundated the republic and established guerrilla training camps and propaganda outlets at local mosques with the intent of spreading jihad to other Russian regions.