On October 24, 2012, the Moscow bureau of the BBC published a report by its correspondent, Artem Krechetnikov, on the October 23, 2002 attack by “40 Chechen militants” on the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow. The attackers, bringing with them a suspiciously ample supply of weapons to sustain their attack, held 912 hostages for three days until security services secretly filled the theatre with a gas that eventually rendered everyone inside unconscious. Those forces then moved in and killed the attackers, awake or not. Also dead were 130 hostages, allegedly from the effects of the gas, although this remains much debated (Rieder, et al. 2003).
With unintentional black humor, the news story’s caption begins “Ten years ago Russia and the world held their breath . . .” The story itself is about questions that have been raised in the years since the attack. It describes how no warnings were given to nearby hospitals of the kind of gas to be used, secrecy of the operation being the overriding concern. The story points out that the name of the gas has yet to be disclosed, but has since surmised to have been fentanyl, a powerful opiate. Following the operation, there was no public investigation; and in a 2010 poll, seventy four percent of Russians did not believe the official explanation of events.
Following the assault and widespread protests and questions about it, President Vladimir Putin awarded the deputy director of the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB, formerly known as the KGB) the official title of Hero of Russia. Putin, angered by a report by the Russian television station NTV, ended its independence by firing its director general. According to the story, this dismissal was a part of a pattern of governmental suppression of the media established after the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster and the 2004 Beslan school massacre.
To this reviewer, the BBC’s report is a perfectly good example of honest journalism confronting the mysteries and chaos inherent in any terrorist act. This particular report is made more interesting by the fact that it was made by a Russian working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news service. (I was unable to discover if Mr. Krechetnikov is a Russian citizen.) This clearly gave him a degree of independence that a journalist working for a Russian state-approved agency would not possess today (and did not long enjoy before). This is made clear from the report itself. However, the story makes no mention of exactly who the attackers were (other online sources provide that information) and the deep background of their specific cause or causes, such causes being assumed to be more or less understood by a world weary of and not terribly interested in the local details of Islamic terrorism. This perceived shortcoming is understandable — it is after all only a news story, and it may be assumed that its word-length was limited. Yet wider issues need to be explored in any analysis of the news story itself, and those issues should be considered the primary purpose of this paper.
The first and seemingly most obvious question to be answered is why these particular people become victims of political violence there and then. The answer is that those particular people were not specifically targeted. Terrorism does not need to be specific in its choice of victims. A lack of targeting is one of terrorism’s greatest strengths (and perhaps its only one). Those particular people only had to be Russians or among Russians, like the several foreign visitors in the theatre that night. But the location was indeed important and specific, and more important than the individuals themselves: a theatre, assumed to be at least reasonably safe, an island on the land providing a night’s recreation and escape from the cares of the daily world. The Chechens wanted to make the point that Russians and their visitors cannot expect to be safe in their world from the Chechens’ world as long as Chechens cannot be safe in their world from the Russians’ world. The trouble is that such a motivation can be used as a provocation by others for their needs. That leads to the question of who made the attack and why.
The answer seems definitive: it was done by a group of Islamist Chechens fighting for the independence of Chechnya, a nation with a prominently Islamic population and a long history of resistance to Moscow and the suffering of brutal Russian reprisals. However, there is a difference between groups of local Chechens and the Arab and Middle Eastern fighters often found among them — Saudis, Pakistanis, and Afghans, for example — and their jihad. Although the Chechen wars for independence may be considered a part of the worldwide Islamic militant movement, it is principally a local fight with its own long local history. But of course none of these distinctions mattered much to those victims caught that night in the Dubrovka Theatre, either by the terrorist act itself or the indiscriminate response to it, a response that made the security forces themselves seem little better than terrorist-like participants acting for the state. Between the two, the hostages were as doomed as any set of people could be.
Readers of this kind of news story may ask themselves if the violence could in any way be considered effective. The answer depends on one’s point of view within a wide range of possible views. If your goal as a Chechen fighter is to spare nothing in your efforts to make Russia look bad, then the operation was a considerable success. Forcing the Russian security forces to gas their own people showed them to be uncaring in a sort of blundering, caricature Russian way, worthy of a Monty Python skit. But the flip side is that since it involved civilians who had nothing directly to do with Chechen independence, it did nothing to endear the Chechen cause to the Russians or the world. Indeed, it angered many people, Chechens included, just as other acts of Chechen violence had, such as the Beslan school-hostage massacre in which over a hundred children were killed. The deliberate killing of uninvolved civilians is something immoral in and of itself. In law, such crimes are termed mala in se (Davis 2006). The Russian police and political leaders may yet turn out to be guilty of that themselves, so the next question is to decide whether this is a clear case of one-sided terrorism and if so, which kind.
For reasons of space here I will supply a dictionary definition: the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal (Merriam-Webster n.d.) From this definition we can conclude that the Dubrovka Theatre siege was unquestionably terrorism — its purpose was not one of robbery. In now refining this, I turn to one of the standard references in analyzing terrorism: Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues (Martin 2006). There can be found the category of “separatist terrorism” which describes the Chechens well. However, not forgetting the Arab and Middle Eastern jihadists we can also apply the category of “revolutionary dissident terrorism”, which at least theoretically has as its motivation “a clear world vision”. That book also includes scholar Peter D. Sederberg’s four categories of terrorist: revolutionary, nihilist, nationalist dissident, and criminal dissident. Each group tends to have its own varieties — terrorist groups splinter the way religions and political parties do and also often end up battling each other as much as a common enemy. However, Martin also lists a another useful category, state terrorism — “terrorism from above”. In any discussion of terrorism in Russia, the issue of state terrorism will not be far behind.
The matter of whom or what is to blame must be addressed. To even ask that question is to imply that the Chechens were not necessarily responsible, but were instead responding to a perceived threat; or that the medium used — terrorism — to convey the message that they were trying to send to Russia, Chechnya, and the world might be justified. As outside observers, we can only look at the situation as objectively as possible as we apply generally accepted ethical standards that do not accept the taking of hostages and killing them or putting them in harm’s way. In order to take the objective view, we have to look at the history of Chechnya and Russia. The situation cannot be summarized simply by saying that both parties are to blame.
The Chechens are not the only people in the Caucasus who are unhappy with their situation within the Russian state. The region, once called jabal al-alsun — the Mountain of Tongues — hosts countless tribes not necessarily friendly with each other, but some at least sharing the same general hatred of Russia if not Russians (Coene 2010). Consider that in the Beslan school takeover, Chechens and Ingush were working together against the Ossetes, with whom the Ingush were in conflict. The Chechens and the Ingush peoples were deported en mass by the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in World War II to Siberia and Kazakhstan, where tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of them died of exposure, shock, starvation, and execution. After Stalin’s death, any Chechens still living were allowed back home, but tensions with the U.S.S.R. grew to a breaking point after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In addition to nationalism, we must add the fact that much of Chechnya is Islamic, following the Sunni faith. Russia is mainly Orthodox Christian and has been for centuries. It was in 1991 that Chechens declared their independence. Two wars with Russia followed, ending for now Chechens’ hopes for freedom, and leaving them worse off than they were before. This racial and political conflict bred jihad, fomented and led in some cases by Al-Qaida militarists. Seen in this light, the theater siege may be seen as an example of “revenge terrorism” by organizations now intent on pursuing their own agendas in the name of the lost cause of Chechen independence.
Independence — or rather secession — is a terribly thorny problem for nations large and small. Canada has its own secessionist movement in Quebec (Jacobs 1980). Secession is what many of the Chechens still want, having fought for it between 1994 and 1997, and briefly kept it between 1997 and 1999. Then a Chechnya-based and warlord-led Islamist military group calling itself the “Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade” launched an attack on neighboring Dagestan to support a separatist group there. The move failed, and Russia used the attack as justification to launch its second Chechen invasion. Vladimir Putin declared the Chechen government illegitimate, and invasion followed. After nearly ten years of brutal back and forth fighting, Russia won the war. Chaos and economic ruin for Chechnya was the result. As of 2007, peace of a sort returned. In 2009, Freedom House, an American non-governmental organization (the type known as an “NGO”) included Chechnya in its “Worst of the Worst” list of the world’s most repressive societies. Other luminaries included Burma, North Korea and China’s Tibet.
It should be noted here that after the fall of the Soviet Union, at least ten former Soviet republics declared their independence and have since kept it. But those peoples, such as found in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, were occupied militarily relatively recently. (The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1940 was used to occupy the Baltic states.) Such nations had a long history of political independence from Russia. But such was not the case with the Chechens or indeed any of the other peoples of the Caucasus. They have been fighting or resisting the Russian empire since Ivan the Terrible moved his forces south in 1552. The culmination of this conflict occurred (as mentioned above) during their forced exile by Stalin, who suspected — for no good reason other than paranoia — that they could not be fully trusted to die for him or for Russia on cue, although thousands of them already had. In fact thousands of Stalin’s other captive subjects, such as the Cossacks and many Russian POWs, joined Hitler’s forces and continued fighting the Russian forces even after the surrender of Nazi Germany.
At this point, the answer to the question of what is behind Chechen terrorism might be “the desire of an ancient people to regain the political independence of their homeland” — like the Jews. (The Chechens even had their enforced exile.) However, it is not as simple as that. Although the Dubrovka Theatre siege may be termed an act of “separatist terrorism”, should Chechnya ever gain its political freedom from Russia there is no guarantee that Chechen terrorism or military action of some kind would stop. That is how the Second Chechen War started in 1999, as noted above. But there is also the matter of Chechen economic development, long stunted and now necessarily repressed — progress requires liberty. Where people can be sure of a future for themselves and can foresee a future for their children and grandchildren, they are less inclined to go on the warpath for ideological reasons or to settle ancient racial scores. That is what so many people did during the Yugoslav Wars of 1991–1999 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union — which, to its credit, had long held those ancient hatreds in check.
Chechnya and Russian Federal Center Clash Over Subsidies reports a headline from a scholarly website devoted to Caucasus economic and political affairs (Smid 2013). That pretty much says it in a nutshell: Chechnya and its people need subsidies to survive. Chechnya is an official “subsidy region”, making it and its relationship with Russian analogous to some of Canada’s provinces with its central government. Canada has official subsidy regions too, and its payments to its have-not provinces is called “equalization”. Without them, provinces from Quebec to Ontario — those two used to be have provinces — down to Prince Edward Island that now receive transfer payments from the federal government would likely be restive and unhappy places headed down the road to their own Chechnya. (And that goes double for Quebec, which has long been home to a secession movement.) Whatever the country, such payments indicate a failure to thrive on the part of the recipients. That means many people will leave that nation to seek a better life. But what does this have to do with Chechens and the Dubrovka Theatre siege?
The father of the Boston Marathon bombers is Chechen and his two sons, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were born in the Caucasus region and spent their early childhood years there. Like many of their compatriots, they were compelled to leave their homeland to make a living. They ended up in the United States and were duly radicalized, more or less by proxy. (Their bombings might be considered examples of “criminal dissident terrorism” — another one of Martin’s categories — because they operated on their own with no popular support and not part of a proclaimed group or specific movement.) What the Dubrovka Theatre siege and the Boston Marathon bombings have in common is frustrated and angry Chechens a long way from home committing lethal violence to achieve an avowed political purpose. This now brings us at long last back to the BBC article. Is there anything wrong with it? Yes and no.
At first, it seems not. But the more one knows of the subject, the more one knows that there are two things missing from it that arguably should have been included: Black Widows (called Shahidka in Russian) and apartment bombings. The former were an integral part of the theatre siege, and the latter were a related part of it. A news story should not feel obligated to report every aspect of a particular news event, but on a web-page the sidebar links should be considered a part of the story. They are (or should be) somewhat like advertisements, inducing the reader to click on them. The lack of links to the Black Widows and apartment bombings is my only real objection to the story as it is presented. Those women first came to the world’s attention during the theatre siege. For readers who haven’t heard of them, they might be defined as the widows of Chechen men killed by Russians in Chechnya.
As is often the case with journalism, it was a single photograph showing three (possibly four) dead women — presumably rendered fatally unconscious by the gas — wearing the traditional black niqab that brought them as a fighting force to the world’s attention (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 2006). There were nineteen such women in the theater that night acting as part of the attacking team of Chechens. The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty story, not linked to the story by Mr. Krechetnikov but which should and could have been, lists fifteen suicide bombing attacks by Chechen female suicide bombers between 2000 and 2004. These women — and female suicide bombers in general — are known to have had (and presumably to still have) a range of motivations of varying degrees of simplicity and complexity, including one of financial reward for their families (Merkel 2011). But they all seem to have something more or less in common: they come from cultures in which women are held to be subservient to men. Frankly, in reading about how some of these societies and the men in those societies collectively and individually treat their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers, one might think that such women would rejoice at the death of their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers. But human emotions are nothing if not contradictory: be it ever so brutal, there is no place like home.
The association of the theatre siege to apartment bombings is not as clear by now — with the passage of time this remarkable subject has slipped from Western memories, if not Russian and Chechen ones. If one were to Google “apartment bombings”, after the Wikipedia listings one finds a review of a book entitled The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule on the New York Review of Books website (Knight 2012). The author of the book, John B. Dunlop, concluded that the top political leaders of Russia in 1999, including current Russian president Vladimir Putin, were responsible for a series of four apartment-block buildings explosions in September of that year which killed almost three hundred people and injured hundreds more. The rationale was to deliberately destabilize Russia in order to prevent the election of a rival clan of politicians who were opponents of Boris Yeltsin, the then-current president, enfeebled by alcoholism and age. Dunlop found evidence to back up the theory that the invasion of Dagestan by Islamic militants based in Cechnia (noted above) was aided and abetted by the FSB. (Putin had spent sixteen years at the KGB.) Yeltsin’s motivation for agreeing to the bombings was to ensure Putin’s election as savior/strong man president who would protect Russia from bombers — and Yeltsin against against charges of corruption after his retirement from politics. The truth behind the bombings will probably never be known in detail because the Russian government itself has stonewalled any public investigations. Journalists and opposing politicians have died mysteriously, been murdered, or driven into exile. That such evidence to support such theories behind the bombings can be found and be widely believed by Russians and Westerners says much about the nature of the Russia today, which at least appears to be a failing state known for its lies, sham democracy, and probable state terrorism. The Chechen theatre terrorists were armed with so much ammunition that border and road guards must surely have known about it — and did nothing.
In conclusion, it is clear that the Western media overall has not shied away from the matter of the theatre siege and the affiliated subjects of Black Widows and apartment bombings. Books in the West have been published on all of these subjects, and investigations both in the West and in Russia will continue as best they can. But in the West, peoples’ memories for such stories are short, the U.S. State Department must carefully weigh the needs of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and the media in Russia today has by and large lost its independence. The BBC article in question was good but unnecessarily incomplete in its sidebar links. In spite of the BBC’s efforts in Russia, there is still a compelling need for an official Radio Free Europe.
Coene, Frederik. The Caucasus – An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Davis, Mark S. “Crimes Mala in Se: An Equity-Based Definition.” Criminal Justice Policy Review, September 2006: 270-289.
Jacobs, Jane. The Question of Separtism: Quebec and the Struggle Over Sovereignty. New York: Random House, 1980.
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Martin, Gus. Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc. , 2006.
Merkel, Annabel. “Female Suicide Bombers: Recognizing media’s gendered descriptions of women’s violence .” Lunds Universitet: Human Rights Studies, 2011.
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Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. October 27, 2006. https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1GPEA_enUS330&espv=210&es_sm=122&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=PLiaUu2fL8vyoASbkoC4BQ&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAQ&biw=1366&bih=652&q=moscow%20theater%20black%20widows#es_sm=122&espv=210&q=black+widows+DUBROVKA+theater&tbm=isch&facrc=_&imgrc=aDTpFOijDL1kPM%3A%3BxqFs6krKcV-Q3M%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fgdb.rferl.org%252F47033139-B3B9-4714-8221-1F02B64726FF_mw800_mh600.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.rferl.org%252Fcontent%252Farticle%252F1072365.html%3B512%3B383 (accessed November 30, 2013).
Rieder, Josef, Christian Keller, Georg Hoffmann, and Philipp Lirk. “The Lancet.” Correspondence. March 29, 2003. http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS014067360312870X.pdf (accessed November 28, 2013).
Smid, Thomas. The Central Asia–Caucasus Analyst. April 14, 2013. http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12704-chenya-and-russian-federal-center-clash-over-subsidies.html (accessed Novemberf 29, 2013).
 Jihad is defined by Miriam-Webster as: “A holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also : a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline.”