Dagestan: Russia's Islamic enemy within

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Shaun Walker reports from Dagestan on a generation willing to give up their lives for the fight against Moscow

"He is a hero," says Saida defiantly, recalling the memory of her brother. "He died for what he believed in, and he died because Allah willed it for him. I am proud he died as a shahid [martyr]."

Saida, who never tells me her real name, is in her early 20s and lives in a village outside Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the restive southern republic of Russia that borders Chechnya on one side and looks out to the Caspian Sea on the other.

The last time Saida saw her brother was about a year ago, when he announced to his family that he was "going to the forest"; the term used here to mean joining the Islamic insurgency. He cut off all contact with the family, and the next they heard of him was when Saida's mother recognised his corpse in television news pictures a month ago from a "special operation" of the Russian security forces to "liquidate bandits".

Dagestan, a land of ancient traditions and beautiful mountains, where dozens of small ethnic groups live side by side, has historically been deeply Islamic, but in the last decade parts of it have become radicalised. With Chechnya now ruled by the iron-fisted Ramzan Kadyrov, chaotic Dagestan has become the heart of Russia's Islamic terrorist problem, and almost every single day of late, the authorities are engaged in shoot-outs to kill men like Saida's brother, often in the heart of Makhachkala.

The attacks on the Moscow Metro in March, by two female suicide bombers from Dagestan, showed how the ongoing struggle in the North Caucasus still has the ability to strike at the heart of Russia, and ever since the bombs there has been a renewed offensive in Dagestan against the militants. In September alone, authorities say they killed 54 terrorist fighters – boyeviki as they are called in Russian. They are almost never captured alive.

Dagestan is now teetering on the brink of civil war, and locals say the insurgency is being given a boost by the widespread corruption among police officers and government officials in the region. Corruption has been named by the Kremlin as a huge problem for the whole of Russia, but in Dagestan, the scale and pervasiveness of graft is eye-watering. Almost everything is for sale here, leading to a culture of extreme corruption and popular resentment. Getting a place at the police training academy reportedly costs around £5,000, which officers then make up by extorting bribes from the population, and everything from university places to government posts are up for sale.

In a further complication, it is widely believed that the insurgents take "orders" for hits on prominent figures, providing a convenient cover for those who want a rival removed from power, and giving the boyeviki a much needed source of funding. They are also known to send senior government figures USB sticks containing threatening video messages demanding money or death. Terrified they will be killed if they don't pay up, many in the government feel they have no choice but to do so.

There is a "battle for the loyalty" of the population at the moment, says Khadzhimurat Kamalov, publisher of Chernovik, an independent local newspaper. "People look at the way that the police and the FSB [security service] behave, and it's easy to understand why a lot of them feel their sympathies are with the other side, with the insurgents," says Mr Kamalov. He estimates that around 25 per cent of the population strongly disapprove of the Islamic insurgency, about 50 per cent are indifferent or undecided, and around 25 per cent support the goals of the terrorists, so long as they don't target "civilians".

In Dagestan itself, attacks are usually carefully targeted on the military and the police, and while it's hard to find anyone who admits to endorsing the attacks on the Moscow Metro, after a few minutes of chatting, many people will offer at least an understanding of the motives behind attacks on law enforcement officials. The police, they say, operate outside the law, soliciting bribes from citizens and fabricating charges.

In Makhachkala's main square last week, next to a large portrait of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (President Dmitry Medvedev, technically the head of state, is nowhere to be seen), a group of pensioners waving placards were being watched over by a dozen armed policemen. The women are from the town of Khasavyurt, and are being kicked out of the building they live in. They say that 310 people live in their block of flats, some of them six to a room – unlike most buildings it wasn't "privatised" at the end of the Soviet Union, and so while they have lived in it all their lives, it isn't technically theirs. The building had been bought by someone in the local government for an absurdly low price, they say, and they will all be kicked out within the month. They wail desperate entreaties on discovering a journalist in their midst. "Nobody is listening to us. We have elderly, sick, disabled people among us, and we'll have nowhere to go. Maybe you can tell Putin or Medvedev about it?" they ask, convinced that the local authorities will never help them.

Everywhere, people have similar tales of injustice and corruption, and it is clear that for some young people, the frustration becomes too much. "The leaders of the boyeviki are manipulative, evil people," says a source in the local government. "But on the whole the insurgents are just cannon fodder who are brainwashed. They are people with no financial or social prospects, they have lost hope, and they see 'going to the forest' as the only way out for them. Perhaps when I was 20 I would have done the same."

In the meeting with Saida, she frequently speaks in Islamic rhetoric, but always brings her grievances back to the corruption and brutality of the system, rather than an overarching Islamism. Her brother had friends who had joined the militants, and the police didn't believe that he didn't know their whereabouts. He was put on the dreaded "list" of around 4,000 people suspected of terrorist links. Every time there was an attack, police would visit the house and ask questions. Several times he was detained, and Saida claims he was tortured, including one occasion when all his fingernails were pulled out. "One day, he just said, 'I can't take this any more.' And he left."

Opinions are divided on how best to fight the terrorists, and stop people like Saida's brother joining their ranks. "The Russian eagle has two heads," says Mr Kamalov. "One of them wants to cut the interior ministry personnel by 20 per cent, to democratise the North Caucasus, and to develop business here, while the other wants to use pressure and force only."

The former broadly corresponds to the views that Mr Medvedev has stated on several occasions before, while the latter line is more associated with Mr Putin, who famously promised to "waste them [militants] in the outhouse" when he came to power. Mr Medvedev has repeatedly spoken of the need for socio-economic measures in the region.

"Medvedev's methods could work here but they need to be more aggressively pursued," says Mr Kamalov, who says there is a similar split in the local FSB structures as to the effectiveness of force. But the Moscow Metro bombs were a trump card for those who support Mr Putin's methods, and since then the focus has been on a stepped-up campaign of special operations. Even the mild-mannered Mr Medvedev vowed that terrorists would be "liquidated".

As dusk fell last Tuesday evening, another counter-terrorist operation started, in the centre of the city on Gogol Street. A boyevik was holed up at house number 42, and special forces were sent in to "liquidate" him. The scene was tense, as residents were evacuated and police set up a security cordon a few dozen metres away from the house in question. A group of nervous-looking policemen smoked cigarettes and fingered their Kalashnikovs at the perimeter, refusing to answer questions about what was going on inside. A week before, at a similar operation, a suicide bomber had approached the outer cordon and detonated himself, in a diversionary tactic, injuring 30. Closer to the house, Omon special forces and FSB operatives were engaged in a gunfight with the boyevik, who would later emerge from the house with guns blazing, and be shot and killed before he could detonate the suicide belt he was wearing.

The worrying thing for the Kremlin is that however many boyeviki they kill, there seem to be more to take their place. Saida's brown eyes, framed with carefully trimmed eyebrows and soft facial features, look out from behind the deep green hijab she has wrapped around her head and neck. She says she can't wait to meet her brother in paradise, a place where "you never need to sleep, nothing ever hurts, all your family and friends are by your side, and anything you wish for will be granted immediately".

"For every one they kill five more will grow in their place," she says. When asked if she might herself one day become a suicide bomber, she laughs uneasily. "Not for the moment, no. But I wouldn't rule it out. I'd never blow myself up on the Metro, but in the FSB building? Why not? Those people are not even humans."

Inside Russia's most religious town

In Gubden, a town of 16,000 people around an hour's drive from Makhachkala, none of the shops sell alcohol or cigarettes. At the school, all the girls from the age of five wear the hijab, covering their hair and necks. This town of tidy cottages stacked above each other, with the imposing Friday Mosque perched at the top of the hill, is widely seen as the most religious town in Dagestan, and perhaps in Russia.

One of the bombers in the Moscow Metro was believed to be the wife of Magomedali Vagabov, leader of the boyeviki in Dagestan, and from Gubden. He was killed nearby in a special operation in August. But ever since the Moscow Metro bombs, the situation in Gubden has been noticeably tense, with the traditional Dagestani hospitality to outsiders replaced with guarded suspicion.

At the entrance to the town, a heavily fortified checkpoint is manned by men in balaclavas wielding assault rifles, and the town's dilapidated administration building is watched over by armed soldiers. They look stressed and weary – hardly surprising, as it is people like them who the insurgents kill on an almost weekly basis. "We're from Makhachkala, we've only been here three days," says one. "The situation here is very tense." Some locals claim that there is no widespread support for the insurgents in their town, just a strict adherence to Islamic tenets, and a few bad apples that have gone over to the other side. Others simply hurry on, ignoring the questions put to them by unwelcome outsiders.

"People here feel defenceless," says Alikpashi Vagabov, the former headteacher of Gubden's school, and Magomedali Vagabov's second cousin. "They feel under threat both from the boyeviki and from the government forces."

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