Islamist rebels take aim at Russia in election year

MOSCOW Tue Feb 8, 2011 10:46pm IST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - A suicide attack on Russia's busiest airport shows Islamist rebel leader Doku Umarov is serious about inflicting "blood and tears" on the Russian heartland ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Umarov, a 46-year-old rebel leader who styles himself as the Emir of the Caucasus, claimed responsibility for the Jan. 24 attack that killed 36 and said he had dozens of suicide bombers ready to unleash on Russian cities.

Russia is struggling to contain a growing Islamist insurgency along its southern flank nearly 12 years after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rose to popularity by leading Russia into a second war against Chechen separatists.

"Terrorist attacks will most certainly continue in Moscow. I don't think they are designed to be before elections, but of course they will not make Putin look good," North Caucasus expert Alexei Malashenko, from Moscow's Carnegie Centre, said.

The Domodedovo airport bombing, which authorities say was carried out by a 20-year-old from the Muslim Ingushetia region, came 10 months after twin suicide bombs on the Moscow metro that killed 40 in the first attack on the capital in six years.

"Even if Umarov is killed tomorrow he will be replaced by someone even more organised. The North Caucasus is full of Islamist organisations now," Malashenko said.

Putin has hinted he will return to the Kremlin in 2012 or leave his protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, in place for a new six-year term -- either way keeping his hands on Russia's reins of power for years to come.

Umarov suggested that the North Caucasus insurgency will haunt Russia's leaders for just as long, claiming that he has a steady supply of suicide bombers ready for attacks against Russia.

BOMBERS IN WAITING

In his 16-minute video, posted on several Islamist websites, Umarov vowed more attacks "on the territory of Russia. They will be carried out, God willing, there is no doubt about it".

Chechen-born Umarov wants to create a separate state with Sharia Islamic law across the patchwork of Muslim republics along Russia's south that he considers to be "occupied" territory.

"There will be hundreds of brothers who will be ready to sacrifice themselves for the establishment of the word of God," Umarov, clad in camouflage and sporting a long black beard, said. On Friday he said that five or six dozen men were presently ready for "martyrdom".

"It is believable that he has a fair quantity of people lined up as there are a lot of damaged people available to be exploited in this way," said Oliver Bullough, an author on the region and Caucasus editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in London.

Local leaders say a potent mix of clan feuds, poverty, Islamism and heavy-handed tactics by law enforcement agencies has driven youths into the hands of rebels who want to create a pan-Caucasus state independent from Russia.

Medvedev has cited an increase in Islamist attacks and told security officials after the airport attack that terrorism is Russia's biggest threat.

The Kremlin chief also has called Islamist ideology a "cancer" which needs to be tackled head-on.

"We need to fight this not only with force, but in ideological terms. Otherwise, our forces will destroy one terrorist and the ideological conveyer belt will produce 20 terrorists," Semyon Bagdasarov, from the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia party, said on Tuesday in televised comments.

But despite billions of dollars poured into the region by the Kremlin, the insurgency has attracted more young men and the violence does not abate.

In an independent Russian poll released by the Levada Centre on Tuesday, 63 percent of those surveyed across 130 Russian towns believed the situation in the North Caucasus was "tense", unchanged from the same poll a year ago.

Adding to the violence is the actual nature of the insurgency, which experts say has changed in recent years, mutating from a grassroots separatist movement towards jihad, whose propaganda and patronage point abroad.

Regional Muslim leaders and rebels revile each other as blasphemous and criminal. But after years of the Soviet Union suppressing religion, both welcome an Islamic revival.

"What is scary about the situation now is there is no strategy, just rage," Bullough said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman, reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Michael Roddy)

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