At least 60 people have died in a major Chechen militant attack in Russia's Kabardino-Balkariya region. Despite losing most of their safe havens and senior leadership during the past two years, the Chechens remain capable of launching large coordinated raids. The rapid Russian reaction, however, indicates that Moscow has developed enough organizational capability to deal with such attacks as they occur.
An Oct. 13 attack by Chechen militants against the capital of Russia's Kabardino-Balkariya region has left at least 60 dead. Details are sketchy, but initial reports indicate that at least 150 gunmen were involved in coordinated attacks in the Belaya Rechka suburb of Nalchik, which soon spread into strikes against three police stations, the city's airport, the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service regional headquarters, the city's military commissariat and the regional headquarters of the Russian prison system. A detachment of the Chechen-linked Kabardino-Balkariya group, called Yarmuk, claimed responsibility, the Chechen rebel Kavkaz Center Web site reported. According to sources cited by Russian news agency Itar-Tass, the attack occurred after Russian security forces surrounded a group of 10 militants, including leader Anzor Astemirov, in a house in the Nalchik suburb Oct. 12, killing Astemirov and the other nine in the gunbattles that followed Oct. 12-13. Chechen militants have never felt it necessary to limit their rebellion to the territory of Chechnya proper. Indeed, Islamist-minded factions who seek to create a region-wide caliphate are deeply internationalized, and even the more purely nationalist elements consider exporting the conflict elsewhere in Russia a natural tactic. The most recent installment of the Russian-Chechen wars opened with just such a campaign when Chechen militants actually invaded Dagestan in August 1999. Later, once Russian forces regained the upper hand, expeditionary forces launched hostage raids in Moscow in October 2002, and later at a school in North Ossetia in September 2004, both resulting in heavy casualties. More classic guerrilla raids of the type launched Oct. 13 also have occurred, with the largest being against neighboring Ingushetia in June 2004. The Oct. 13 raid tells us two things, one about the Chechens and one about the Russians. First, despite losing most of their safe havens and senior leadership during the past two years, the Chechens remain capable of launching large coordinated raids. Moreover, though Kabardino-Balkariya is certainly still in the Northern Caucasus, it represents the most distant classic military attack — as opposed to a terrorist attack — that the Chechen rebels have ever successfully implemented. Either their military capabilities have increased, or more worryingly for the Russians, their ability to gain recruits far from Chechnya has improved. The second lesson, however, will somewhat cheer the Russians. Within a few hours of the attacks, Russian forces proved aware and capable enough to lock down the city of Nalchik. This does not mean the crisis is over, much less that all is well — after all, the attack was not prevented. But the rapid reaction indicates that Moscow has developed enough organizational capability to deal with such attacks as they occur — even when they occur outside of Chechnya. After the humiliation of Russia's defeat in the 1994-1996 Chechen war, the botched security responses to hostage-taking in North Ossetia and Moscow, and the often slow responses since this most recent installment of the war began in 1999, that is no insignificant achievement.