Terror’s return. Sunday’s coordinated attack on law enforcement and religious institutions in Muslim-majority Dagestan has brought back many dark memories — Novaya Gazeta Europe
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Terror’s return

Sunday’s coordinated attack on law enforcement and religious institutions in Muslim-majority Dagestan has brought back many dark memories

Terror’s return

Photo: National Anti-Terrorism Committee

At least 21 people were killed when armed men attacked two Orthodox churches, synagogues and a traffic police post on Sunday evening in the cities of Derbent and Makhachkala in Dagestan, a republic in Russia’s North Caucasus.

Fifteen of those who died in the coordinated attacks were police officers, while one was a 66-year-old Orthodox priest. Law enforcement reported “liquidating” the five militants responsible for the attack and the republic has declared three days of mourning for the victims.

Perhaps the most striking discovery, which was reported by Telegram channel Baza, has been that two of the militants were the sons of a senior local politician, Magomed Omarov, while another was his nephew. Omarov was immediately detained and expelled from the ruling United Russia party. Vladimir Putin has not yet commented on the attack.

Two Dagestan residents who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity told Novaya Europe what locals were thinking in the immediate aftermath of the attack and who they blamed for it.

‘We remain unafraid’

“The vast majority of people in Dagestan condemn such terror attacks. People want to live in peace and go about their daily lives. The majority of Dagestanis find attacks on the clergy unacceptable, regardless of their denomination. Multiple religions have coexisted peacefully here for centuries, especially in a city like Derbent, the oldest in Russia, dating back more than 1,500 years, which is home to Muslims, Christians and Jews. They have always lived peacefully alongside each other.

The first impulse is to blame those who took up arms and attacked police officers and civilians, and a priest who had never harmed anyone. Derbent has a monument to the brotherhood of three Religions, with a rabbi, an Orthodox priest and a mullah sitting together at a table. Each of the three men is based on an actual person and the Orthodox priest depicted was the 66-year-old Nikolay Kotelnikov, one of the men killed by the attackers, who served his church for over 40 years. The guard at the church, Mikhail, was also killed.

There is no tradition of holding the authorities to account at times like these. If anything, it tends to lead to an increase in cooperation with them.

The monument to the brotherhood of three Religions. Photo: Dilara Amirova

The monument to the brotherhood of three Religions. Photo: Dilara Amirova

The Russian authorities are implying that the attack bears the hallmark of the Ukrainian secret services. The local population has a hard time lending that version of events any credence. But we remain unafraid. There is caution, but no fear.

It is usually difficult to blame the national or local authorities in cases like this, because it’s our peaceful way of life that has come under threat. Judging by the numerous videos and comments on the attack, locals were worried for the police and wanted everything to be over and done with as quickly as possible. There is no tradition of holding the authorities to account at times like these. If anything, it tends to lead to an increase in cooperation with them.

The Orthodox Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin in Derbent after the terror attack. Photo:  Head of Dagestan  / Telegram

The Orthodox Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin in Derbent after the terror attack. Photo: Head of Dagestan / Telegram

At the same time, the authorities bear default political responsibility for events in the region. It’s their duty to provide security, and on this occasion they failed. That can be difficult for people to process, because it’s not their first thought when armed people appear on the streets. They just want it to stop.

The fact that people close to the authorities were involved in the attack is something of a surprise, though. People usually think it’s easy to recruit young men from disadvantaged families for these purposes. That wasn’t the case this time. We are yet to understand why this happened, and still cannot answer that question unambiguously.”

‘Ask the wrong questions of the authorities, and you’ll be accused of justifying terrorism’

“Society is currently in shock, because there was no obvious reason for the attacks. Attacks on religious objects in Dagestan, on churches or mosques, are extremely rare. The last attack was in 2018, when a lone gunman went into a church in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar and shot several parishioners.

It’s only natural for people to ask how and why this could happen now. The reasons are unclear. The first instinct is to blame the perpetrators. The local authorities and security forces have questions to answer as to what they could have done to prevent the attack or whether they should have at least known it was going to happen. But those questions are vague and are not at the top of the list. The people here have seen police officers fighting the terrorists, and for now are still in a state of shock at what happened. They may have questions for the authorities later, but not now.

At some point, though, that will just get shelved with the long list of other grievances. The country currently finds itself in an acute situation, and the authorities have a simple way of dealing with protest. Society might very well have questions to ask, but there is no guarantee the authorities will answer them.

Terrorists — be they leaders or perpetrators — can come from all walks of life, underprivileged or well-educated, so we shouldn’t be particularly surprised by the fact that the sons of the head of the local council were among the attackers.

There is also a risk that if you ask the wrong question, you’ll be accused of justifying terrorism. So, as in Soviet times, people will share their feelings of discontent in their kitchens, rather than on the town square, because that’s the safer option. They see small-scale or mass protests as fairly pointless, because they don’t think they will go anywhere.

The Kele Numaz synagogue in Derbent after the terrorist attack. Photo:  Head of Dagestan  / Telegram

The Kele Numaz synagogue in Derbent after the terrorist attack. Photo: Head of Dagestan / Telegram

There are still a lot of unknowns. This has not yet followed the pattern whereby the terrorists commit their atrocity and then a video appears online where the group pulling the strings claims responsibility. In Dagestan, militants carried out a raid, killed people and set fire to religious buildings, but we don’t know why or in whose name. We don’t even know which terrorist group they belonged to or if they belonged to one at all.

I was personally very surprised to see young people standing next to the police, openly recording everything on their phones, with shrapnel and bullets flying around them.

Terrorists — be they leaders or perpetrators — can come from all walks of life, underprivileged or well-educated, so we shouldn’t be particularly surprised by the fact that the sons of the head of the local council were among the attackers.

But you do want to ask what their motivation was for carrying out such an attack. They wanted for nothing in life. They were educated and had money, careers and opportunities. The only thing we can assume is that they became radicalised based on media coverage of Muslims, the people of the Caucasus and Dagestan in general.”

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