Digging In For Worse To Come

The explosion, a few seconds before midnight on Wednesday, leveled most of a nine-story apartment complex beside the Moscow River. By Friday night, 90 people had been confirmed dead, and authorities were claiming that 220 kilos of high explosives had caused the blast. The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, did not hesitate to declare it the work of terrorists, the third major bomb attack on Russian soil since Sept. 1, when a late-night explosion at a shopping mall just outside the Kremlin left one woman dead. On the evening of Sept. 4 another bomb flattened an apartment block popular among Russian military families in the city of Buinaksk, in the embattled Caucasus Republic of Dagestan, killing 60.

A disturbingly familiar pattern seems to be emerging. Ever since some 500 armed Islamic guerrillas crossed into Dagestan from Chechnya early last month and seized two villages, Russia has found itself embroiled in an escalating armed conflict in the Caucasus--evoking memories of Chechnya's own bloody two-year war. The rebels' stated aim is to create a fundamentalist Islamic republic encompassing Dagestan and Chechnya; the latter is now effectively independent from Moscow. On Sept. 4 Russia's new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, announced that Russian troops had all but eradicated the rebels. He had barely finished speaking before the bomb went off in Buinaksk. A few hours later a new wave of 2,000 holy warriors captured four more villages. Now the rash of explosions is raising worries that renewed unrest in the Caucasus could spawn an all-out terror campaign.

The thought gives chills to security officials. Of course, Dagestan's rebels are hardly the only bombing suspects in Russia these days; the place is squirming with crank political groups and mafia vendettas. But in 1996, at the height of the Chechnya war, 12 people died in two still-unsolved bombings in Moscow. How high might the toll go this time?

The rebels have two known leaders: the renegade Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and another commander, possibly from Jordan or Saudi Arabia, a shadowy member of the fundamentalist Wahabi sect with the nom de guerre Khattab. Last week Russia's Interior minister, Vladimir Rushailo, conferred by phone with the American FBI chief, Louis Freeh, about Khattab's suspected links with one of the world's most notorious reputed terrorists: the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden. Investigators may soon have more answers; late last week they reportedly detained two suspects in the Sept. 9 explosion.

Even so, no one thinks the case is closed--and the war itself is hardly over. Dagestan is far more strategically vital than Chechnya: the Russians can build a bypass around Chechnya for Caspian Sea oil; Dagestan, however, lies athwart the only Russian route from Baku. The Russian Army's challenge is to keep from making things worse. So far most Dagestanis, a hodgepodge of 32 disparate ethnic groups, seem in favor of staying in Russia. But their mood could shift if Russian troops destroy homes and property as brutally as they did during the war in Chechnya. Putin keeps promising that the uprising in Dagestan will soon be crushed. Yet his forces seem to be preparing for a long fight, digging trenches and tank emplacements just outside Makhachkala, the republic's capital. It could be a wise precaution. But who will protect Moscow?