A Spreading War

They came early in the morning. More than a hundred, and perhaps as many as 500 armed men attacking the quiet Russian town of Nalchik in the shadow of Europe's highest mountain. A bloody battle over the next 36 hours saw dozens dead and left Kremlin policy in the turbulent region in tatters. Yet another of the poor, volatile republics spread across the North Caucasus had been hit by an event of extreme violence and shocking brutality, and yet again the culprits were Islamic militants. Their numbers are growing, says Alexei Malashenko at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "They can appear and attack anywhere."

The war in Chechnya is spreading. Until recently, neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria seemed exempt from the region's turmoil. Its capital, Nalchik, is a stopping point for tourists on their way to climb 5,642-meter Mount Elbrus; residents went about their lives, largely unperturbed by terrorism. But last week, like an army, the militants attacked. Their targets were government offices--headquarters of the security services, police stations, the Interior Ministry and the airport. Fighting closed down the city as President Vladimir Putin gave orders to kill anyone resisting arrest or trying to escape while Russian forces moved in.

For much of Thursday, Nalchik was a war zone. Commuters blundered into gunfire in the town center. Militants commandeered a tractor to break into a gun shop, fittingly named Arsenal. Smoke plumed from office buildings as police hunkered on the ground from flying bullets. By Friday afternoon, according to official figures, 92 of the attackers were dead, along with 12 civilians and 24 law-enforcement officials.

Putin praised his forces for fighting off the insurgents--and was quick to show himself in command. But there was criticism, even so. "The fact that more than 100 rebels converged and attacked the city in broad daylight is clearly an intelligence failure," says Simon Saradzhyan, director of research at the Eurasian Security Studies Center in Moscow. The security forces' quick response was encouraging, he added, but suggested that in itself is not enough. "We must also have a system of prevention and interdiction," lest there be more such incidents.

That seems almost inevitable. One by one, the republics of the North Caucasus have been hit by a whirlwind of violence from Islamic extremists. Last week's events came just over a year after Chechen militants seized a school in Beslan, in neighboring northern Ossetia, ending in the deaths of 331 hostages. Nearby Dagestan, a jigsaw republic with dozens of nationalities and increasing clan tension, has seen almost daily shootings. The attack on Nalchik most resembled the assault on the Ingushetian capital of Nazran in June last year, when more than a hundred militants led by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev, the man who organized the Beslan attack, entered the town and killed 70 law-enforcement officials.

This time, particularly in contrast to Beslan, the militants appeared to avoid killing civilians. According to some accounts, terrorists instructed passersby to get out of the way and said they were interested only in killing police. It remains unclear who organized the assault. Witnesses say there were Chechens and Arabs among the attackers; many reportedly wore long beards, the hallmark of Islamic jihadists. But most appear to have been Kabardins. A Chechen rebel Web site claimed the attack was the work of Yarmuk, the local branch of a regional network of militants called the Caucasus Front. In any event, the operation appears to be the first major maneuver of the new Chechen rebel leader and cleric Abdul-Khalim Saydullayev, who has vowed to spread the war throughout the region and create an Islamic caliphate.

Clearly, Moscow has been mishandling an explosive situation. Beset by poverty and ethnic strife, the North Caucasus has long been fertile ground for religious extremism. But government oppression--and corruption--has exacerbated problems. Kabardino-Balkaria is a perfect example. The republic is poverty-stricken and divided ethnically, with minority Balkars filling the ranks of militant groups. Muslim Balkars were deported in 1943 because of Soviet suspicions that they would rebel and aid the Nazis during the war. When they returned, they found themselves a minority among native Kabardins, also mainly Muslim, and immigrant Russians. Tensions have been kept in check under the rule of an autocratic strongman appointed by the Kremlin and determined to crush all political and religious opposition. In 2004, most of the mosques in the republic were closed, save for those run by clerics favored by the state--and even there, prayers are in Russian. Hundreds of Islamic activists have been arrested, often accused of terrorism. Meanwhile, ordinary Muslims in Nalchik and other cities complain of harassment by Russian authorities, whether it's young women wearing the traditional higab or students studying Arabic or the Qur'an.

It's unclear to what extent, if any, angry local activists participated in last week's attack. Authorities have accused a Muslim cleric named Mussa Mukozhoyev, the self-proclaimed emir of the Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria and founder of an underground Islamic group called Jamaat, who is currently in hiding. Yet Mukozhoyev is widely known to be a moderate. "We are not fools. We don't want to bring the Chechen war into our homes," he told NEWSWEEK last year. But even then, he explained, it was becoming harder and harder to hold back extremists intent on jihad against the Russians they considered to be their oppressors. Those radicals went on to form Yarmuk, according to Akhmed Yarlykapov at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, which launched a series of smaller attacks on police and other symbols of government in Nalchik in 2004.

Despite last week's explosion, experts say that the radicalization of Kabardino-Balkaria and other republics could still be reversed if some autonomy were allowed. "Putin needs to address the root causes of extremism," says Saradzhyan. "These are not just poverty and unemployment among the youth. It is, foremost, resentment over the oppression of political and religious freedoms." If he doesn't, the attack on Nalchik will not be the last.