Moscow Failing To Counter Islamists’ Psychological War, Markedonov Says


The failure of the Russian powers that be to understand Doku Umarov’s statements about the Moscow metro terrorist attacks highlights a broader and more serious shortcoming: Moscow’s inability to understand the nature of the psychological war being waged against it and thus its inability to counter that war effectively.

In an interview posted on the Svobodnaya pressa portal yesterday, Sergey Markedonov, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful commentators on the North Caucasus, argues that statements by someone like Doku Umarov should not be analyzed according to “formal logic” but rather considered in terms of his message and intended audience (

Markedonov, the deputy director of the Institute of Military and Political Analysis, says that observers need to understand that “the structure of the contemporary terrorist communities not the military organization of the [Russian] socialist revolutionaries of the beginning of the 20th century.”

It is “not a centralized structure in which a general gives an order and all the officers and soldiers run to fulfill it. In the Caucasus today, there are many autonomous Islamist cells which act without any reference to Doku Umarov.” And consequently, he may have been directly involved or he may have found out about this action only after the fact and taken credit.

Umarov’s first statement, in which he disclaimed responsibility, has some “stylistic” features which do not correspond to his status. He is “a leader of the Islamists and not the Chechen separatists,” Markedonov says, even though many in Russia and the West “incorrectly” call him “the leader of the Chechen separatists.”

Umarov “is not struggling for the separation of Chechnya; he is struggling for global jihad,” the Moscow analyst points out, and “in this sense, his ideology is more similar to that of the well-known Al Qaeda than to nationalism.” Thus, his remark in the first declaration that “the Chechens are not guilty” sounds false.

It is clear from all Umarov says, Markedonov continues, that he “does not consider himself as simply a Chechen; he considers himself a participant in the Islamic response, as they express it, to ‘the world of Satanism,’” a world in which Russia is viewed as lining up “with the West and Israel.”

Asked whether that means that observers should ignore Umarov’s disclaimer, the Moscow specialist responds with disbelief. Why should one do that? he asks rhetorically. Umarov is opposed to the Chechen regime of Ramzan Kadyrov just as much as he is opposed to the one in Moscow.

Russians need to finally recognize that “Chechen separatism ended already in Beslan in 2004.” Now, Russians face a different and more frightening enemy: Islamists drawn from many nationalities. The ideology of this movement is “inter-ethnic,” and for the Islamists, it doesn’t matter who you are “on the fifth point,” as long as you “stand for Islam.”

Markedonov says that Umarov’s references to Chechens are not evidence of his Chechen nationalism or a desire to play the role of “Robin Hood” but rather an indication that Umarov views his actions as part of “an information war” that is to a large extent “virtual” because it occurs online and one in which it is useful to defend “humanist ideals.”

That is something Russians do not yet appear to understand. “If you are in this information space, you exist; if you are not there, then you do not exist at all,” a reality that means those who decline to fight this war as an information war are fated to lose at least this kind of battle.

“Umarov is active in this information space,” Markedonov points out, “and what are we opposing to him? What are our counter-actions? Statements suggesting that the Georgians did this? Listen: this is not even funny.” And it is in terms of the principles of information war that Umarov’s words must be interpreted.
If one does that, the Moscow analyst continues, then is possible that “personally Umarov may not have been behind it” or even been knowledgeable about the plans for it in advance. But first denial and then assumption of responsible reflects his position as the articulator of the Islamist ideology.

Because the Imamate of the Caucasus is “a virtual structure,” Markedonov says, Umarov’s role as its ideological spokesman is important to understand. The network structure of the imamate, unlike terrorist groups in the past, including that of the Chechens in the early 1990s, is completely different.

“The Islamists do not need to keep under arms thousands of people,” the Moscow analyst points out. “They do not plan military operations like those that the Chechen separatists did.” Instead, they use suicide bombers and diversionary actions, maneuvers that “require relatively small means and small groups.

“Therefore,” Markedonov says bluntly, “I can perfectly well allow that Umarov may have found out about this later or not know about it. But the task of showing that the Islamists are a quite strong structure is one that Umarov, the tsar of the terrorists, fulfilled” by his statements, given how much attention they have attracted.
Russians are especially poorly equipped to understand this, Markedonov argues. Because they “have grown under conditions of a political vertical,” they “do not understand how another arrangement can exist.” But the history of terrorism elsewhere provides numerous examples of how its adepts use a network system in which information war is key.

Umarov understands this perfectly, Markedonov continues, and he knows that “people accept information which appears in virtual space as reliable even if real life contradicts it.” Thus “the role of Umarov is great,” and the failure of Moscow to understand and counter what he is saying troubling.

Today, “from the site of the Russian powers that be,” he says, “we do not see an adequate response. We do not see that the powers that be understand with whom they are fighting.” In this situation, “psychological victory” is the most important thing. Moscow must show that the terrorists are “not heroes” but rather “weak,” “amoral” and enemies of Islam.

But Russian officials are “not conducting any work in this direction,” Markedonov says. “The spiritual administration of Muslims is extremely passive; theologically, they cannot stand up to the radicals [because] they have a poor system of arguments,” And the media, besides talking about “friendship of the peoples” offers no “new approaches” for the North Caucasus.

Counter-terrorist operations work, he insists, only when the powers that be understand this and act upon it. Asked if Israel with its use of overwhelming police power does not represent a counter-example, Markedonov says that Israel is not trying to “integrate the Arab population of Gaza into Jewish society; these territories are called occupied.”

“But the North Caucasus is not an occupied territory.” And consequently Moscow must “integrate it and create something more original than that provided by support for corrupt powers that be at the local level.” Consequently, Moscow needs to growth in strength, not in military terms but ideologically if it is to have any hope of winning.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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