Earlier this week, I mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperative to demonstrate control over the part of the Caucasus where the Winter Olympics will be taking place in February 2014.
Two ongoing reasons for that at present involve either unrest or terror attacks.
This map of the Caucasus from Wikipedia clarifies the geography with regard to the content below.
One reason for Putin’s concern has to do with the small region of Abkhazia, whose border is 25 km from Sochi. Abkhazia, which borders the Black Sea, declared its independence during the conflict between Russia and Georgia which detracted attention from the 2008 Olympic Games in Peking. The region is recognised only by Russia and five other states. The Abhkaz people are mentioned further down in the post; they were among the indigenous Circassian groups removed from their homeland in the 19th century by Tsarist Russia.
The other relates to the terror attacks which took place in Volgograd (Stalingrad) on December 29 and 30, 2013. Thirty-four people died, including two children. More than 100 were injured, 20 of them seriously. A tiny baby’s life also hangs in the balance.
In his New Year’s Day address, Putin vowed to defeat the terrorists ‘to their total destruction’.
Le Monde says that the situation is gravely serious. With three suicide bombings in as many months, Volgograd, with its mainly Russian population has become a target of Muslim guerillas from the northern Caucasus, several hundred kilometres away.
On October 21, 2013, a Dagestani woman, Naïda Assialova, 31, let off her explosives in a coach stopping in Volgograd on its way to Moscow. Six people died.
On December 29, another terrorist let off his bomb at the city’s railway station, which was under heavy surveillance. Seventeen people died.
The next day another bomb went off on a trolley bus in the Dzerjinski district two kilometres from the railway station.
Le Monde says that terrorism experts say the attacks bear the hallmark of the Caucasus Emirate.
Stanford University’s Mapping Militant Organisations site tells us that (emphases mine):
The Caucasus Emirate is a Sufi nationalist organization formed in October 2007 by Doku Umarov after he resigned from his position as president of the Republic of Ichkeria (the self-proclaimed secessionist government of Chechnya).
The group aims to have an independent Caucasus Emirate ruled under Shariah and to aid in waging global jihad 
The group consists of six vilayets or provinces that report to their respective emirs who report to the Emir of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov. The six vilayets are all located in the North Caucasus: Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia, Nogay Steppe (Northern Krasnodar Krai and Stavropol Krai), Cherkess and Southern Krasnodar Krai, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay. Upon its creation, the Caucasus Emirate also served as the umbrella for other terrorist organizations from the North Caucasus. These organizations include the Yarmuk (Kabardino-Balkaria) Jamaat, Shariat (Dagestan) Jamaat, and Ingush Jamaat, as well as the martyr brigade, Riyadus-Salikhin, known for suicide bombing …
The Caucasus Emirate is a radical Islamist-Sunni (Salafi) group based in the North Caucasus. In its early stages the Caucasus Emirate’s goal was nationalistic – aiming for secession from the Russian Federation (Chechen Republic of Ichkeria). Now, with the creation of the Caucasus Emirate the group is part and parcel of the global jihadi movement. This change occurred because of the heavy influence from Al Qaeda, Taliban, and Islamic Jihad.
The Russian Federation, the United States and the United Nations have all declared the group a recognised terrorist organisation.
They also denied in 2013 that they had a connection with the two Chechens believed to have been involved in the Boston Marathon bombing.
With regard to the upcoming Winter Olympics, the group issued a video last year calling for attacks during the games, which they said:
That statement refers to the ethnic cleansing of Circassians between the 1860s and early 1870s:
In the middle of the 19th century, large numbers of native inhabitants of the Northwest Caucasus left or were expelled (the reason for their departure is disputed) to the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, following Russian conquest of the region after a long war.
Circassians, the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Caucasus were cleansed from their homeland at the end of the Caucasian War by victorious Russia, which, some argue, by its manner of suppression of the Caucasus directed at the Crimean Tatars and Circassians can be credited with “inventing the strategy of modern ethnic cleansing and genocide”. The expulsion was launched even before the end of the war in 1864 and it continued into the 1870s, although it was mostly completed by 1867. The peoples involved were mainly the Circassians (Adyghe in their own language), Ubykhs, Abkhaz, and Abaza.
Doku Umarov, 49, the Caucasus Emirate’s leader, was linked to the 2004 siege of the school in Beslan.
He also claims to have given orders for the attack on
Moscow airport … nearly two years ago, double suicide bombings on the Moscow subway in 2010, and a 2009 passenger train attack.
As for the Volgograd bombings, Le Monde gives us a summary of the suspects. The man carrying the bomb at the railway station is
Pavel Petchionkine, a Tatar, who sometimes worked as a nurse before joining the Islamic rebellion in Dagestan in 2013.
In March 2013, months before the attack, his parents made several public appeals for him to return home. He replied via YouTube video, wearing a Muslim headcovering and said that he would not; he only wanted to ‘please Allah’ and ‘merit paradise’.
A Russian, Dmitri Sokolov, 21, converted to Islam and was recruited by Islamic rebels. His parents also appealed to him to return home. He was killed in a Special Services Operation in November 2013. Russian security services say he became an explosives expert and gave his wife — the aforementioned Naïda Assialova — instructions for her attack on the coach.
Le Monde says the information they have been given points to a widely spread area of vulnerability for targets of the Caucasus Emirate. Cells are appearing in:
Tatarstan, a Turkish-speaking Muslim region 797 km east of Moscow, all along the Volga, in the Urals and in Western Siberia.
The paper spoke with researcher Alexeï Malachenko from the Carnegie Moscow Center. Last year, he published a study called The Dynamics of Russian Islam. He says:
The northern Caucasus is most often represented as the heartland of radical Islam in Russia. As long as the religious and political situation was relatively stable in other areas of the Federation, Islam’s impact went unnoticed.
Islam in the Volga River region was, he explains:
a tiny island in a vast Orthodox sea.
However, Malachenko warned the situation has changed within recent years:
The demographic shifts as well as migratory flux of Central Asian Muslims to the Urals, Volga region and western Siberia
is increasing the Muslim population such that they could well become the majority religious and cultural group — perhaps more quickly than anticipated.