Holding the Government Accountable

First Reflections on the London Bombing: A View from Moscow

The Russian public is offering condolences to the United Kingdom, following the July 7 terrorist bombings in London. People are bringing flowers to the U.K. embassy in Moscow and the general mood is clearly on the side of victims.

However, expert comments are far more complicated. A very few people, mostly with leftist views, are justifying the terrorists’ actions. But the prevailing opinion is that London itself is, to a great extent, responsible for the attack. London is widely nicknamed “Londonstan” by the Russian expert community. Russian experts widely believe the bombings clearly show that London’s strategy to accommodate dangerous people in the United Kingdom, if they behave nicely, has failed. Thus, in the widespread Russian view, the British government should stop flirting with groups, who, if not terrorists themselves, are at least openly supportive of terror-backing Islamist ideology.

The comments made in the aftermath by Russian President Vladimir Putin perfectly reflect, of course in a diplomatically polished way, these prevailing sentiments. Much of the Russian elite remembers that during both the Beslan terrorist tragedy and the 2002 Dubrovka theater hostage-taking episodes, many Western commentators purposefully avoided calling the hostage-takers “terrorists, ” instead labeling them as “rebels” or even “freedom fighters.” Those memories are enduring. That’s why the message “now you realize whose friends you were calling freedom fighters” is in the air in Moscow. At the same time, Western observers of the Moscow scene should not see this phenomena as falling into gloating, and the commentary in no way undermines what is a general sense of empathy for London and the victims of the attacks.

What is easily noticed is that the Russian political elite, on the basis of the sentiments described above, is expecting clear and major changes in U.K. policies regarding terrorism, especially with regard to the situation in Chechnya. While Moscow is sure that London cannot directly help Russia in its efforts in Chechnya, it expects the British government to take a harder line in balancing liberal freedoms against security with regard to its homeland, and thus abandon blunt criticism of Moscow over Russian responses to terrorism.

The issue of the balance between freedom and security is very much at the center of the Russian debate on terrorism. The prevailing trend of thought is that Russia does not need liberal freedoms if they compromise security. Seen through this very Russian set of eyeglasses, the July 7 attacks mean that London should finally understand this line of thinking and begin to revise its own internal policies. At the same time, the bombings have elicited a stream of Russian commentary seeking to justify Russia’s own compromises of democracy for the sake of security.

However, the terrorist attacks on London pose fundamental questions about the nature of Islamist terrorist networks and the way they make decisions. What is not clear in London, and indeed for all the major terrorist acts since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, is who chooses targets and based on what logic. The dominating view in Moscow, supported by the level of destruction from the attacks on New York and Washington, Bali, Madrid, Beslan and London, is that al-Qaida headquarters decides when and where the next attack is to come. Still, the string of attacks after Sept. 11 does not indicate that there is any clear logic and/or strategy in the choice of targets. Therefore, an alternative view has room to exist: that is, al-Qaida has only two assets – a brand name and an ideological concept. The group is responsible for symbols of world jihad, while operations as such are developed and implemented by low-level, independent groups. The al-Qaida headquarters solicits jihad activities, but does not develop concrete attacks – rather it probably simply receives proposals from known and new groups on the place and time of a planned attack, and perhaps then agrees to lend its al-Qaida brand and world jihad ideology.

Unfortunately, Western and even Russian understanding about how al-Qaida functions remains poor. However, the London bombings show that improving knowledge about how the network works is ever more important. The Western efforts to combat al-Qaida in the wake of Sept. 11 were very much focused on interrupting the work of the group’s headquarters operations in Afghanistan. The inability to really impede the functionality of al-Qaida may reflect not failure in Afghanistan per se, but rather the general misunderstanding of network operations and decision-making. Al-Qaida increasingly looks more like a franchise, where most initiatives come from the lower level, while the core focuses on brand-building, marketing and soliciting (a surrogate for advertising). If such a view is accurate, new strategies for combating jihadist terrorism will be necessary.

Author: Ivan Safranchuk