Ten years since campaign against terror

Ten years ago, militants from the recently-pacified Chechnya invaded the neighboring Russian Republic of Dagestan.

After a month of intense fighting the militants were driven off, but the invasion triggered events that led to the Second Chechen military campaign and a decade that shaped Russia's struggle against terrorism.

It was a storm after almost three years of silence in a troubled region. After a ceasefire was signed in the town of Khasavyurt in 1996 to end the first Chechen military campaign, many expected the Caucasus to return to peace, but things went wrong. The remaining Chechen militants used this time to prepare for another attack, an ambitious plan to seize the entire region.

“We must cut the throats of all Russians here. We need to kick them out of the Caucasus. We’ll kill them all!” said one of the militants to a camera at the time.

I was with my father back then. He took great steps to avert the catastrophe by trying to convince Maskhadov to publicly and harshly condemn the bandits. Father was saying that, by doing so, there might’ve been a chance to at least minimize the consequences, if not prevent the military conflict. But Maskhadov either did not want to do that or could not act upon the suggestion.

Ramzan Kadyrov, Gazeta

On August 7, 1999, 1,500 Chechen militants led by Russia’s most wanted terrorist Shamil Basayev entered the territory of the Republic of Dagestan, next door to Chechnya. Local militia provided little resistance and the Chechens managed to seize several villages in the first few hours. The federal army reacted quickly, though some say it wasn’t quickly enough. Terrorists managed to sneak past the cordons and cause a diversion by attacking a Russian army helicopter base. When a crew from Russia's NTV channel filmed the wounded pilots in a burn centre, doctors said they would live. The next day most of them died.

“The federal troops had a really tough time at first, but then locals formed a resistance militia,” stated Sergey Markedonov from Institute of Military and Political Analysis. “This was the key episode, because without it the Russian army wouldn’t have been so successful in Dagestan.”

As locals stood up to protect their homes from the incursion, the fight moved beyond a confrontation between federal forces and invaders. It was a clash of two branches of Islam: the radical Wahhabism of the militants and the more traditional Sunni faith of the republic.

“I met Basayev in 1999, several months prior to the attack on Dagestan, and warned him that 90% of the republic’s population wouldn’t support his ideas, his export of radical Islam,” remembers Denga Khalidov of the Russian Congress of Caucasian peoples. “The people of Dagestan didn’t welcome separatism and did not see themselves outside of Russia.”

Do you know what surprised me the most? When the Federal troops entered the area, the elders approached the commanders and asked them: "Why aren’t you shooting at the seized villages?" The answer was unexpected. Russian officers said: “We don’t want to damage your homes”. It’s not easy to build a house in the mountains. It takes generations to do that. But the elders’ answer shocked me. They said: "Don’t worry about it."

Vladimir Putin, 2007

With the help of Dagestan’s militia, Russian troops fought fiercely for every village in barely accessible mountain areas. By mid-September, the Chechen fighters were kicked out of the republic. Losses on both sides were many times smaller than the overall death toll in the Caucasian conflicts. Military historians commented, however, that this does not make the month-long fighting any less significant to the region’s future history. It exposed the fact that Chechen militants were not quite ready for peace. What was initially seen as a defensive operation escalated into a major offensive against terrorism.

It is believed that it was in the mountain ridges of Dagestan that the second military operation in Chechnya kicked off. The years which followed saw more fighting in the region and beyond with terrorists conducting several attacks away from the Caucasus. The bloody struggle resulted in the deaths of several key terrorist leaders, and many think that it is one of the reasons why nowadays the region no longer suffers from large-scale hostilities.

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