The siege of a Russian school is now over, with hundreds of children dead and wounded. As in the past, Russia’s terrorists have shown themselves to be a particularly ugly strain of the disease of terrorism, specializing in tormenting the most helpless and vulnerable. Worse, Arab terrorists from abroad have now made their mark in Russia, cooperating with their Chechen colleagues in the murder of children. (The school seizure is reminiscent of a Chechen attempt in 1995 to hold an entire hospital hostage, another low point in the despicable history of terrorism.) This latest display of sadism follows Russia’s very own version of 9/11 in which two jetliners were simultaneously blasted from the sky, and then the bombing of a Moscow subway station. Fortunately, the reaction so far in the civilized world’s capitals, including Washington (and yes, Bonn and Paris, too) has been the appropriate one, recognizing that Russia has once again been scarred by the most barbaric form of terror and offering to stand by Russia’s side.
Although the attacks in Russia took fewer lives than 9/11–and it must be noted that since 9/11 it is Russia, not America, that has suffered some of the worst attacks by Islamic extremists–they are nonetheless important reminders of several realities in the global war on terror.
Most important, this sort of animalistic attack against defenseless children forces us to remember that we are fighting not only particular groups with various agendas linked to Islamofascism, but we are also struggling to extinguish the method of armed conflict called “terrorism.” Despite the criticism leveled at him for saying it, President Bush was correct to accept that such a complete victory is probably impossible. Terror cannot be disinvented any more than telephones can be. But groups that use terrorism can be defeated, regardless of their cause or the putative justice of their claims.
Let us stipulate (as is apparently required in every discussion of terror in Russia) that Moscow’s behavior in Chechnya has been replete with war crimes and atrocities in a blood feud that seems to have no end. Let us admit as well that the Chechens have legitimate grievances against Moscow that go back over a century, even before their victimization by Stalin in the 1940s. But these can no longer be the issue, just as the various complaints against America in the Middle East ceased to be an issue on 9/11. As gruesome a distinction as it is to make, the indiscriminate violence and even criminal methods used by the Russian government in a grisly civil war pale beside a strategy that relies on the intentional mass murder of children. Calls for the Russian government to throw in the towel and negotiate Chechen independence are well-meaning but foolish, especially now that Arab terrorists have joined the fight. Such demands are repudiated by the dead schoolchildren of Beslan, who remind us that concepts like “root causes” and “justification” matter little once the killing begins. The goal of any conflict with terrorists must be to reinforce the message that the use of terror will produce only swift, effective–and measured–retaliation.
Unfortunately, in the Russian case this may produce only more of the excessive violence that Moscow has already used in the region, and negotiation is for the time being essentially impossible in any case. But Russia’s mini-9/11 and the subsequent attacks aided by foreign terrorists against subway riders, teachers, and kids should lead to the conclusion that this war is not specifically against Chechens or Shiites or anyone else, but rather against any group that would use such methods at all. The conflict with Islamic extremism in Russia as elsewhere is a violent war because the methods of the extremists have made it one. In Russia in particular the terrorists have again significantly upped the ante (a strategy that began with the hostage seizure of a downtown Moscow theater in 2002). This is a tragedy not only for all Russians, but especially for the majority of Chechens who genuinely desire to live in peace.
Perhaps the most important reminder from Russia’s tragic summer is that terror is not the product of individuals, but networks, and that terror groups really are linked to each other. So far, no less than ten of the hostage takers in Beslan have been identified as Arabs, raising the specter of al Qaeda ties and undermining the credibility of Moscow’s critics who would cast this as purely related to the aspirations of an oppressed minority in the Russian Federation. Despite skepticism in some corners (The Economist, for example, has predictably waved away any suggestions of international terrorism and instead placed the blame squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin), foreign jihadists have been present in Chechnya for years, and many Russians are saying what ought to be obvious to us all: that this latest string of attacks shows the internationalized nature of the terror threat.
The Russian airliner attack in particular has all the fingerprints of an al Qaeda operation, and it would be surprising if foreign operatives were not involved as well in its planning or execution. (At the very least, the terrorists in the Russian hijacking were emulating the tactics of 9/11.) It is poor strategic logic to believe that the war against Islamic terrorists can be fenced off into discrete theaters–especially when since it seems unlikely that these groups themselves view their struggle in such particularistic ways. But even if there were no formal links between such groups, their shared use of terror as a strategy means that a fight against one of them is part of a fight against them all.
This is an especially important realization for Russia, which is surrounded by porous borders with the Islamic world. But it should matter to the rest of the world, too: there is no way (nor has there been for a long time) to simply make Russian terror a “Chechen” issue, anymore than the fight to overthrow the Taliban was merely an “Afghan” issue or the liberation and reconstruction of Iraq is merely an “Iraqi” issue. Radical Islamic terrorism is a multinational phenomenon, and the tactics of its leading practitioners are now clearly finding their way around the world into a variety of conflicts. No one can argue that it is preferable for the international community accordingly to act in concert in destroying such groups. But they must be destroyed, one way or another, and states that act against terrorists of any kind should be recognized as acting for the good of all.
Hopefully, the Russians and others, particularly among our critics in Europe, will see in this latest attack the reality that the future of their security lies in this kind of united effort against terrorists wherever they may be. (The Russians especially must have the discipline now to act as the Americans did in Afghanistan after 9/11: deliberately and decisively, but also carefully and most important proportionately.) And as unkind as it may be to say at such a tragic time, these attacks should also confirm once and for all that a Western nation’s political posture can do nothing to insulate it from terrorism. Russia’s unwise attempt to save Saddam Hussein and to curry favor with the French and the Germans in the run-up to the Second Gulf War means nothing to Islamic extremists both inside and outside of Russia who intend to gain control of Chechnya. No nation–whatever its policies, even toward the United States–is safe from evil people willing to use the most extreme forms of political violence. The world seemed to understand this after America’s summer of terror in 2001; it is a truth rediscovered in the wake of Russia’s summer of 2004.
Tom Nichols is chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War. The views are those of the author and not of any agency of the U.S. government.