Russia Shows What Happens When Terrorists’ Families Are Targeted


Moscow: Donald J. Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, was widely condemned when he called for the United States to “take out the families” of terrorists.

His approach — even after he clarified that he was not talking about killing the relatives — was dismissed by many as immoral and unlawful. Yet, it is the very tactic that Russia has pursued for decades.

It is the signature, though officially unacknowledged, policy behind Moscow’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies, and Russia’s actions in smashing a Muslim separatist rebellion in the Caucasus provide a laboratory for testing Mr. Trump’s ideas.

The family ties that bind in terrorist groups came into focus last week after the police in Brussels disclosed that two of the three suicide bombers in the attacks there were brothers, Ibrahim and Khalid el-Bakraoui. All told, analysts estimate that a third of the participants in terrorist acts are related to another attacker.

In the conflict that began in Chechnya and has since metastasized into a loosely organized Islamic rebellion throughout the Caucasus region, Russian security services routinely arrest, torture and kill relatives, rights groups say.

The Russian approach, enough to make supporters of waterboarding wince, has by some accounts been grimly effective. Abductions of family members unwound the rebel leadership in Chechnya, for example.

And siblings have a bloody track record here, as elsewhere.

In 2004, Chechen sisters blew themselves up in an airplane and a subway station a week apart. In 2011, the police say, a teenager and his older sister from Ingushetia, another troubled region, helped build a bomb that their brother exploded in the unguarded arrivals hall of Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, killing himself and 36 other people.

In the Russian view, the family is the thread that needs to be pulled to unravel the terrorist group.

“He should understand his relatives will be treated as accomplices,” Kirill V. Kabanov, a member of President Vladimir V. Putin’s human rights council, said of a potential suicide attacker.

“When a person leaves to become a terrorist, he can kill hundreds of innocents,” he said. “Those are the morals we are talking about. We should understand, the relatives must fight this first. If the relative, before the fact, reported it, he is not guilty. If he did not, he is guilty.”

By law, Russian security services have no authority to specifically target relatives. But the intelligence forces seldom let a detail like the lack of a legal basis interfere with their activities.

In Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan, they routinely burn or demolish the houses of people suspected of being insurgents or terrorists. Most strikingly, whole extended families are rounded up in high-profile cases, and are often held until the militant either gives up or is killed.

Maryam Akmedova, from Kabardino-Balkaria region in the North Caucasus, has seen it firsthand. Distressing though it was, she says she understood when Russian prosecutors accused her eldest son of participating in a terrorist attack, as he had never denied his involvement.

But her woes hardly stopped there.

Soon enough, security agents were questioning her younger son, though there was no evidence linking him to the attack his brother was accused of in the city of Nalchik in 2005. Eventually, the younger brother was shot and killed in 2013 by Russian security forces during an attempted arrest under murky circumstances.

“He had no involvement with anything,” Ms. Akmedova said in a telephone interview. “They killed him because his brother was in prison.”

The most sweeping application of the tactic came during the pacification of Chechnya, after Mr. Putin engineered the recapture of the separatist territory early in his tenure.

Relatives were used as “hooks” to lure in militants. If the militant did not switch sides, the family member disappeared. Chechnya had about 3,000 to 5,000 unresolved disappearances from 2000 to 2005 or so. The policy, executed by the Chechen leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, the scion of a prominent Chechen family that itself switched sides, broke the organized resistance.

The Russian security services have also manipulated relatives for various ends, such as to inadvertently pass poisoned food to suspected militants on the run.

The practice, not surprisingly, has spawned dozens of cases in the European Court of Human Rights and widespread criticism of tactics that, while seemingly effective in the short term, have deeply alienated extended families whose members bear grudges to this day.

“There is systematic abuse of the family members of insurgents,” Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, and an expert on the Caucasus, said in a telephone interview.

“There can be short-term results, but I wouldn’t call it success,” she said. “You can prevent some episodes of violence at the moment, but you are radicalizing whole communities.”

“When innocent Muslims are targeted for the expediency of security services, this legitimizes the jihadist cause,” she said.

Ms. Akmedova explained how the sense of injustice and outrage develops. After her younger son was killed in 2013, she said, the police came by and told her and her son’s widow that the grandchildren, despite being in kindergarten and elementary school, would be put on watch lists.

“The children go to kindergarten,” Ms. Akmedova, 63, a retired drugstore clerk, said. “They are no different from any other children.”

In perhaps the highest-profile operation, Russian security services detained in 2004 several dozen members of the extended family of the Chechen rebel defense minister, Magomed Khambiyev, including the wives of his brothers. Aslanbek Khambiyev, a 19-year-old cousin with no known ties, other than familial, was abducted from a university, beaten semiconscious and shoved from a car in the rebel leader’s home village.

“Yes, they detained my relatives,” Magomed Khambiyev told the Kommersant newspaper after he surrendered to save their lives. “But they were guilty. Do you understand? Because they were my relatives.”

“If I’m a bandit, then they’re bandits, too,” he explained.

(The New York Times)