The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule
In 2000 Sergei Kovalev, then the widely respected head of the Russian organization Memorial, observed in these pages that the apartment bombings in Russia in September 1999, which killed three hundred people and wounded hundreds of others, “were a crucial moment in the unfolding of our current history. After the first shock passed, it turned out that we were living in an entirely different country….”1
The bombings, it will be recalled, were blamed on Chechen rebels and used as a pretext for Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin to launch a bloody second war against Chechnya, a republic in the Russian Federation. They also were crucial events in promoting Vladimir Putin’s takeover of the Russian presidency as Yeltsin’s anointed successor in 2000 and in ensuring his dominance over the Russian political scene ever since.
As John Dunlop points out in The Moscow Bombings of September 1999, the attacks were the equivalent for Russians of September 11, 2001, for Americans. They aroused a fear of terrorism—along with a desire for revenge against the Chechens—that Russians had not known since Stalin used the supposed terrorist threat as a pretext to launch his bloody purges of the 1930s. Yet unlike in the American case, Russian authorities have stonewalled all efforts to investigate who was behind these acts of terror and why they happened. In the words of Russian journalist Yuliya Kalinina: “The Americans several months after 11 September 2001 already knew everything—who the terrorists were and where they come from…. We in general know nothing.”
Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, seeks in his book to provide the “spade work” for an official Russian inquiry, if it ever were to be initiated (a highly doubtful proposition as long as Putin remains in power). He draws on investigative reporting by Russian journalists, accounts of Russian officials in law enforcement agencies, eyewitness testimony, and the analyses of Western journalists and academics. The evidence he provides makes an overwhelming case that Russian authorities were complicit in these horrific attacks.2
Dunlop explains why the political situation in which the terrorist attacks took place is crucial for understanding them. Yeltsin and his “Family” (an entourage that included his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin adviser Valentin Yumashev, who later married Tatyana, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and Aleksandr Voloshin, head of the presidential administration) were facing a huge crisis by the spring of 1999. Yeltsin was in ailing health and suffering from alcoholism. His popularity had fallen steeply and there was a strong possibility that his political base—a loose movement called “Unity”—would lose the parliamentary and presidential elections (respectively scheduled for December 1999 and March 2000). Yeltsin and his two daughters were facing reports charging that they had large amounts of money in secret bank accounts abroad through illegal transactions with a Swiss construction firm called Mabetex. And Berezovsky was under investigation for embezzlement when he had been running Aeroflot.
The Family’s solution to its dilemma, according to Dunlop, was a plan to destabilize Russia and possibly cancel or postpone the elections after declaring a state of emergency. In June 1999, two Western journalists, Jan Blomgren of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and Giulietto Chiesa, the respected, longtime Moscow correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, reported that there was going to be an act of “state terrorism” in Russia. The goal would be to instill fear and panic in the population. Chiesa wrote:
With a high degree of certitude, one can say that the explosions of bombs killing innocent people are always planned by people with political minds who are interested in destabilizing the situation in a country…. It could be foreigners… but it could also be “our own people” trying to frighten the country.
These reports were followed in July by an article by the Russian journalist Aleksandr Zhilin in the national paper Moskovskaya pravda warning that there would be terrorist attacks in Moscow. Citing a leaked Kremlin document, Zhilin wrote that the purpose would be to derail Yeltsin’s political opponents, in particular Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, and the former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. Zhilin’s information (appearing in an article entitled “Storm in Moscow”) was ignored. What he claimed appeared to be unthinkable.
Berezovsky, who fled to London in 2000 after a falling-out with Putin, was at the time, according to Dunlop, the mastermind of a plan to destabilize Russia (although not necessarily by using bombs to kill innocent people). He paid huge ransoms to extremist Chechen separatists to gain the release of Russian hostages, thereby undermining the more moderate political forces in Chechnya and encouraging an invasion of the neighboring republic of Dagestan, in August 1999, by Chechen rebel forces. According to Dunlop’s evidence, the Kremlin sponsored the incursion into Dagestan in order to provoke a conflict with Chechnya. This would provide an excuse to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections. As numerous firsthand reports attested, the rebels were allowed into and out of Dagestan without hindrance.
Vladimir Putin, named acting Russian prime minister in August 1999, had a central part in carrying out the Dagestan operation. Putin had gained the favor of the Family and thus been anointed as Yeltsin’s successor. As head of the FSB—the successor of the KGB—before he became prime minster, he had demonstrated his loyalty to Yeltsin by managing to get Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Skuratov, who was pursuing the Mabetex corruption scandal, removed from office. Putin’s FSB had also started a campaign against the rich wife of Yury Luzhkov, Elena Baturina, by investigating one of her companies for money-laundering.
But Putin was unknown to the Russian public. If elections were to take place—and this apparently had yet to be decided upon—his chances were by no means certain. In order for the Family’s “operation successor” to succeed, something would have to occur to boost Putin’s public image and demonstrate his capacity for strong leadership. The invasion of Dagestan by Chechen rebels failed to have the desired effect of arousing widespread anti-Chechen sentiment. As Dunlop’s sources said, more violence was needed to justify a war against Chechnya, which would unite people around the new prime minister.
The Moscow Bombings makes it clear, first of all, that the FSB had advanced knowledge that the bombings would take place. As we have seen, rumors of impending terrorist attacks had surfaced as early as June 1999. Even more significant is the fact that a respected and influential Duma deputy, Konstantin Borovoy, was told on September 9, the day of the first Moscow apartment bombing, that there was to be a terrorist attack in the city. His source was an officer of the Russian military intelligence (GRU). Borovoy transmitted this information to FSB officials serving on Yeltsin’s Security Council, but he was ignored. At least one other credible warning of an impending attack was reported to law enforcement agencies in Moscow that same day and not acted upon.
Immediately after the September 13 explosion in Moscow, Putin claimed that the people responsible for the bombings in the Dagestan town of Buinaksk and Moscow were most likely terrorists who were connected with Osama bin Laden and had been trained in Chechnya. Some days later, on September 25, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev echoed this theme in the pages of the newspaper Moskovskii komsomolets. Responding to suggestions in the Russian press that his agency was behind the bombings, he wrote: “The organizers are not some mythical conspirators in the Kremlin, but completely concrete international terrorists dug into Chechnya.” The FSB and the Russian Procuracy later identified the masterminds of all the attacks as two Arab mercenaries, Al-Khattab and Abu Umar, who were subsequently killed in Chechnya.
But the official explanations did not quell suspicions about FSB complicity among liberal, anti-Yeltsin journalists who were already making their own investigations. Their suspicions were intensified by a strange incident that occurred on September 22 in the city of Ryazan, about a hundred miles southeast of Moscow.3 Residents of an apartment complex had reported unusual activity in the basement and observed that three people in a car with partially papered-over license plates had unloaded sacks whose contents they couldn’t make out. A professional bomb squad arrived and discovered that the sacks contained not only sugar but also explosives, including hexogen, and that a detonator was attached. After the sacks were examined and removed, they were sent by the local FSB to Moscow.
The entire apartment building was evacuated. Local authorities found the car used by the three who had planted the explosives, a white Zhiguli, in a nearby parking lot. To their astonishment the license plates were traced to the FSB. And when they apprehended two of the suspects, it turned out that they were FSB employees, who were soon released on orders from Moscow.
After a day and a half of silence, Patrushev announced on television that the apparent bomb had been part of a “training exercise” and that the sacks contained only sugar. The local Ryazan FSB and regular police, who had been combing the city for more explosives, expressed outrage. In the words of one police official: “Our preliminary tests showed the presence of explosives…. As far as we were concerned, the danger was real.”
If this incident was in fact just an exercise, it is difficult to understand why Vladimir Rushailo, the Russian minister of interior, who headed an antiterrorism commission, knew nothing about it beforehand. Shortly before Patrushev’s announcement, Rushailo spoke publicly about the terrorist act that had been planned in Ryazan and praised the people of that city for thwarting it. As Dunlop and many others have concluded, the materials discovered in Ryazan were the makings of a real bomb, and the FSB was caught in the act. In the light of this evidence, Dunlop writes, it has become all the more likely that the September terrorist attacks were also the FSB’s work.
As Sergei Kovalev, who in 2002 created an unofficial commission to investigate the bombings, made clear, the authorities put out a great deal of disinformation but actually did little to refute the claims of FSB involvement. The trials of those accused of taking part in the Moscow and Volgodonsk plots were closed, so the evidence against the alleged terrorists was never made public. (The Buinaksk trial, in which six persons, all from Dagestan, were found guilty, was public, but, as Dunlop reports, the investigators routinely used physical coercion to extort confessions.)
In the first trial of the alleged attackers in Moscow, which began in May 2001, five residents of the North Caucasian Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia were charged with preparing the explosives used in the bombs and sentenced to life. At a second trial, held in 2003–2004, two other defendants from that same republic were found guilty of terrorism, again with the documents and even the full sentence in the case kept secret. These same two defendants were charged with carrying out the Volgodonsk bombings. It is worth noting that in the Moscow cases, none of the accused had been physically present in the city around the time of the explosions, and none of those charged in any of the cases was an ethnic Chechen.
1 See Sergei Kovalev, “ Putin’s War,” The New York Review, February 10, 2000. The first apartment bombing occurred in Buinaksk, a city in Dagestan, on September 4, followed by two in Moscow, on September 9 and September 13, and an explosion in the city of Volgodonsk on September 16. An earlier bombing at a Moscow shopping center on August 31, which killed one and injured thirty-nine, was not linked by Russian officials at the time to Chechen terrorists, as were the September attacks. In 2009, two men allegedly connected with Chechen separatists were convicted of this bombing. ↩
2 As the book’s title suggests, Dunlop’s focus is on what happened in Moscow, but also addresses the other two bombings. ↩
3 In addition to his own exhaustive research, Dunlop draws here and elsewhere on two key sources: Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Fel’shtinsky, FSB vzryvaet Rossiyu (The FSB Blows Up Russia) (Liberty, 2002); and David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale University Press, 2003). The book by Litvinenko and Fel’shtinsky appeared in English in 2007, a year after Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning in London. ↩
See Sergei Kovalev, “ Putin’s War,” The New York Review, February 10, 2000. The first apartment bombing occurred in Buinaksk, a city in Dagestan, on September 4, followed by two in Moscow, on September 9 and September 13, and an explosion in the city of Volgodonsk on September 16. An earlier bombing at a Moscow shopping center on August 31, which killed one and injured thirty-nine, was not linked by Russian officials at the time to Chechen terrorists, as were the September attacks. In 2009, two men allegedly connected with Chechen separatists were convicted of this bombing. ↩
As the book’s title suggests, Dunlop’s focus is on what happened in Moscow, but also addresses the other two bombings. ↩
In addition to his own exhaustive research, Dunlop draws here and elsewhere on two key sources: Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Fel’shtinsky, FSB vzryvaet Rossiyu (The FSB Blows Up Russia) (Liberty, 2002); and David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale University Press, 2003). The book by Litvinenko and Fel’shtinsky appeared in English in 2007, a year after Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning in London. ↩