A massive overnight attack by gunmen in the Russian republic of Chechnya has shown that the local Islamist insurgency is not defeated, contrary to previous statements from iron-fisted regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
The city of Grozny once again saw scenes reminiscent of its past bloodshed as armed men rampaged through the streets, seizing buildings and sparking gun battles that left at least 20 people dead, most of them militants or members of the security forces.
The attack, which was the largest in the restive North Caucasus region since a raid on the city of Nalchik in 2005, could point to an uptick in insurgent activity due in part to the return of locals from Syria and Iraq, where hundreds of Chechens and Dagestanis from Russia have been fighting on the side of the Islamic State, analysts said.
Moscow has conducted two bloody wars against nationalist and Islamist rebels in Chechnya, and as Kadyrov's feared security services cracked down there in recent years, militant violence shifted largely to the nearby Dagestan region. But the supposed calm in Chechnya was shaken by a suicide bombing during a local holiday in the capital of Grozny on October 5 that killed five people and injured 12, and Thursday's gun battle in the city seems to have shattered any remaining hopes of peace.
Despite a counter-attack by law enforcement in Grozny that lasted hours, a bedraggled-looking Kadyrov made it to President Vladimir Putin's annual address to the federal assembly in Moscow, although he was seen to be constantly checking his phone during the proceedings. He nonetheless did better than PM Dmitry Medvedev, who was spotting dozing off toward the end of Putin's remarks.
"When this all started, I flew home, held a special operation, killed the devils, held a meeting, gathered the staff for restoring the damaged building and made it in time to listen to the address of our national leader," Kadyrov told Russian television after the speech.
Video via YouTube
The fighting started in the early hours of Thursday morning after 15 men stole three cars in the village of Shalazhi and attacked traffic police in the nearby Grozny, killing three officers, the Russian outlet Life News, which is known for its close ties with security services, reported. Gunmen were said to be roaming the streets and to have seized a printing house and a school, prompting shootouts that left a total of 10 police officers and nine militants dead and 28 officers wounded. At least one civilian was killed, an employee of a furniture store whose body was found amid the ruins of the printing house.
Video reportedly taken at the scene showed a fierce firefight, with swarms of tracer fire streaking through the night as flares descended from sky and a shell hitting the side of the burning printing house.
Video via YouTube/RT
In footage of the final phases of the counter-attack during the daytime, security forces unleashed volleys of Kalashnikov and heavy machine gun fire, grenade launcher rounds and RPGs into at least three burning buildings in downtown Grozny.
Gunfire was nearly incessant in video reportedly shot near school number 20.The damage could likely have been even worse: A National Anti-Terrorism Committee statement on Thursday afternoon announcing the militants had been "neutralized" said that 24 homemade explosive devices and numerous guns and grenades had been found in the printing house and school.
Video via YouTube/SputnikTV
But the pro-Islamist website KavkazCenter.com claimed that fighting continued in Grozny after Kadyrov announced the fighting was over. Local journalist Asya Mishiyeva told the BBC Russian service on Thursday that the gun battles had died down and firefighting teams were working in the conflict zone. "The only question is about school number 20. It's still not open, and occasional gunfire can still be heard in that area," Mishiyeva said.
Video via YouTube/SputnikTV
In a video message reportedly recorded during the night, a fighter says he and his fellow jihadis entered Grozny — he uses the Chechen secession movement's name for the city, Dzhokhar — on the orders of Emir Khamzat, an insurgent leader whose real name is Aslan Byutukayev. He also professed their loyalty to Abu Mohammed (real name Aliaskhab Kebekov), the recently appointed emir of the Caucasian Emirate that Islamic fighters hope to establish in the region.
Video via YouTube
"Many jihadis have entered the city. This is an act of retaliation against apostates who dared to oppress Muslim women, our sisters," the fighter said. "This is a revenge mission, a jihadi mission, and we will fight to the death. There are already results. Allah killed them with our hands."
Reports and rumors in recent months that Kadyrov's security forces — who have been accused of torture, rape and other crimes over the years — detained or even assaulted women wearing hijabs have caused an outcry on social networks. Kadyrov reportedly also threatened women in hijabs at a meeting with security service heads in September.
Varvara Pakhomenko, an independent expert who has studied the conflict in the North Caucasus for the last eight years, told VICE News that the Grozny attack indicates a resurgence of the Islamic militancy in Chechnya despite a crackdown by Russian security services that began in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics held nearby in February. Given the controversy over hijabs and Kebekov's recent calls for an end to bombings that could kill innocent civilians, this attack was likely meant to win back popular support for the insurgency, she said.
"We can say that despite Kadyrov's statements, the (militant) underground in Chechnya still exists and is now trying to show that it's capable of large-scale operations," Pakhomenko said.
Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Center Moscow, said the attack could be a "test stone" thrown by North Caucasus fighters working with the Islamic State.
"In this situation, I wouldn't separate the Caucasus Emirate and IS," Malashenko told the respected Russian publication Caucasian Knot. "I think it has an affiliation with IS. They put out threats, and they needed to realize them. I don't rule out the coordination of actions between IS and the Caucasus Emirate."
Although Pakhomenko said the attack probably wasn't directly sponsored by IS, the insurgency's recent shows of strength are likely related to local fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, against some of whom criminal cases have been opened in Russia.
"I wouldn't say that this attack was planned or directly coordinated by IS, but on the other hand you can't deny that there are some connections, and that some of Chechens fighting in Syria could have helped plan this attack," she said.
Kadyrov promised on Thursday that new buildings would be constructed in place of those damaged in the gun battles, but the scars left by a resurgent Islamic militant movement will not be so easy to cover up.
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn