John B. Dunlop, The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule, (July 2014: second, revised and expanded edition)
Book review by Paul Hansbury
One of the least credible claims made following the downing of Flight MH17 originated with separatist leader Igor Girkin, a.k.a. Strelkov. On 18 July he claimed that the corpses on the ground at Torez were ‘not fresh’ and had been dead for several days prior to being loaded onto the Malaysian Airways’ Boeing 777. This, of course, lacked any plausibility but nonetheless found a keen audience amongst bloggers and social media users both in Russia and the West. In the immediate aftermath of such tragic situations there are only more or less credible versions of what has happened and, in the absence of any certainty, conspiracy abounds.
The Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 are no exception. In fact, between 31 August and mid-September 1999 there was a series of terrorist acts across Russia – a more extensive campaign than the Moscow apartment bombs alone. First, a bomb exploded in the Okhotny Ryad shopping arcade in the centre of Moscow. Next, a car bomb in the Dagestani city of Buinaksk, followed by the explosions in two Moscow apartment blocks that took more than 200 lives, and a truck explosion in the city of Volgodonsk. In addition, on 22 September a bomb plot was foiled in Ryazan, a city 200km from Moscow.
The official version announced by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a few days later stated that the bombs were ‘connected with the events taking place in the North Caucasus’, where followers of Osama Bin Laden had, it was claimed, established a terrorism training camp (pp.93-94). From the beginning a number of journalists and regime opponents have countered this with the claim that the bombings were an FSB operation. The aims of the FSB actions, it is claimed, were a ‘false flag’ operation to justify redoubled military operations in Chechnya and to ensure Putin’s electoral success in the forthcoming presidential elections. It is true that the little known Putin received a massive popularity boost and that Russian ground forces entered Chechnya at the end of September.
This new edition of John Dunlop’s book collects together five essays, plus a new postscript, which together argue the case that the FSB was responsible. This is an important task, since the official investigation was blatantly deficient and the trials of the terrorists accused of the Moscow and Volgodonsk bombings were conducted in secret. Moreover, those who have published cynical analyses of the bombings – most notably Yury Felsthinsky and Alexander Litvinenko’s volume ‘Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror’ – have too great an interest to be objective. In this regard Dunlop cites journalist Yulia Latynina’s scepticism about the research of what Dunlop calls ‘the BAB group’ (individuals grouped around Boris Abramovich Berezovsky, including Litvinenko) (see p.126). Moreover, the opening essay and postscript give a helpful account of Berezovsky’s relationship to Putin’s rise and rule.
Dunlop brings together an impressive range of source materials. The most compelling evidence surrounds the foiled bombing in Ryazan and it is right to devote a significant amount of attention to this incident, which saw arrests by the local FSB of ‘terrorists’ who were subsequently revealed to be fellow FSB agents. It was at this point, fully two days after the incident, that Nikolay Patrushev, then head of the FSB and today one of Putin’s most trusted colleagues, unexpectedly declared that the Ryazan incident was ‘a security training exercise’ and that the substance retrieved in sacks from the apartment block was sugar and not explosive (see p.177 ff.). This announcement can hardly have satisfied the hundreds of residents who had been evacuated without notice and it shocked the local FSB too.
Like many conspiracy theories, certain conclusions in this volume are reached a little too readily and one senses that they have been made prior to analysing the evidence. It is claimed that the terrorists would have chosen higher profile targets (e.g. p.161-162), but typically terrorism pre-9/11 sought to disrupt everyday life and attract attention to a cause, not exact revenge.
That said, there are strong grounds for suspicions about key details in the official version and this painstaking work raises important questions that beg for answers. The probability of finding answers only seems to have diminished with time. An alarming number of those who have claimed knowledge of an FSB operation have already died, including of course Litvinenko and Berezovsky, but also a key FSB agent, Vladimir Romanovich, alleged by an erstwhile colleague to be directly involved in one of the Moscow bombs.
This book offers a pressing weight of evidence. Ultimately, many readers will opt for instinct rather than evaluation: do we really believe that the Russian elite are so ruthless as to murder so many of their own citizens? Far less risky ‘political technologies’ were available to achieve the same ends and, with regard to justifying the war in Chechnya, Islamic Chechen militia had invaded Dagestan prior to the 31 August bombing. Did this not suffice for the casus belli? In any case, this volume reminds us that last days of Yeltsin’s Russia contain much murkiness.