As Sochi Games Begin, Russia's Dagestan Simmers With Violence

All is not quiet in Dagestan
All is not quiet in Dagestan
Julia Smirnova

MAKHACHKALA — A woman is standing near the police cordons, looking into the dark space where the Golden Empire restaurant stood until a few moments earlier. First came the grenades, and then a car exploded in front of the entrance. All that’s left now is debris. When the woman repeatedly tries calling her sister, a cleaner at the Golden Empire, she just gets a message that the subscriber is not available.

In an Internet statement, the Islamists responsible for this attack — in the capital of the Russian republic of Dagestan — dubbed the restaurant a “house of fornication.”

Here in Makhachkala, a city of some 500,000 people, everyone reaches for their phone when terrorists strike. What happened? Where? What street? People want to know if the attack was close to where their relatives worked, or if it was on the kids’ route to school. Pictures of what used to be the restaurant, the burning cars, the exploded windows, then make the digital rounds.

The next morning, Russian security forces begin a special operation in the suburbs of Makhachkala: A house is cordoned off, and a tank goes crashing through the door leading to a courtyard. A woman and three children are seen leaving the building before it is destroyed.

The video shows close-ups of maimed bodies and an ID card. “Seven bandits were neutralized,” reads a regional anti-terror committee statement. Some of them were allegedly responsible for the attack on the Golden Empire.

Acts of violence are committed virtually every day in Dagestan, the Russian republic east of Chechnya. The conflict between terrorists and security forces here is currently “the bloodiest in Europe,” according to the think tank International Crisis Group.

In the turbulent northern Caucasus, which Russia has been unable to subdue for decades, at least 986 people were killed or wounded, most of them in the Republic of Dagestan, last year alone, according to the independent news portal “

Leading up to the Olympic Games beginning today in Sochi, the conflict sharpened. In a video released two weeks ago, terrorists belonging to the Vilayat Dagestan group threatened some “surprises” for Sochi guests.

The group also accepted responsibility for the attacks in Volgograd at the end of December, during which 34 people were killed. Russian security forces have reacted against the terrorist underground with particular harshness in the year leading up to the Winter Games, particularly during the last month or so. But so far no resolution is in sight.

Abductions, beatings, torture

“It’s an undeclared war,” says Sidrat Erbelova, 28, a nurse in Makhachkala. Police wearing black helmets, protective vests and carrying automatic weapons are often seen on the streets of Dagestan’s capital. Though they represent heightened security, they are also a source of anxiety, Erbelova believes. She says that’s what the men who abducted her brother and a friend of his in broad daylight on the streets looked like. “They followed him and his friend, shot him in the leg and loaded him into the back seat of their car,” she says. “Someone who witnessed the scene told me how my brother and his friend screamed.”

She is sure this was one of the Russian security force’s “special operations.” Her family never received any type of communication about their son being arrested. Jamil Abdulajev was 24-years-old when he was abducted, was attending university and held down various low-level jobs. He lived with his mother, Patimat Abdulkadirova, in the village of Leninkent near Makhachkala. The house is clearly not that of wealthy people, so the abductors could not have been hoping for ransom.

“If my son is guilty of some offense, then charges must be brought and he should have his day in court,” says Mrs. Abdulkadirova. “You don’t abduct people.”

She’s still looking for her son. Lawyer Selim Magomedov relates how several weeks after the abduction, in the Makhachkala detention center, he saw a man who looked a lot like Abdulajev. “I’m 95% sure it was him,” he says. The man had been injured and had a bandaged leg.

When the family followed up, they were told that there had never been an injured man at their facility. Yelena Denissenko, a Dagestan expert at a human rights organization called Memorial, says that she has received more than 30 inquiries about missing persons during the last year.

“Most of them are abducted by armed men in camouflage,” she says. “Very often several days after the abduction some of the abducted turn up at police stations. When they’re released, they tell us they were tortured.” This is a classic way for security forces to try and get information about terrorists they suspect may be family members or friends of the abducted parties.

Russian forces crack down for Sochi

Ramasan Jafarov, deputy head of Dagestan’s government and a former secret service operative, says he is unaware of any abductions by security forces. Then again, he’s not responsible for Dagestan’s police or security forces, who report directly to Moscow. “I don’t exclude that they put pressure on relatives,” he says, adding that he is unaware of physical pressure but is sure that the relatives of terrorists are held “morally responsible” for terrorist acts.

Jafarov says that security forces’ actions have increased in past months because of the Olympic Games in Sochi. “We should be proud that the Olympic Games are taking place in the Caucasus,” he says. “We want the Games to take place in a peaceful atmosphere.”

In the run-up to the Games, the pressure on religious fundamentalists has grown enormously, human rights organizations say, although Islam in the northern Causcasus republics has traditionally been moderate. Only a minority are Salafists, and only some of those are prepared to use violence to fight for an Islamic state.

But a distinction between peaceful and violent fundamentalists is no longer being observed. According to the Memorial organization, the ID documents of a number of Salafist women were confiscated, and they were told they would get them back after the Olympic Games were over.

In the city of Bujnaksk, police have forbidden Salafists to leave town before the end of the Games. For months, bearded men and veiled women have been randomly hauled down to police stations to be fingerprinted and have samples of their DNA taken.

Black list

In October, a 32-year-old bookkeeper and computer programmer named Riswan was abducted along with some 60 other guests at a Muslim café. “Our arrests were never officially announced,” he says. The police accused them of being fundamentalists and proceeded to fingerprint and photograph them all.

When Riswan tried to film the situation with his mobile phone, he was beaten half unconscious. After a while, they finally decided to call a doctor who was told by police officer that Riswan “fell and injured himself.” Riswan filed charges against the officials, after which he was told that his name was included on a list of potential terrorists.

And yet deputy government head Jafarow states that the number of active terrorists has remained stable for years — at 150 to 160 in Dagestan. They work in small groups and consider Chechnyan rebel chief Doku Umarov their leader.

Many live in the woods, but some live in cities where sympathizers rent apartments for them and provide them with food and money. Revenge against the state is one of the major reasons for radicalization. Politician Jafarov believes that ordinary criminals also hide out among the Salafists, but experts doubt this, saying that hardly any of the underground fighters survive for longer than two years.

It is unclear whether it will be possible to protect the Sochi Games against attackers. But the wounds currently being inflicted in Dagestan will no doubt remain open for a long time to come.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!