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Inside Russia's pre-Olympics terrorist crackdown

Dozens of young men are now missing from what is considered Russia's most dangerous region.

MAKHACHKALA, Dagestan -- A bell rang, and several hundred students made their way to the auditorium at the top of the stairwell on a fall day.

It was assembly period at the Lyceum 5 school in Dagestan's capital city, the heart of Russia's terrorist problem, and it wasn't long before the mood turned somber. The students were gathered to remember two of their own who had been killed in a bombing. Framed photographs of the boys, who had died playing in the street, sat on a table near the stage.  

"It's impossible to destroy this evil by force," the city education minister, Kubzar Guruyev, said during an interview. "That's why this event is so important.

"I can tell you I'm confident," the minister added, "nobody's going among the terrorists. I'm confident."

But the Caucasian republic of Dagestan in southern Russia is one of the most unstable areas in the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, several Russian republics sought to establish independence -- Dagestan was among them. Militants operating there are linked to al Qaeda, and often look to draw young people into their ranks.

Abdula Magomedov / AP

Russian special force soldiers take part in an anti-terrorist operation in Makhachkala, the capital of the Southern Russian republic of Dagestan on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014.

Immature, dissatisfied and with little financial prospects, young people see joining the terrorists as their only way out of a hard existence in a drab, poor place.  

Recent suicide attacks that have killed dozens have heightened security fears before next month's Olympic Games in Sochi. An Islamic group that claimed responsibility for two twin suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd last December also threatened to strike the Olympics.

As a result, U.S. officials said Friday they are prepared to work with Russian security officials to help protect American athletes and the 10,000 American spectators expected to attend.  


In response to the insurgent threat, Russian authorities have begun cracking down on the region, making several arrests and claiming to have curbed several plots. While the Russian government denies it's responsible for disappearances in Dagestan, human rights say there is no other explanation.

Islam Valibagandov said he doesn’t know anything about his brother’s whereabouts since he was arrested.

“The police told us that the police took him away. There's a record in the hall of records,” he said.

And this situation is not unique.

On a recent Thursday afternoon in downtown Makhachkala, in the courtyard of a mosque along Katrova Street, young men milled around. A man collecting alms held out a cardboard box, but few of the men deposited any money in it. They are regulars at the mosque and many of them are jobless.

James Novogrod / NBC News

Men pray inside a mosque along Katrova Street in downtown Makhachkala, Dagestan. The imam at the mosque said police are watching the flurry of activity in the area and arresting the young men who attend his prayers.

 The imam at the mosque said police are watching the flurry of activity in the area and arresting the young men who attend his prayers. But while some are snatched by police, others disappear because they join terrorist groups. The imam blamed the bombings and gunfights on the streets of his city on a cycle of retribution that he said is stoked by Russian security services.

"This revenge will not end," Imam Khasan-Khadzhi Gasanaliev said. "No laws work here."

According to men at the mosque, Boston Marathon bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had been a visitor during his stay in Dagestan prior to the attacks.  

The imam did not deny Tsarnaev had prayed there, though he said he had not seen Tsarnaev himself.

Of the crackdown in Dagestan, he said it has intensified in preparation for the Olympics, but won’t improve the situation in the region.

"They are afraid that the Olympics become distorted and they are doing what they can in order not to have disruption,” he said. “But they do what they like, and in the end they don't make the situation better."

Many in the volatile region choose instead to take matters into their own hands rather than wait for authorities to prevent future attacks.

Shamil Alibekov, 27, whose brother, a policeman, was killed in a May 2012 bombing, wants to do his part and put terrorists behind bars. As he stood on the spot where his brother died less than two years earlier, he said he too wants to become a policeman.

“As my brother, who passed away said, the more good people work in the police -- the bigger the chance that order will be restored,” Alibekov said.

Stringer / AFP - Getty Images

Police investigators work at a blast site outside a building used by court bailiffs in central Makhachkala on May 20, 2013. At least eight people were killed and more than a dozen injured in twin car blasts.

The attack that killed his brother was the single deadliest bombing in Dagestan that year, and it helped convince the Russian federal government to crack down on militants. Previously, authorities had employed a "soft power" approach. 

Human rights activist Serazhutin Datsiyev documented more than 50 suspicious abductions in Dagestan last year.

"The security services just don't want to work properly," he said. "They prefer to abduct people, rather than bring them to court."

But Ramazan Dzhafarov, deputy prime minister in charge of security in Dagestan, told NBC News the situation in Dagestan is stable. He also said the arrests in connection with the counter-terrorism crackdown are “totally normal.”

“This is a totally normal phenomenon, and I can tell you that this year there have been more than 100 detainments, and nearly 100 fighters destroyed, and a further 30 people who came and gave themselves up,” he said, adding: “There is a general criminality. It is totally normal that people are detained for crimes.”

But Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch in Moscow, said abuses in Dagestan and the rest of the North Caucasus region are “perpetrated without impunity.”

"The abandonment of soft power approach in Dagestan and the return to this brutal force model is certainly about the Olympics,” she said, adding that for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Games are a political matter.

"They want to show off," Lokshina said. "They want the prestige associated with the Games. But prestige always comes with responsibility. And it seems that responsibility is actually something that the Kremlin does not want."

Back at the school assembly, the aunt of one of the boys killed in the bombing wept at the back of the room.  

"This explosion did not just take their lives, but it also ripped out our hearts," she said during an interview.

A classmate of the boys said he would miss them. "Of course, without a doubt," the classmate said.

The students sang songs. At the end of the ceremony, a handful went downstairs and released balloons into the air.