Rarely a week passes in Russia without news of a shooting, explosion or stand-off between security forces and militants in the North Caucasus. But only now, as suicide bombers are striking targets outside their heartlands more frequently, is this long-running conflict forcing itself back on the public agenda.
Moscow has struggled to rule the North Caucasus since it occupied the territory in the 19th century. Different parts of the region, which had been warring among themselves before Russian occupation, continued to fight for independence for more than a century.
But over the past 20 years, the nature of the unrest has changed. From the early 1990s, the Chechen independence movement began to transform into a pan-ethnic jihadist movement.
Formally, different jihadist groups swear allegiance to Doku Umarov, the warlord who heads the Caucasus Emirate, declared in 2007. The recent terrorist attacks in southern Russia follow an appeal in July by the terrorist leader to disrupt the Sochi Olympics with violence.
Terror experts say the construct is largely fiction and groups remain local, lacking joint command and co-ordination. They add that the Russian security services have been relatively successful in containing the threat, foiling attacks in other parts, most notably Moscow, over the past two years.
But now the government could become the victim of its success. “Effective military and security operations against the jihadists have clearly slowed the growth of their political sway and reduced the scale of their military activity, which peaked in 2009-11,” says Georgi Engelhardt, an expert on political Islam in Russia.
“But these operations are much less effective against the underlying political and social processes that feed the extremism – namely, the radicalisation of young Muslims in Russia as a whole, and in some of its regions in particular.”
He adds that while in the 1990s jihadists were active only in Chechnya and parts of Dagestan, they have spread to the rest of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria as well as other parts of southern Russia. As a result, potential attacks have become more difficult to predict and prevent.
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