Sunday, 21 October 2012

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"The war will come to your streets, and you will feel it in your own lives and on your skin."

An instant later, Nadia felt the air shake around her from the force of the explosion, and glanced back towards the National. Glass and masonry rained down on the crowd, which for a split-second froze, uncomprehending. Then the screaming started. Hemmed in on all sides by the weight of numbers, few could reach cover. Their panic escalated as beneath their feet blood tainted the snow.
Silent among the screams, Nadia saw a child in a yellow knitted hat clutching his mother’s hand, severed from her arm by a falling shard of glass. Transfixed, he stared down at her body bent double at his feet.
Nadia turned away. One hand reflexively traced the contours of the scar on her cheek as she tried to block out the wails of the injured and grieving. Why did her victims always include the innocent, each time caught in the fall-out of her actions?
She looked back as the smoke cleared. Murat touched her arm and pointed to where, high in the hotel’s shattered frontage, a crater gaped as big as a car. Reluctantly Nadia glanced up and then looked at him. She nodded slightly, with no hint of satisfaction.
Yes, Murat, another job well done.  
[Extract from the Preface to The Oligarch: A Thriller]

Russia has always been a violent country, and terrorism has been a recurrent theme throughout its history. Repeated governments have used terror as a means of control, whether it was the Okhrana before the Russian Revolution, the Cheka, NKVD or KGB in Soviet times, or the FSB since the fall of the Soviet Union. The worst exponent was, of course, Stalin whose purges  of government officials, military officers, intellectuals and peasants led to over one million deaths.

Against this background, it is not surprising that dissident groups within Russia's borders regularly turn to violence to make their point. The title of this article - "The war will come to your streets, and you will feel it in your own lives and on your skin" - are the actual words of a terrorist leader in the Caucasus. And over the last decade or so there have been many, many instances of terrorism within Russia to illustrate what he meant. Let's look at a few of the better-known examples.

In 1999 a campaign of apartment bombings took place in Moscow and several other cities. Putin blamed them on Chechen terrorists whose Islamic International Brigade had just invaded Dagestan on Russia's southern border, resulting in a major Russian offensive against Chechnya, the horrors of which were to fill our television screens for some time. In 2002 some fifty Chechen separatists stormed a  Moscow theatre - half of them women, all wearing suicide belts. Russian special forces eventually subdued the terrorists by pumping in a chemical sleeping agent, many of the hostages were also killed when they inhaled it. Then in 2004, no one will forget the horrors of the Beslan school massacre. Chechen rebels took over 1,000 people - the majority children - hostage in a small town in North Ossetia, rigging up the school with explosives. After three days of attempted negotiations, Russian forces stormed the school, but many of the children lost their lives in the ensuing gun battle. As recently as last year, terrorists planted a bomb at Domodedovo, Moscow's busiest airport, which indiscriminately  killed or maimed over 200 people.

On the face of it, a recurring theme has been that the terrorists stemmed from Russia's soft underbelly, where the regions have either separatist ambitions or festering sores from the injustices done to their peoples by the Russians during the Soviet era  - regions like Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Ossetia (see the map below). Here, an already fragile situation has been repeatedly exacerbated by the brutal tactics of Russians troops in quelling perceived rebellions. In Chechnya for example, this resulted in the destruction of civil society and created a wasteland dominated by rival gangs - paving the way for the rise of Islamic extremists and acts of terrorism.

In Russia, though, things are often not what they seem. A barrage of international and Russian journalists have accused the FSB (Russian Security Service) of stage-managing many of the terrorist incidents in order to justify planned Russian acts of repression. Just as Hitler simulated acts of aggression by Polish troops to justify the Nazi invasion of Poland, many people believe, for example, that the apartment bombings in 1999 were in fact perpetrated by the FSB in order to legitimise the subsequent invasion of Chechnya and the assumption of power by Putin, its former head. Does this sound far-fetched? Well, if you think so, take into account the fact that, at the time of an apartment bombings, an unexploded bomb was found and defused in Ryazan which turned out to have been planted by three FSB agents!

And this is far from the only example of the FSB's hand being behind acts of terrorism: many Russian commentators have accused the FSB of being involved in the bomb explosions in the marketplace in the southern Russian city of  Astrakhan in 2001, at the bus stops in Voronezh (a city more or less on the Don river) in 2004 and on the Moscow-Grozny train in 2005. There is also strong evidence that the FSB organised the kidnapping of numerous journalists and international NGO workers during the Chechnya conflicts, pretending to be Chechen terrorists, in order to build up international support for the Russian invasion.

In The Oligarch: A Thriller, the story starts and ends with terrorist acts, bringing into play the separatist ambitions rampant within the Caucasus. Nadia, the terrorist leader, is ruthless and efficient, totally committed to her cause. However, over the years, doubts about the collateral damage involved in her 'profession' are beginning to creep in. In the extract below, the last posting of my Blog Tour, Nadia's resolve is tested to the limit when her authority within the terrorist cell is threatened by the actions of her young lover.

Outside, the men were slogging around the assault course for the second time that day. Rumours were rife throughout the camp that things were about to happen, and Nadia had insisted that Andrei kept them fully occupied.
There was a sudden rumpus from their direction, and Nadia and her visitor jumped up to see what was going on. The men were grouped near the tunnel section of the course, shrieking like hysterical schoolgirls, arms scissoring the air. Out of habit Nadia grabbed her pistol, and they strode over to investigate.
The boy, Vadim, was clearly the ringleader, and stood in the middle of the group. Immediately he caught sight of her, he signalled to the tunnel entrance.
“There’s a bloody snake down there,” he screamed at her, out to cause trouble. He pointed at Andrei.  “I’m not going down there, and he’s sure as hell not going to make me.”
Nadia caught Andrei’s eye, and he shrugged. The other men, aware of Nadia’s relationship with Vadim, waited to see which way she’d turn.
"Get down there and kill it," she ordered Vadim flatly.
Vadim sniggered a bitter laugh. "You can sod off too!" he yelled, backing off from the tunnel. His eyes willed her to remember their love-making. But Nadia's face hardened and she aimed her pistol at his head.
"You have till the count of three."
And she began to count. "One."
He threw a glance towards the visitor at Nadia’s side, his eyes pleading with him to intervene. However, the stranger’s face made it clear there would be no reprieve. Vadim dropped to his knees and crawled into the tunnel.
A moment later, a terrified scream broke the stillness. They could hear Vadim sobbing in the tunnel, then the shuffle of his boots as he backed out. Skewing around on his knees, he thrust his arm accusingly towards Nadia, his eyes black with terror. The back of his hand showed a livid V-shaped wound.
Nadia ordered the man next to her to run for the medic, then stood in silence watching Vadim paralysed on the ground, the pupil of one eye much larger and darker than the other. He struggled for breath as foam drooled from one corner of his mouth. Small blood blisters began to form on his hand as the skin tissue boiled. The medic came quickly, but the inflammation had already extended beyond the elbow, and Vadim was shivering uncontrollably.
"It's bad,” the medic said. “The snake's fangs penetrated the main dorsal vein, its venom’s been injected straight into the blood stream. He's had a stroke. If you can find out what type of snake it is, I might be able to save his life.”
Nadia glanced around her. Vadim’s colleagues stared back at her, their eyes full of challenge. For a few seconds she returned their gaze. If she was going to retain their respect, she realised, she had no choice but to meet their expectations. She ripped off her shirt. Immediately, she felt their eyes appraise her breasts. Wrapping the shirt around her forearm, she unsheathed her knife and crawled into the tunnel. A few feet ahead the snake lay coiled and hissed at her, poised to strike. She could just make out the zigzag dorsal stripe with dark edges that ran down its ash grey body. She recognised it straight off: a Kaznakov's viper, common around the Caucasus. But just knowing that wouldn’t be enough for them.
Within the confines of the tunnel she had little room for manoeuvre. The only option was to get the snake to come to her. She threw some soil to provoke it and waited as it slid ominously towards her. Suddenly it struck out fast as lightening, lunging at her protected forearm. In an instant, Nadia swung her other hand and plunged the knife into the back of its neck. She ground the blade into the earth until the snake was motionless, then dragged it with her as she backed out of the tunnel.
The doctor gave it a quick glance and confirmed her conclusion. Two men eased Vadim onto a stretcher, and carried him off towards the infirmary.
“A success,” the visitor commented to Nadia.
She shook her head. “No, just a senseless waste,” she corrected him tersely.

THE OLIGARCH: A THRILLER is available from Foyles, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all other major online book stores. The Amazon links are Amazon USA   and   Amazon UK. Links to other online bookstores can be found on the Oligarch website.

Synopsis: Following his controversial election for a third term amid widespread protests and allegations of vote rigging, the Russian President is determined to destroy the oligarchs before they destroy him. When the global economic meltdown decimates their wealth, the President seizes this chance to demolish their power base. His greatest opponent - Anton Blok, owner of the mighty Tyndersk Kombinat - has a secret agenda and faces far more than just financial ruin as his empire threatens to fall apart, and the President knows that his old enemy will stop at nothing to avoid catastrophe.  With battlelines drawn, he turns to Alex Leksin, a British business troubleshooter of Russian descent, to thwart Blok's plans. Against the challenge of hostile Arctic conditions, Leksin must tread a dangerous path through a labyrinth of corruption, terrorism and obfuscation until the exciting and unexpected denouement takes place in Russia’s northernmost seaport. Set in Moscow, Ingushetia (Chechnya’s neighbour), and Tyndersk, a Siberian mining town inside the Arctic Circle and geographically cut off from the rest of Russia, the plot twists and turns within an authentic and disturbing background.

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