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A woman walks down a street in Gubden, Dagestan, a village in the North Caucasus known for being home to many believers in the conservative Salafi strain of Islam. Image by Shaun Walker, Russia, 2010.

As you drive in to this village in a fold of dry hills in central Dagestan, you pass two ruined buildings, one on either side of the road.

The collapsed buildings are all that remains after a suicide bomber in a Lada Priora sedan packed with explosives detonated himself outside a security checkpoint here at 10:35 p.m. on Feb. 14.

The bomber was Vitaly Razdobudko, a notorious figure in the ranks of Islamist extremists fighting the Kremlin's rule in Russia's North Caucasus, a sweep of mountains and steppe between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Three hours earlier, just a little further down the road, Razdobudko's wife blew herself up outside Gubden police station. Between them, the couple killed three people and wounded 26 in what rebel websites called a "twin martyrdom operation."

Russia has seen far more deadly strikes by the Caucasus militants in recent months. Most infamous was the suicide bombing by a 20-year-old Ingush man at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, which killed 37 people in January. But the real front line in Russia's war on terrorism lies 900 miles south of the capital in places like Gubden, a small sun-splashed white-stone village, my final stop on a monthlong trip.

This is a war not just of guns and bullets and bombs, but a war of ideas; and it's a war the Kremlin appears to be losing.

With more than 30 mosques for a population of no more than 8,000 people, Gubden is probably the most religious place in Russia. It is also one of the most violent. An estimated 70 percent of the population here practice Salafism, the brand of conservative Islam that is associated with the insurgents. And a steady flow of these orthodox believers have joined the fight to carve out an Islamic caliphate through bloodshed -- bloodshed reciprocated by security forces attempting to stamp them out.

The current head of the Gubden jamaat, Ibragimkhalil Daudov, is one of the leaders of all boyeviki (rebel fighters) in Dagestan. His predecessor in Gubden, Magomedali Vagabov, who was killed in a special operation in August last year, was also a key figure in the Caucasus Emirate, the regionwide Islamist coalition. (Vagabov's wife Mariam was one of the two women who detonated bombs on the Moscow metro a year ago this week; Daudov's wife accidentally killed herself as she prepared a suicide belt in a hotel room in the Russian capital on New Year's Eve.)

These men bear little resemblance to their forebears in the separatist movement of rebel Chechnya in the 1990s. Then, the Chechens' leader was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a dandyish former air force general with a clipped mustache who dreamed of an independent Ichkeria under the flag of the Chechen wolf. Today's boyeviki are jihadis from across the North Caucasus and beyond who idolize international terrorists like Osama bin Laden and thirst to become martyrs.

Shortly before blowing himself up at the checkpoint on the edge of Gubden in February, Razdobudko -- a 32-year-old ethnic Russian convert to Islam -- recorded a video, which appeared on the Internet after he died.

"This jihad in the Caucasus is the true jihad," he said, looking pale and grim-faced as he sat in darkness at the wheel of his car, holding a copy of the Quran. "Here the best Muslims have gathered, because they sell their bodies, their possessions, and souls to Allah in exchange for paradise. They are not afraid of death; the mujahideen, the warriors of Allah, aspire to death even more than the apostates and polytheists aspire to life."

*****

Traveling through five republics of the North Caucasus over the last few weeks, I've explored some of the main causes for the ongoing war on Russia's southern perimeter: the brutality of state security forces, choking corruption, unchecked inequality, and neglect of festering ethnic disputes.

I started my journey about 300 miles to the west on the plain in Kabardino-Balkaria, a new hot spot in the insurgency, where civilians are increasingly sucked into the violence. From there I passed through the relative calm of North Ossetia to the tortured sliver of Ingushetia, where kidnappings and bombings are routine. Then came Chechnya: subdued, rebuilt at last, but stricken by a capricious new khan. And finally, to Dagestan: the great mountain republic, and the bloodiest of the lot.

One thing keeps on echoing back: the divisive force of religion. All along my route, I've witnessed a gulf of understanding between state-sponsored "traditional" Islam and followers of the more conservative Salafi strain.

This confrontation is particularly acute in Dagestan. Here, Salafis, who believe in a return to the teachings of early leaders of the Muslim faith, face off against Sufis, who are supported by the official Spiritual Board of Muslims.

There is intolerance on both sides. In Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, a Salafi woman dressed in a hijab and floor-length tunic showed me a recording on her cell phone of Sheikh Said-Afandi, one of the republic's most revered Sufi leaders.

"Disgusting," she said, as she watched scores of the sheikh's murids (followers) lining up to kiss his hands. "No man should make himself an intermediary between Allah and Muslims, demanding his own worship."

In the Islamist insurgents' online propaganda, where Sufis are condemned for "pagan practices" such as performing ritual dances and visiting the graves of their ancestors, the rhetoric gets even nastier. "Fed with a fatty broth, they are like a hoard of dirty pigs," says one diatribe. "They fawn before the [Russian] kafirs and are slaves of the butchers of the Kremlin!"

Yet such bile stems from a truth: Sufi leaders have been tainted by their ties with state officials and by their past readiness to marginalize Salafis, sometimes to the point of open persecution on the presumption that every Salafi is a potential terrorist. (The term Wahhabi -- often used for Salafis -- has become virtually synonymous with boyevik, a fundamentalist fighter.)

Although state-linked Islamic leaders in the North Caucasus rarely participate in this violence themselves, they have at times been willing accomplices. When militants assassinated Anas Pshikhachev, the mufti of Kabardino-Balkaria, on his doorstep in December, rebel sources said he'd been targeted for helping the police draw up lists of Wahhabis to interrogate, beat, and torture.

In Gubden, two Salafi men told me that they and other pious Muslims were regularly rounded up for questioning, purely on the basis of their beliefs. One said that his 77-year-old relative had been called a Wahhabi purely for saying that he didn't pray at the mosque, as some Salafis choose not to do.

His friend added: "So please show me, where in the Russian Constitution does it say that a man can be taken by police for not going to a mosque?

"They [security forces] do whatever they like, they burst into your home, they carry out searches without a warrant. There's no lawfulness; that's why we have this chaos in Dagestan. They put pressure on a peaceful man. It happens once, twice, three times. Finally he can't bear it anymore and goes to the forest [to join the boyeviki]."

*****

Gubden has suffered immensely from these divisions, though you wouldn't know it at first. On the day I visited, people strolled along the village's narrow, winding streets. Two women in headscarves leaned over a wooden balcony to talk to a friend in the dust below, and a group of spindly cows drank from a stream.

But I hadn't been in town for an hour before I was detained. A group of plainclothes policemen, one carrying a Kalashnikov, came to the house where I was talking to three local men over tea and spoons of honeycomb.

The officers were jumpy. They took me to the station where Razdobudko's wife, Maria Khorosheva, had triggered her belt of explosives at the entrance (she too recorded a martyr video, saying her attack was retribution for Muslims being "killed and tortured" in Russia). The building was surrounded by high walls, barbed wire, and rows of concrete barriers designed to stop vehicles approaching.

I was questioned for almost two hours, as were the men with whom I'd been talking. The senior officer at the station, on the basis of no evidence, suggested I had forged links with militants in the village.

I got used to such accusations during my journey. Senior officials in Russia regularly say -- without providing proof -- that the CIA and other foreign spy agencies fund Islamists in the Caucasus. Any Westerner passing through the region is seen as a possible go-between.

I also understood why the police felt nervous. On the wall of the room where we sat was a portrait of a square-jawed man with steel-gray hair in a uniform and a peaked cap. I recognized the face. It was Abdulmalik Magomedov, the former chief of the Gubden police.

Magomedov was shot dead in a skirmish with fighters near the village in 2008. A year later, his wife, daughter, and older sister would die in one of the cruelest acts ever committed by the militants. The three women had gone to Magomedov's grave in one of Gubden's cemeteries on the anniversary of his death. As they began to read passages from the Quran, a bomb laid by the grave exploded, killing them all. Last summer, Magomedov's surviving son, Ruslan, was assassinated in the middle of the village. The entire family, now, is gone.

And so the policemen crouch in their fortress, radiating fear and hatred. "We don't go out in uniform," explained one, called Umar. "It's too dangerous." Another said with disgust: "One day the Wahhabis plead they are peaceful, repressed believers, and the next they'll drag you off and kill you, or hold you for ransom."

Yet the police are not the only ones who are suffering in Gubden.

Just down the road, opposite a gas station, I found the house of Abdurashid Rashidov. Early on Christmas Day 2009, a team of 10 armed men in black uniforms and masks broke down Abdurashid's door, pushed him and his wife to the floor, and dragged off their adult son, Magomed -- who may or may not have had ties to the rebels. Magomed has not been seen or heard of since.

"It was the police or the FSB that did it, who else?" said Abdurashid, a trim middle-aged man in a white skull cap. "I wrote to the authorities asking for help, but they did nothing."

I asked what he planned to do next. "Magomed was my only son," Abdurashid replied. "I have decided to resolve this by my own methods."

He would not say what exactly he meant.

*****

As I've traveled over the last few weeks, I've found it difficult either to condemn men who've suffered immense pain and humiliation for taking matters into their own hands, or to blame the policemen I've met for being skittish. The Caucasus is a place where easy definitions of victim and persecutor break down almost immediately.

It is clear, however, that people here have a catastrophic lack of trust in the Russian state -- and that to a large extent, Russia has earned that mistrust through neglect and bad policy, helping to create a pool of disaffected young people who see little chance to control their futures.

Last September, the Russian government published a strategy document for the economic development of the region. Some ideas seemed utopian (building a chain of ski resorts), others sensible (reviving mining of precious metals).

But the key challenges remain unaddressed: Elections are still rigged, bureaucrats still steal on a mind-boggling scale, and jobs are scarce. Add to this the ongoing savagery of the FSB and other security forces, and it is little surprise that young people are seduced by Islamists who promise a world of purity and brotherhood.

"We don't have a tradition of being serfs for hundreds of years, like the Russians," Dagestani journalist Zaur Gaziyev told me. "Our culture is different. If we are slighted or wronged we don't go and get drunk on vodka. We pick up a gun and go out to murder the one who wronged us."

The Kremlin has failed the people of the North Caucasus, and not just economically, but politically and spiritually as well.

"The insurgents have popular websites with good design that get thousands of views a month," one human rights activist railed, early on in my trip. "They promote their ideology, publish articles on how to make homemade weapons, and provide links to international jihadis. Where is the response from our official Spiritual Board of Muslims? Where is their Internet presence? Where are their charismatic people offering an alternative?"

In Makhachkala, a lawyer I met reinforced that view. "In the highlands of Dagestan the Kremlin has lost the ideological battle," he said. "It has nothing to offer."

Until that changes, the violence is likely to continue unabated.

As I left Gubden, the policemen from the station insisted on giving me an armed escort to a nearby town so I could meet a senior officer. He was a pleasant, educated man, and for a little while we sat chatting in his office. It was a moment of calm at the end of a stressful day. Yet as I left the building, I was jolted back to reality.

A young soldier at the gate was receiving a warning over his walkie-talkie about a suspect car. "Zhiguli VAZ 21014," said the voice urgently. "Silver color. Registration number 528. Suicide bomber. Shoot to kill."

Project

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