In the 1990s, several top-level al Qaeda operatives entered the North Caucasus, including Saudi-born emissaries, and also longtime Osama Bin Laden deputy and current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. (Zawahiri was arrested by the Russians in 1997 and released after six months in jail.) These jihadis viewed the lands as infidel-occupied and thus joined the struggle for independence, steering the conflict into radicalism. Under Umarov's leadership, what was once a nationalist movement has morphed into a jihadi cause. Though he has managed to co-opt and incorporate a local movement into the service of broader jihadi objectives, local buy-in to the global jihad and its larger "brand" is incomplete. Nevertheless, the danger remains acute, as the group has already demonstrated its capability repeatedly.
Chechen rebels and separatists have been behind a series of gruesome incidents historically. Examples include multiple hostage-takings in hospitals in 1995 and 1996, multiple Moscow Metro and train bombings in 2003 and 2010, hostage-taking in a Moscow theater in 2002, hostage-taking at a school in Beslan in 2004 that resulted in the deaths of 380 people including 186 children, and bombing Moscow's Domodedovo airport in 2011.
The October 2013 Volgograd bus bombing was reportedly perpetrated by a suicide bomber from Dagestan. The bomber was the wife of an ethnic Russian, Dmitri Sokolov, who joined jihadis in Dagestan and became an adept bomb-maker, according to a source in the Dagestani security services cited by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. He was killed by Russian authorities in mid-November.
Over the past 13 years, some 49 female suicide bombers -- dubbed "black widows"-- have carried out attacks in Russia, according to credible news reports. The October attack clearly showed that the militants who operate in Dagestan are capable of staging attacks far outside their home turf, which U.S. counter-terrorism officials say is a troubling signal of Umarov's rising confidence.
Having recently "lifted" an 18-month ban on killing innocent civilians, Umarov has vowed via fiery speeches -- broadcast via YouTube -- to bring death and destruction to the Sochi Olympics. Umarov is using the Games to bring international attention to his separatist cause of an independent Islamic state, carved out within the borders of Russia.
In the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, brothers Dzhozkhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were natives of Dagestan and brought worldwide attention to the Chechen issue and violent extremism within Russia when authorities say they exploded two IEDs at the race last April. While Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police days after the bombing, Dzhokhar was apprehended and has pleaded not guilty. Umarov is attempting to gain more traction by building on renewed international interest in the conflict.