Serial Murder and Terrorism in Russia

Written by Dmitry Shlapentokh.

Case Study Jihad

Oleg Batusin, a married man with five children, proclaimed himself to be an “Orthodox peasant guerrilla.” He had been in opposition of Russian governmental policies for five years. He was displeased because of the volume of Chinese and other émigrés to whom the government was permitting entry. Russian’s concerns with immigration can include the competition for jobs, terrorism, and a worry that newcomers, especially Chinese, would marginalize ethnic Russians with their numbers and make possible the absorption of Russia in the future.

It appears that Butusin shared these views about the danger of Chinese immigration in Vladivostok because he began disseminating leaflets. These leaflets are commonly plastered on walls. He also believed that the present-day Orthodox Church was corrupt and supports the Russian government’s immigration policies. In May 2013, he carried out an attack against a detachment of GAI (highway patrol) near Moscow. It is believed that he acted alone. It is not clear what weapons and tactics he employed. It is clear that some part of the local population supported his actions.

Some Russians emailed him guidance on how to avoid apprehension. One individual advised him to remove the battery from his mobile phone and only to use the phone outside of his home. They encouraged him to cover his face with a hat or hood. They told him to take complicated and unusual routes home and to board and get off trains at stations far from his home. He was counseled to keep his mouth shut and share information with no one. Supporters told Batusin to cover his boots with tape to prevent identification of his footprints by investigators and to collect his empty brass after shooting. i

Serial Killings

While terrorism can be used in support of any type of militant campaign, many in Russia appear to have been influenced by Islamic supremacism. This was one explanation given in the case of a group of Central Asians who engaged in serial murders near Moscow in the summer and fall of 2014. The group was often called “GTA,” the name of a popular computer game Grand Theft Auto (GTA), and is known to have carried out actions in Moscow beginning in July 2014. Some people believed they were inspired by the tactics displayed in the video game. Drivers were the primary targets, and it was not initially clear what the motives were, but attacks followed a common pattern.

A person would stop at a gas station. Somebody would puncture his tire. The driver would depart, but soon stop when he noticed a flat tire. When he emerged from the vehicle to change the tire, a member of the group in another car would kill the driver on the spot. One of the important aspects of the murder was that it was done on the highway and not in an isolated spot. There was no apparent motive for each murder. ii Fifteen people were either killed or wounded. iii

In November 2014, the band was captured; eight men and two women were arrested. Law enforcement agents uncovered their primary residence and discovered what they described as an “arsenal of weapons and ammunition.” This included several pistols, ammunition, and two hand grenades. Officials alleged they were a “group of professional murderers” and that they were engaged in “zakazy”—contract murders—as well as in robberies. According to officials, they carried out the murders of Vladimir Kirsliuk, the manager of “Flora Bank,” and Oleg Tokmachev, local policeman from Novo-Peredelkino, near Moscow.

The group had three leaders: one was Rustam Usmanov from Kyrgyzia. He was shot to death when he threw a grenade at police. iv He appears to have assisted the escape of two other members of the group from custody. v The three were apprehended without resisting. vi All were from Central Asia.

After taking them into custody, it became clear that they were not inspired by a video game. They were interested in property and money, which they needed in order to buy weapons for “fighters” (boeviki). There was little additional information about the “fighter’s” details. It appears likely that they thought about those who planned either jihad in Central Asia or even in the North Caucasus. The criminals, guest workers from Central Asia, found a great safe house. They lived and worked in a “zagordnyi dom” (dacha) that belonged to Aleksei Staroverov, the head of the Prosecutor General’s Office in the Russian Federation (Nachal’nik Upravdelami Genprokuratury). He was both a highly positioned bureaucrat and a very wealthy individual. vii

Local Reaction

The killings created widespread rumors such as that “the morgues are full.” Others posted comments such as “Damn … really scary” and “Panic among the populace is rising.” viii Drivers decided not to stop when their cars were broken ix . One of the reasons for widespread concern was the mystery surrounding the attacks at the time. Many people thought the attacks originated from: (1) Islamists; (2) Ukrainian nationalists; or (3) forces inside of Putin’s administration plotting against him.

Attribution

Some locals immediately believed that the murders were committed by Islamists. One of the participants in a Russian Internet discussion suggested that these people were preparing themselves to join ISIS. x Other comments noted that the bandits called their band “jamaat” and that they carried out “holy war for Islam.” xi This explanation became widely accepted after the killers were apprehended, but some people claimed the murders were the handiwork of Ukrainians or some internal enemies of the regime before they were caught.

Ukrainian Separatists

Just as it is in the United States and Europe, the Islamists’ threat to the general public was downplayed by Russian officials. Since the conflict in the Ukraine, where Moscow is sided with East Ukraine, separatists took the lion’s share of the public’s attention in the summer and fall of 2014. Moscow mass media created the image of Ukrainian nationalists—and those who dominate Kiev’s government—as fascists and terrorists who were ready to commit any crime. Consequently, some of those engaged in the discussion stated that people in Kiev were responsible. These views seem to have been advanced by some government officials.

Enemies of Putin

Some claimed that the attacks were launched by internal enemies of the regime who wanted to destabilize the country. This was the view advanced by Mikhail Vinogradov, a criminologist. xii Some believed that high ranking officials’ involvement in the plot was likely because the acts were done quite professionally. Some believed that it was a job of special operations personnel. This interpretation of the events was supported by the idea that killers used ammunition produced only in one factory in the Tula region for “special units” (spetspodrazdeleniia). xiii It was implied, in the case of such interpretation, that it was Putin’s enemies inside the government who were behind the plot. Those who saw the murders as a political ploy regarded it as a way to destabilize the country.

Conventional Crime

Robberies and related murders are not rare in Russia. Consequently, some observers believe that the terrorist attacks could be explained in a plainly criminal context and that the group members were robbers xiv and used ideology to mask their criminal intentions.

The explanation that people could be killed just “for fun” was justified by the case of a resident of Serpukhovo randomly shooting people with a crossbow years ago. xv There was no evident reason why he did this. xvi Some claimed the killings could be a manifestation of a perverted notion of “fun,” inspired by computer games. Some believed that it was done by the “golden youth” of the Russian elite who were intoxicated with feelings of power, privilege and permissiveness. Some insisted the murderers were plain robbers, but others assumed they simply insane. Aleksander Gurov, a senior official, stated that if these people were rational, they could well understand that they were being sought and simply cease their activities before being discovered.

Conclusion

There are several lessons that can be drawn from these incidents. This group successfully evaded apprehension for a considerable amount of time. They serve as evidence that criminals can always acquire prohibited weapons and even more uncommon items such as grenades and specialized ammunition intended for special operations units. The attackers were found in an unexpected place: a house belonging to a top law enforcement official. As the 2002 Washington, D.C. Muhammed and Malvo sniper attacks and countless others have also demonstrated, even a very small group can affect a much larger population, potentially creating panic, or at least creating the conditions for possible panic, which in itself can have unforeseeable consequences.

Biography

Mr. Shlapentokh was educated in the former USSR at Moscow State University and at the University of Chicago (Ph.D.). He has held research and teaching appointments in the Russian Research Center at Harvard and the Hoover Institution. He currently teaches at Indiana University-South Bend.


i Ilina, Vera, “V Podmoskov’e Poiavilis’ Pravoslavnye Lesnye Brat’ia,” Islam News, May 31, 2013.
ii Ibid
iii “Politseiskie zaderzhali chlenov bandy GTA,” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., http://news.mail.ru/ingregions/moscow/go/incidnet/200557801 , 6 November, 2014.
iv “Gastarbaitery chistoserdechno soznalis’ v prichasnosti k bande GTA,” http://www.islamnews.ru/news-440454.html , Islam News, 12 November, 2014.
v Ibid
vi “V Moskovskuiu bandu GTA vkhodili iskliuchitel’no vakhkhabity – vykhodtsy iz Uzbekistana i Tadzhikistana,” Centrasia.ru, 24 July, 2014.
vii Ibid
viii Ibid
ix “V Podmoskov’nyi.”
x “Ogurets Zelenyi” comments, http://izvestiia.ru/news/579042
xi Ivanov Ivanov comments, http://izvestiia.ru/news/579042 , 6 November, 2014.
xii “ V Podmoskov’e”
xiii “Chlenami bandy GTA okazalis’ gastarbaitery – ‘vakhkhabity’ s oruzhiem spetsnaza,” Islam News, 6 November, 2014, http />/www.islamnews.ru/news-439868.html
xiv “Gastarbaitery”.
xv “Podmoskovnyi ‘IGIL’ terroriziruet narod,” http://www.islamnews.ru/news-433813.html
xvi “Prisiazhnye vynesli verdikt’ vinoven’ v otnoshenii zhitelia Serpukhova, zastrelivshego iz arableta dvoikh muzhchin,” http /izvestiia.ru/news/491825 , Izvestiia, 9 June, 2009.