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Moscow Times
September 29, 2004
Keystone Kops Take on Terrorism
By Yulia Latynina

The Federal Security Service thwarted a major terrorist attack earlier this month when agents detained a man identified as Alexander Pumane. Two land mines and 200 grams of TNT were found in his car. Pumane admitted to receiving $1,000 to park two cars outside a museum in western Moscow, then died several hours later. But there was a hitch: The body in the morgue wasn't Pumane's.

This has become a time-honored tradition: Following a series of major terrorist attacks, law enforcement skillfully foils a number of fresh attacks in quick succession. The tradition began in 1999 after two apartment buildings were bombed in Moscow, killing 215. Fear gripped the country and confidence in the security services dipped below the boiling point of oxygen.

In response, some FSB agents hopped in their car and planted a few bags in the basement of an apartment building in Ryazan. Residents noticed the goings-on and called the police, who evacuated the building. Police experts conclusively identified the white powder in the bags as hexogen, a powerful explosive. The FSB thanked residents for their vigilance and declared that a terrorist attack had been averted.

Then something unexpected happened. Local cops traced the license plate of the car used to transport the bags and identified the owner. The FSB had no choice but to turn around and announce that the bags contained sugar, not hexogen, and that the whole thing had been a training exercise. To this day, Boris Berezovsky cites the Ryazan affair as proof that the FSB carried out the 1999 bombings. The authorities have stuck by their story about a training exercise.

In fact, it's far more likely that neither version is correct, and that the FSB's real intention in Ryazan was to stage a public relations coup. By preventing a terrorist attack, the FSB would have proven its ability to defend the motherland. Why else would the agents have driven such an easily traceable car? Thanks to the residents' vigilance and the cops' quick work, however, the FSB was left to make the best of a very bad situation.

An epidemic swept across Russia a couple of years ago. Not a week passed without the police discovering a cache belonging to Chechen terrorists in a rented apartment somewhere -- half a kilo of TNT here, automatic rifles there.

And when the police discovered these caches, they did just the opposite of what they had been trained to do, i.e. stake the place out and wait for the terrorists to arrive. The police never staked out these apartments. They rushed to announce yet another success in the war against terror. There's only one explanation: They knew no one would be coming to collect the bombs.

Pumane's arrest fits this pattern with one terrible exception: He was killed. Even in Ryazan, where fear-stricken residents were herded into the street, there were no casualties.

Pumane's death means that a line has been crossed between what is acceptable and what is not. Comedy has given way to tragedy. And once you've crossed the Rubicon, there's no going back. A man who has killed once will do so again and again for increasingly trivial reasons.

This time around there was a new twist: No one could identify the corpse as Pumane. A man told the FSB that Chechens had paid him to park cars loaded with explosives outside a museum. He then got into a car with an FSB officer and drove away. And the corpse in the morgue is somebody else's. Is there a shortage of dead homeless men in Moscow?

It makes you wonder: If these people can't even organize their own terrorist attacks, how are they supposed to prevent the real thing?

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.