MAKHACHKALA, Russia – The officers nervously cocked their rifles as the crowd began to swell. The Kirovsky police station in the capital city of Russia's Dagestan region was now under siege. But the angry cohort outside the station walls on May 19 wasn't composed of the bearded, gun-toting militants one might expect in this insurgency-racked region, but a crowd of enraged women in hijabs and ankle-length dresses. It wasn't the first angry mob the officers had faced down, but a crowd of only women was unprecedented. Their dry faces wrinkled by sleepless nights, the women stormed the courtyard looking for their husbands and sons, locked in the basement cells, where they were thought to be beaten or, worse, tortured with electricity.
Yelling at the top of their lungs, the women, mostly Salafi Muslims, demanded that police let in their lawyers. Desperate to make sure that one of the women's sons, a 19-year-old named Abdurakhman Magomedov, detained a few hours earlier, was not hidden in a trunk of a police car, the women blocked the driveway. They yelled that they would blow themselves up if the authorities didn't answer their demands. After a few phone calls and text messages went out, hundreds of the women's infuriated male relatives and friends drove up to the police checkpoint. With iPads and cell phones held aloft, they began taking photos of the men in uniform.
The Dagestan insurgency began with the spillover of militant activity following Russia's harsh crackdown on neighboring Chechnya in the late 1990s. Although the region is traditionally Sufi, militant Salafi imams have been making inroads in the North Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, the region has been the scene of a vicious cycle of violence and repression: police and special forces have arrested thousands of young Salafists throughout the North Caucasus republics, which in turn has driven more young men -- and increasingly women -- to various jihadi groups that aim to establish an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus. With thousands of active fighters, the insurgency in Dagestan is now reportedly the largest in the Caucasus.
In Makhachkala, frustration and rage have been growing over the 17 people abducted, presumably by authorities, since the beginning of this year. Dagestan, always one spark away from fire, is heating up -- a bad sign in this region, where 254 Russian police officers died in insurgency-related incidents last year, far more than the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan.
"Women should be sitting at home cooking soup for men, under sharia law," the police officers sarcastically shouted at the angry crowd. The comment was the last straw for Zhanna Ismailova. Two of her five sons had been abducted from their workplaces that month, she said. Men in black uniforms, who introduced themselves as members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) took them in on suspicion of militant activity. One of her sons, Arslan, 34, had been released after two days and has gone into hiding. Taking out her cell phone, Ismailova showed me pictures of her son's wounds, including pictures of his feet, burned by what she said were electric shocks. The FSB men questioned Arslan about twin suicide attacks on May 3 that killed 13 and injured more than 100 people in Makhachkala. Ismailova's youngest son, Rashid, is still missing. "This brutality and Moscow's idiotic politics is the reason for the war," Ismailova said.
At one point, she slipped past guards and ran into the building, yelling: "Show me immediately the cells where you beat our children!" Outside, hundreds of her supporters, now face to face with a unit of special-forces troops in black balaclavas, were raising their hands in the air and chanting: "God is Great! God is Great!"
To most Russians, the scene would probably look more like Syria or Libya than their own country. State television rarely broadcasts images or even official comments about the increasing human rights abuses by the FSB or police in Dagestan. It's a part of Russia that newly returned President Vladimir Putin does not want to talk about now. Meanwhile, Dagestan is quietly turning from police action to the kind of shooting war against Islamic insurgents that Putin waged with brutal efficiency in Chechnya at the beginning of his first presidential term.