Russian Special Forces: Has ISIS Met Its Fear Merchant Match?


ISIS is a fear merchant. It depends heavily upon using fear to intimidate those opposed to it.

In its high-publicized videos, legions of soulless bodies fill its ranks, regularly demonstrating limitless savagery in executing their enemies. Beheadings, burning prisoners alive, attaching bombs to babies to show new recruits how explosives rip a human body apart, running tanks over prisoners, etc.—no means of execution is beyond the pale as they market fear.

But fear can be a double-edged sword. A force capable of demonstrating this has just entered the fray in Syria. Having used fear previously very effectively against Muslim extremists, this force looks to do so again—only this time its blade will come down on ISIS.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently dispatched a military group in which he has great pride and confidence—his special forces—to Syria. The group has been honed into a uniquely skilled counter-terrorism killing machine, known in Russia for getting the job done.

Russia’s special forces originated out of a terrorist act perpetrated more than four decades ago by another violent Muslim group.

In Munich, Germany, Palestinian terrorists of Black September kidnapped and killed eleven Israeli athletes and a German police officer during the 1972 Summer Olympics. The attack prompted the head of the KGB (the Soviet secret police), Yuri Andropov, to order the creation of a special military force trained in counter-terrorism.

With its establishment two years later, the force initially was used for domestic security. But once deployed outside the homeland, it quickly established a bloody reputation for itself.

Comparable to our own elite fighters of Delta Force, Russian special forces have an operational edge ours do not. While battlefield actions by U.S. forces will, appropriately, always be defined by the laws of land warfare, Russian special forces historically have tossed their moral compass aside. By doing so, they convey a clear message—in blood—to adversaries.

After Moscow invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Russian special forces were tasked to implement “regime change.” Wearing Afghan uniforms, they quickly secured strategic government buildings in Kabul. Storming the presidential palace, they followed through on orders to kill every Afghan in the building. Not only was Afghan President Hafizullah Amin killed along with his mistress and young son, but so too were all witnesses.

Russian special forces played a significant role in Afghanistan throughout the ten year war. But their reputation for taking whatever action necessary to complete its mission was cemented in Lebanon.

In October 1985, a radical Muslim Brotherhood splinter group kidnapped four Soviet diplomats in Beirut. By the time Russian special forces reached the city, one of the diplomats had already been executed.

As Moscow’s policy was never to negotiate with terrorists, no effort was made to do so. Using a network of informants, the Russians identified the militant group responsible and the kidnappers involved.

With the kidnappers’ names in hand, the Russians immediately rounded up their family members, taking them hostage. They then cut off hostages’ body parts, delivering them to the militants along with the threat to continue making deliveries.

The militants got the message. The surviving Russian diplomats were immediately released. For two decades thereafter, Russian diplomats operated safely abroad without fear of becoming targets of Muslim terrorists.

But in 2006, Putin had to call upon his special forces again after four Russian officials in Iraq were abducted and murdered. He gave the order those responsible were to be “destroyed.” Each of the militants involved was hunted down and killed.

Russian naval special forces also have not shied away from playing the fear card. In 2010, the forces confronted Somali pirates.

Operating from their mother ship, the Somalis pirated a Russian oil tanker. Russian naval special forces boarded the tanker, easily routing the pirates, taking them captive and putting them back onboard their mother ship. There, the pirates were securely tied up and the mother ship fitted with explosives. Once back on their own ship, the Russians detonated the explosives.

No Russian ship since then has been pirated.

Russian special forces have demonstrated they can rise to the same level of violence as ISIS.

As they hit the ground running in Syria, the Russians will set out—aided by their Iranian and Syrian friends—to establish informant networks to identify, locate and kill ISIS leaders. Where possible to do so, they will ensure they die a violent death in a way that conveys the message they seek to send.

If there is an Arabic word for “karma,” ISIS will soon be muttering it.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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