Originally Published 2010-03-31 00:00:00 Published on Mar 31, 2010
The relative calm in the major Russian cities was broken last November when a bombing attack derailed the Nevsky Express -- a high-speed train plying between Moscow and St Petersburg
Moscow shocked by Metro blasts

The spectre of terrorism reappeared in Moscow on 29th March as twin bomb blasts rocked the Moscow Metro. Just as the unsuspecting passengers were adjusting to the new summer timetables in the Monday morning rush hour, the first bomb exploded at the Lubyanka station on the Sokolnicheskaya line, close to Red Square at 7:56 am. The second blast occurred at 8:38am at Park Kultury station near Gorky Park just four stations away from Lubyanka. Perhaps there was an element of symbolism in targeting Lubyanka as it houses the headquarters of the Russian intelligence agency-the FSB. 

According to authorities, the twin blasts killed 41 people. About 70 people were hospitalized with injuries of which 5 are reported to be in a critical condition. The blasts occurred just after the trains entered the stations and the doors were open. The force of each blast was equivalent to about 6.6 pounds of TNT.

Preliminary investigations reveal that the attacks were carried out by two female suicide bombers. Police disclosed that the Park Kultury bomber appeared to be aged between 18 and 20 while the other one looked older. The two bombers were apparently accompanied by two other young women and a “male ringleader in his 30s with the surname Mataev”. The authorities on Tuesday (30th March) released the photos of the two suspected suicide bombers.

So far the evidence from the bombing appears linked to Russia’s unresolved crisis in the North Caucasian region - Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. Female suicide bombers from the region, sometimes called the Black Widows (the Chechen women who have lost husbands, fathers and brothers in the conflict with Moscow) have previously made a few audacious attacks in Russia making them a much feared group. However, things have been rather quiet since Vladimir Putin’s effective crackdown of the Chechen groups and the appointment of Ramzan Kadyrov as the governor of Chechnya. While Kadyrov has been successful in keeping the rebels down in Chechnya, the neighbouring provinces have witnessed a spike in violence recently. Dagestan witnessed another wave of bomb blasts on 31st March in which twelve people were killed. Prime Minister Putin has commented that the blasts in Moscow and Dagestan could possibly be linked.

The relative calm in the major Russian cities was broken last November when a bombing attack derailed the Nevsky Express-a high-speed train plying between Moscow and St Petersburg. Twenty-seven people were killed in the attack. Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed ‘Emir of the Russian North Caucasus’ claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened the Russians that “the war is coming to their cities”. The Russian security forces have killed a few of Umarov’s supporters in the recent weeks. Perhaps the most notable of this group was Sayid Buryatsky (he was born Aleksander Tikhomirov but later converted to Islam under the new name) who was killed by the Special Forces in an early March operation in the village of Ekazhevo in Ingushetia. Buryatsky was known to be a very popular leader and masterminded the recruitment of several volunteers on suicide missions. Apart from Buryatsky, the Arab warlord Abu Haled and the head of the Caucasus Emirate’s Sharia Court, Anzor Astemirov were also killed in the March offensive. There are many observers who believe that the immediate provocation behind the Metro attacks was this successful operation in the Caucasus.

Meanwhile Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted that the bombing attacks may have a link to the AfPak region. While asked about foreign linkages to the attacks Lavrov replied, “we all know that the Afghan-Pakistan border, in the so called no-man’s land, the terrorist underground is very well entrenched”. With the Russian security forces being fairly successful in putting down the rebel movements in the Caucasus, it is plausible that the suicide bombing mission has received some element of external support.

Russian leaders, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have condemned the blasts and vowed to take stringent action against the terrorists. Putin, who was on a Siberian trip cut short his visit and returned to Moscow and reassured the nation that the terrorists will be destroyed. According to Putin, “it is already a matter of honour for law-enforcement bodies to drag them from the bottom of the sewers and into the daylight.” Medvedev called the perpetrators of the crime as beasts whom the government will find and destroy.

There were reports of vigilantism and racial attacks in Moscow after the blasts. According to Echo Mosvky radio two Muslim women were attacked on a train between the Avtozavodskaya and Paveletskaya metro stations while at the Kuntsevskaya station in western Moscow, two men of Caucasian appearance were attacked by mobs.

The Metro bombing can possibly throw a ner in President Medvedev’s Caucasus policy focusing on “liberalizing the government, increasing political pluralism and dealing with terrorism by addressing the root causes of the insurgency”. Medvedev in fact has been trying to figure out a systemic solution to the problem in the Caucasus which is often exacerbated by unemployment, poverty and corruption. He has named a special envoy to the region, Alexander Khloponin, who is tasked with preparing a strategic development plan for the Caucasus.

Conspiracy theorists in the meantime are having a field day after the blasts. Some of them have alleged that the blasts may be used by Putin to initiate a security crackdown in order to refurbish his image keeping in mind the forthcoming presidential polls in 2012.

Meanwhile, there was strident criticism of the government and security agencies in several media outlets including the Moskvosky Komsomolets, Vedomosti and gazeta.ru. Some of the reports criticized Russia’s concept of anti-terrorism to be outdated and questioned the inordinate delay in installing modern equipment to detect explosives.

While improved intelligence and better policing are vital in preventing terrorist attacks, long lasting peace will only be possible by recognizing, understanding and resolving the fundamental causes of unrest and alienation in the North Caucasus-the hotbed of terrorism in Russia.

Ajish P Joy is an Associate Fellow with Observer Research Foundation

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