A powerful explosion ripped through a half-empty carriage of a commuter train near the Dagestani town of Khasavyurt Sunday, killing a young woman and wounding several people.
Police announced the apparent terror bombing as an almost routine event, the latest of nearly 80 deadly attacks by Islamic extremists that have rocked the multiethnic mountain republic of Dagestan so far this year. The Kremlin insists the wave of attacks that threaten to unhinge Russia's mainly-Muslim Caucasus region is being orchestrated by the same global jihad groups that have struck in London and Sharm-el-Sheikh in recent days.
Many experts, however, dispute this interpretation, arguing that Moscow's handling of the still-smoldering war in next-door Chechnya, as well as local poverty and corruption, have more to do with the roots of violence here. But most agree that there has been an alarming influx of foreign jihadis into Russia's vulnerable southern underbelly over the past year.
"Our forces have captured or killed citizens of 52 countries operating with the terrorists in the north Caucasus," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser. "The enemy brings an ideology of radical Islam that seeks political power through terrorist methods."
Recent incidents, including a bath-house bombing that killed 10 Russian soldiers in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala two weeks ago, suggest the attackers have absorbed sophisticated tactics used by jihadis in Iraq and elsewhere. A report issued last week by Igor Dobayev, an expert with the official Academy of Sciences, found that as many as 2,000 Islamist insurgents, many belonging to the Al Qaeda-linked Sharia Jamaat, are behind the wave of roadside explosions, car bombings, and assassinations.
Dagestan, with just over 2 million inhabitants belonging to 37 fractious ethnic groups, is the largest and potentially most volatile piece of the Russian Caucasus. The main pipeline for Russia's share of Caspian oil runs through the coastal city of Makhachkala. The republic governed since 1991 by Magomedali Magomedov, has an estimated 60 percent unemployment rate and salaries half the Russian average.
President Vladimir Putin made an emergency visit to Dagestan last week - kept secret until after his return to Moscow - where he ordered security to be beefed up on the southern border with Azerbaijan, but offered no public criticism of Mr. Magomedov.
"The authorities are unable to deal with the situation in Dagestan, and the state is close to panic over it," says Timur Muzayev, a regional expert with the Center of National Politics, a Moscow-based think tank. "The inner conflicts in Dagestan have now attained crisis proportions."
A secret report by the Kremlin's special envoy to the north Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, leaked to a Moscow newspaper earlier this month, warned of the emergence of "Islamic Sharia enclaves" amid the high Caucasus peaks."Further ignoring the [social, economic, and political] problems and attempts to drive them deep down by force could lead to an uncontrolled chain of events whose logical result will be open social, interethnic, and religious conflict in Dagestan," Mr. Kozak wrote.
Many experts say the Chechnya war, which began almost 11 years ago in a bungled military effort by Moscow to put down a separatist rebellion, remains the key destabilizer of the region. Violence in Chechnya has been rising. In the past week alone a military helicopter crash killed eight soldiers, and an ambush on security forces in a previously "peaceful" town, claimed by Islamic rebels, killed 14. In recent days four Russian police have died in apparent terrorist attacks in the nearby mainly Muslim republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. "The Chechnya war is a bomb that we [the Russians] set off, and now it is exploding in all of our faces," says Anna Politkovskaya, a top Russian journalist. "Nowadays we live from one terrorist attack to the next, and in between we pretend that everything is OK."
The first Chechnya war, 1994-96, was effectively won by the nationalist, independence-seeking rebels. But experts say that since rebel president Aslan Maskhadov was killed by Russian security forces earlier this year, the Chechen insurgency is led by Islamic radicals such as Shamil Basayev, architect of a mass hostage-taking in a Moscow theater two years ago and last September's bloody school siege in Beslan. "We are no longer talking about Chechen secessionists challenging Moscow," says Mr. Markov. "Now it's radical religious ideologues who aim to destroy the unbelievers and establish an Islamic caliphate."
Mr. Basayev, along with a small army of jihadis, invaded Dagestan in 1999, but was driven back after local militias mobilized in large numbers to support Russian forces. Experts are not sure Moscow could hope for that kind of popular backing in any future emergency.
"In the [north Caucasus crisis] we can see the complete failure of Putin's policies," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "It is a fairy tale to explain it as the work of outside factors, Islamic terrorists from the Middle East, or whatever. The truth is that internal problems are generating social unrest, which leads people to turn to Islamic ideas."