A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded trolleybus in Russia's southern city of Volgograd Monday, killing at least 14 people. It was the second bloody terrorist attack to hit Volgograd in as many days and the third in recent months, raising fears that Russia may be facing an orchestrated bombing campaign by Islamist insurgents from the turbulent north Caucasus aimed at disrupting or even derailing the Sochi Winter Games, now just over a month away.
Video from the scene of Monday's terror strike shows the tangled, smoking remains of a typical Russian municipal trolleybus, with wreckage and bodies strewn across the market square where it blew up during the early morning rush hour.
An initial report by investigators at the scene said the power of the blast was equal to almost 10 pounds of TNT and was so strong it blew the roof off the bus, as well as the windows of a nearby 5-story building. It says a male suicide bomber is believed responsible for detonating the device, which was packed with shrapnel and was similar in other respects to Sunday's train station bomb that killed at least 18 people. "[These similarities] confirm the investigators' assumption that the two attacks are related. It's possible that they have been prepared in the same place," the report says.
No claim of responsibility has been made, but experts say there's little doubt the attacks stem from Russia's troubled north Caucasus, where a low-level Islamist insurgency has been spreading around the region's impoverished, mainly Muslim population for years. The main suspect is Chechen warlord turned-self-declared "emir" of the north Caucasus "caliphate" Doku Umarov, who warned several months ago that he would be lifting his "moratorium" on terrorist attacks in Russia's heartland in advance of the Sochi Olympic Games.
"Doku Umarov promised to escalate his actions outside the Caucasus region, and he often does what he threatens," says Dmitry Oreshkin, director of the Mercator Group, a Moscow think tank.
Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, is an important city about 600 miles southeast of Moscow, but there seems no obvious reason why terrorist planners chose it for three separate, deadly attacks in as many months.
A widespread opinion is that Volgograd is being hit because the most likely primary targets of terrorists – Sochi and Moscow – have been locked down by massive security preparations, which have rendered them virtually impenetrable. Security precautions in Volgograd were greatly stepped up as well last October, after a female suicide bomber from Dagestan destroyed a trolleybus, killing herself and six people in a strike that bore an eery resemblance to today's bombing. Those measures clearly failed to prevent the latest two deadly acts.
On Monday President Vladimir Putin met with his security chiefs and urgently dispatched the head of the FSB security service, Alexander Bortnikov, to Volgograd to deal with the situation.
Some experts warn that the Volgograd strikes could be diversions, aiming to sow uncertainty and compel the Kremlin to divert security resources.
"Security services are in a complicated position. If they now increase their presence in Volgograd, it will be at the expense of Sochi and other regions," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The thing is, security was already operating at full capacity before this happened. Nothing can be done at this point to enlarge those resources. The problem is that in a country the size and complexity of Russia, you can't protect every place," he says.
Russia's heartland has seen several cycles of deadly terrorist attacks, which began around the same time that Vladimir Putin arrived in power as prime minister in the autumn of 1999. That year saw a series of deadly apartment blasts that killed hundreds of people in Moscow and other cities.
Though those bombings have never been satisfactorily explained, they were cited at the time as the main reason for launching a second Russian invasion of the breakaway republic of Chechnya. That war, which went on for years, spawned repeated terrorist strikes, including the 2002 seizure of a crowded Moscow theater, which left 130 people dead after security forces stormed the building. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took hundreds of children hostage at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. That attack cost 330 lives, half of them children.
About 5 years ago, the Kremlin declared Chechnya pacified and withdrew most Russian forces from the republic, leaving it under the total control of a pro-Moscow local strongman named Ramzan Kadyrov.
But while Chechnya has been relatively peaceful, Islamist insurgency has metastasized around the region, especially to nearby republics Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Though the earlier Chechen rebellions had sought independence from Russia, the new insurgents have adopted Islamist ideology and have no interest in the old nationalist agenda.
In 2010 Mr. Umarov launched a new series of terror attacks which, among other tragedies, caused 40 deaths in a twin suicide bombing that hit Moscow's crowded metro and a year later killed 35 people in a bombing that struck an arrival lounge at Moscow's Domodedovo airport.
A broader conflict
The war that began in the mid-1990's around Chechnya's bid for independence has mutated and become part of the international terror war over the past decade-and-a-half, says Oleg Nechiporenko, a former KGB officer and chief expert with the National Anti-criminal and Anti-terrorist Foundation, an independent Moscow think tank.
"Nobody canceled this war, and it's been going on for the past 13 years. We sometimes forget about it, and then events such as those in Volgograd hit us as something unexpected," he says.
Some experts say the main security measures being employed by police and intelligence services probably need to be rethought. In most Russian cities police use checkpoints with metal detectors at the entrance to airports, railway stations, and other crowded places such as public rallies and farmer's markets.
"It seems these checkpoints are not solving the problem at all. It just makes people accumulate, and it's not effective," says Yury Kobaladze, security expert and former spokesman for the FSB. Sunday's train station bombing in Volgograd occurred amid crowds waiting to pass through one of those checkpoints.
Mr. Oreshkin says that, as in previous cycles of terrorism, the Kremlin may seize upon public fears to ratchet up the powers of the security services and tighten public controls.
"Authoritarian regimes are never very good at combating terrorism, but they tend to be quite effective at controlling the mass media," he says. "The authorities declare this false choice, between Islamist terrorism or state control. I'm quite sure they will use these fresh terrorist acts for their own purposes," he says.
The next few weeks will be a time of great tensions, as the long-predicted terrorist offensive against the Sochi Games unfolds and Russian security services scramble to contain it, says Mr. Petrov.
"We can only watch, fatalistically, and wait for whatever's going to happen next," he says.