MOSCOW – The worst terrorist attack to hit the Russian heartland in five years was almost certainly engineered by Islamist extremists, who are increasingly active in Russia’s volatile northern Caucasus region, say analysts.
On Friday, a luxury train, the Nevsky Express that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg, was derailed by a bomb, killing at least 25 people and injuring almost 100.
Russian security experts say security forces here are not prepared for this new form of terrorism.
“This explodes the official myth that the problems down there have been ‘sorted out’ and that terrorism has been finally dealt with. The fact is that our security forces have been engaged in everything but combating terrorism,” he adds.
Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, an Internet journal that reports on security issues (an English-language version is here) says that Russia’s security forces, at great cost, did manage to crush the large-scale terrorist operations mounted by Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev, such as the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, and the 2004 Beslan school assault, in which scores of terrorist commandos sometimes moved hundreds of miles to hit their targets.
But, he says, like generals preparing for the last war, Russian security services remain fixated on preventing big, spectacular attacks like those of the recent past, instead of preparing for smaller-scale strikes at targets of opportunity, such as the bombings of the Nevsky Express.
“We see new modus operandi taking shape, in which tiny cells of terrorists of 3 to 5 people plan and execute acts of sabotage,” he says. “But our security forces have militarized this problem, and are not set up to deal with small threats like that. The main agency dealing with anti-terrorism is the Interior Ministry, which basically operates an internal army. They are in no way ready for what may be coming,” he says.
As if to underscore that point, another bomb went off Monday in the southern republic of Dagestan, striking an international train traveling from Tyumen, in Siberia, to Baku in Azerbaijan. No one was injured in that blast, but some analysts say there are clear signs that terrorists, who have never ceased operations amid turbulent Caucasus republics like Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya, may be preparing to resume more ambitious attacks upon Russia.
The powerful head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, issued a statement Sunday warning that Friday’s train attack could trigger increased tensions between Russia’s majority Christian and large Muslim communities. And in a politically inspirational vein, which has so far been absent from the comments of Kremlin leaders about the tragedy, Kirill urged Russians to dig in for a long war against terrorism.
“This is a grave challenge for our people,” he said. “A crime, in which any one of us could be the victim, has been committed for effect. Everyone living in Russia is being intimidated.”
“There is a real threat,” agrees Soldatov. “We see forces coalescing in the northern Caucasus who are not interested in local nationalism, or separatism, but see themselves as being at war with Russia. Until lately, the most adventurous Russian Islamists tended to head for Afghanistan, or somewhere else, to wage jihad. Now there are signs that they are going to the Caucausus area, and this bodes very ill,” he says.
No group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, which derailed three crowded carriages of the Nevsky Express, Russia’s fastest train, which runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“This train, especially on a Friday, carries a lot of officials who are traveling between Russia’s two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg. It’s no surprise that at least two heads of government agencies were among the victims. It was clearly done to attract maximum political and media attention, and it obviously worked,” he says.
The Nevsky Express has been attacked before, in 2007, when a similar bomb failed to derail the train but nevertheless caused minor injuries to about 60 people. In retrospect, the attackers Friday may have learned from the previous attempt.
At the time two men from Russia’s southern republic of Ingushetia were arrested and, according to official reports, one has since confessed to involvement in the blast. But the main suspect from the 2007 attack, a former Russian soldier-turned-Islamic-extremist, Pavel Kosolapov, remains at large. He is believed to have been a close associate of Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev, killed by Russian security forces in 2006, who was the main mastermind of several spectacular terrorist attacks, including the horrific 2004 Beslan school siege, which left 330 people dead, mostly children.
Police have issued an all-points bulletin for a middle aged “stocky, red-haired man” seen in the vicinity of Friday’s blast, who may be Mr. Kosolapov.
Earlier this year the Kremlin declared “mission accomplished” in Chechnya after a decade and a half long anti-separatist military campaign, pulled most of its forces out of the tiny republic, and left it under control of a local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Hundreds of people died in a brutal cycle of mass terror strikes that hit Moscow and other Russian cities between 1999 and 2004, mostly traceable to the brutal ongoing war in Chechnya. Kremlin leaders have since argued that the harsh pacification of Chechnya, combined with a tough political crackdown and smarter security operations explain the fact that there has been no major terrorist attack on the Russian heartland since Beslan five years ago – until last weekend.