Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Thursday, Dec. 3, that a train bombing that killed 26 people last week showed the threat to Russia from “militant rebel groups” was very high.
In his annual marathon phone-in with the Russian people, he vowed to “break the back” of terrorism and called for tough and decisive action against “criminals” who attacked their own people.
“The threat of terrorism remains very high,” Putin said.
No sooner had he spoken when a car packed with explosives and weapons was intercepted on Thursday near a railway station in Karelia, north of St. Petersburg.
Rail traffic in northwest Russia appears to be the current chosen target of the North Caucasian terrorist groups. The latest attempt was foiled, but at least 26 people died, and around 90 were injured Friday night, Nov. 27, in the bombing of the Aleshinka-to-Yglovka No.166 Nevsky Express train carrying more than 600 passengers from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Four cars were derailed as the train passed over exploding tracks; the explosion leaving a crater half a meter deep and a meter wide. A second smaller bomb exploded at 14:00 the next day about a meter and a half away from first crater. Nobody was hurt. Officials say it may have had a faulty mechanism which would explain why it didn’t detonate along with the other bomb. They did not explain why it took 24 hours from the first explosion to discover the second bomb, but the railroad authority revealed that a 1.5 kilogram case of hexogen was found in one of the train cars.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terror sources say these facts raise two possibilities:
1. That the crate was loaded on the train before it left the Moscow station in way that would maximize the number of cars derailed and the number of casualties. This presumes that the bombers had accomplices in Moscow.
2. The terrorist team split into two groups. One placed explosives on the tracks. The second traveled on the train with a second batch of explosives to be detonated en route. This second group or individual vanished under cover of the hundreds of passengers' panicky flight from the scene of the carnage.
Authorities deny home-grown Islamists, average Russian fears them
This particular campaign of terror may still be in mid-course. In the view of our counter-terror sources, the group responsible failed to achieve its goal of a spectacular attack with casualties counted in hundreds of dead and wounded and will try again.
On Wednesday, Dec 2, the KavkazCenter.com website, citing a letter it received from Islamist sources, reported that “the attack was prepared and carried out on the orders of “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate Doku Umarov.”
Umarov is believed to head a network of rebel groups that are responsible for frequent attacks on police and officials in the North Caucasus.
Russian investigators are searching for a man and a woman seen near the scene of Friday’s attack. Tire tracks from a Niva car were found nearby. Dogs tracked the Niva to an empty house where, according to locals, a man and a woman had been staying several days earlier. DNA was taken from inside the house. Villagers confirmed that the pair drove a Niva, but just before the terror attack left in a silver VAZ-2109 car. The man is about 30. Police sketches based on descriptions given by locals have been published, but are of limited use because their descriptions are so varied that three different police identikits have been produced.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources report that these investigations tend to be bogged down by the refusal of the Russian media and government to admit to the rise of home-grown Islamist terror among the country's 20 million Muslims, partly as a backlash to the Kremlin's foreign policies.
Putin spoke of “rebel groups” and “criminals.”
But the Russian street is more clear-eyed. The average Russian is alive to locally-bred jihadist groups, fears them and wishes the authorities would put them down with an iron fist.
North Caucasian Islamist turbulence rising since Chechen calmed
Russia has three major Muslim concentrations
The most militant are the Muslims populations (nine out of 22 million) of the eight republics of the Northern Caucasus: Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia.
Another six million (out of a total population of 30 million) inhabit the middle Volga provinces of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.
Moscow has the third big Muslim concentration, estimated at 1.5-2 million out of 15 million inhabitants in all.
The contemporary history of Northern Caucasus is well researched.
Moscow has imposed relative calm on the turbulent province of Chechnya after some160,000 soldiers and civilians are believed to have perished in two wars. Grozny, its ravaged capital, is being rebuilt. Chechnya has gained partial-autonomy as a Muslim province governed by the rule of Sharia. Its government is pressing for polygamy to be legalized.
The post-war Chechen leaders may or may not have an affinity with fundamentalist Islamic doctrine. What they need is an official ideology to unite the people behind them while rebutting rebel accusations that all members of the pro-Putin clique are apostates and enemies of Islam. The rebels hate the Russians as oppressors, the United States for supporting them and the Jews as infidels or worse.
The first president of the Chechen Republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in 2004. He was later succeeded by his son Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2007.
The appointment of Moscow-appointed satraps to rule in Grozny is no guarantee of future stability. The region is inherently volatile and is always demanding more freedoms and funds.
Medvedev is first Russian president to go visiting
Since the end of the Chechen wars, other parts of the Northern Caucasus have become more restive. This year, Daghestan, Ingushetia and other republics and regions were beset by a rising spiral of Islamist gang violence against the powers-that-be resulting in the deaths of police chiefs and other leading officials.
In June 2009, Yunusbek Yevkurov, president of Ingushetia, narrowly escaped with injuries from an assassin's attack. The situation was deemed sufficiently serious for Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to visit Daghestan (for the second time in one year) and Ingushetia. No Russian president has ever been known to take himself to these republics.
No solution seems to be in sight for stabilizing the situation in northern Caucasus. There are some forty nationalities and thirty languages in Daghestan alone and the situation in other parts of the region is not very different. During the Soviet era conflicts were suppressed. Now the Islamists appear to believe that if they can only defeat Russia militarily and get rid of ethnic Russians, they would be free to impose their pax Islamica on the region.