Updated 27 August:
Forty-eight hours after two Russian Tupolev airliners took off from Moscow airport minutes apart and crashed, killing all 89 people aboard, al Qaeda has finally come forward with a claim of responsibility, published by the Islamic Minbar website associated with the Islamist organization. The statement, signed by the “Islambuli Brigades” (named for the killer of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat) claims two groups of five men each hijacked the planes and promises to circulate soon a video clip showing the “martyrs” reading out their last wills and testaments. The statement adds that the attacks were the first in a series and there are more operations to come.
Russian investigators have not yet established whether or not the crashes were caused by terrorists – or else they are not saying. Some quote a denial by Chechen rebels. However the denial was oddly precise: “Achmad Zakayev has already said that Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov had nothing to do with the terrorist attack.”
No mention of al Qaeda in the denial.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources believe the Russian airliners were hijacked and crashed by an al Qaeda team from outside Russia. This is borne out by the statement appearing on the Islamic Minbar website.
Russian president Vladimir Putin was faced with a tough dilemma early Wednesday, August 25: to shut down all of Russia’s airports and air space, or clear only the skies over the main cities, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, to prevent a 9/11 type assault.
By morning it was apparent that the two airliners which crashed within minutes of each other after takeoff from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, one bound for Volgograd the second for the Black Sea resort of Sochi, had been hijacked by terrorists. None of the 89 people aboard survived. Among them were 5 members of Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities. Both pilots had sent hijack distress signals before their craft disappeared from radar. Russian security service sources, in their first reaction over Russian TV Wednesday, characterized the disaster as typical of al Qaeda’s mode of operation.
debkafile‘s counter-terror sources believe, in fact, that the Tupolev-154 which blew up in mid-flight near Rostov was destined for Sochi, further to the south, where Putin was vacationing at his holiday residence. The first doomed craft, a Tuopolev-134 that crashed near Bushelaki in the Tula province may also have been originally aimed at a Russian city and not made it.
Putin finally opted to clear the airspace over Russia’s main cities, not the whole country, on the assumption that the two-plane assault was the end of the current terror offensive. He hoped that the announcement of tightened security at Moscow’s airports would put off any more terrorists who might be heading there for further air hijacks. Russian Air force fighters scrambled to patrol skies across the country, armed with unpublished orders to shoot down any identified aircraft, even if it was a passenger plane. In addition, Moscow quietly asked neighboring Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to go on counter-terror air alert.
This request found the Central Asian republics well prepared already after receiving intelligence of an al Qaeda cell having infiltrated from Iran to unleash a campaign of violence on the lines of the offensive terrorizing Iraq.
debkafile‘s sources add that Russia’s overnight emergency triggered elevated levels of security at the international airports of Europe and Israel, focusing mainly on passenger planes incoming from Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport security is also carefully screening flights from eastern and southern Europe, Turkey, Hungary and Bulgaria.
The United States too, three weeks after raising terror alerts in New York, Washington and New Jersey over a threat to its financial sector, has also instituted extra-special precautions. American security authorities decided to be on the safe side and act as though the Moscow hijackings were the start of a series in places other than Russia, especially in view of their timing – four days before Chechnya’s presidential election on Sunday, August 28 and five days before the Republican National Convention opens in New York to nominate President George W. Bush as party’s presidential candidate and Vice President Richard Cheney his running mate.
Al Qaeda has threatened to disrupt both events with violence.
US intelligence branches and its homeland defense department have been placed on the ready and air and naval patrols stepped up over and around American cities and seaports.
Putin’s decision may turn out to have been a dangerous gamble. Russia’s vast expanse is dotted with a myriad easy targets including hundreds of small airfields with scant security, thousands of railway stations, river boats and ferries. None are adequately protected against terrorists.
Putin and his security advisers will have correctly assumed that the big cities would most attract the terrorists. But this does not mean that out-of-the-way locations will not be targeted in the coming hours or days – if only in to catch the world’s security services unawares.
Whereas an unknown number of al Qaeda sleeper cells are known to have penetrated the United States and Canada, Russia is hemmed in on all sides by major al Qaeda networks, the largest based in the breakaway province of Chechnya. It is supported by Chechen and Muslim followers who live in many parts of Russia, providing an army of spies and terror operatives already in place.
The terrorists also count on Russian security services’ responses to terror being cumbersome and slow. Tuesday afternoon, a small explosive charge blew up at a bus stop on the road to Domodedovo airport, injuring three people. Witnesses at the airport describe the security authorities’ response as hysterical and muddled, which the hijackers must have exploited to slip through to the targeted airliners. The small blast should have prompted the sealing off of the airport and its approaches and flight cancellations for redoubled checks – as would have happened in New York or London. National security services might also have been expected to assume responsibility at Domodedovo from the private firm in charge there, although Russian security is reputed to be so riddled with corruption that terrorists have an easy time operating anywhere in Russia, including Moscow.
Security services in the West are now braced to see whether the double airline attack in Russia is followed by sequels anywhere else.
Updated 27 August: