The deadly suicide bombing attacks on two central Moscow subway stations Monday, March 29, were strategically designed to transfix attention on the North Caucasian insurgency's ability to reach deep inside the heart of the Russian ruling regime in its capital city. Two female suicide bombers left 39 dead, injured more than 80, and shut down Moscow's great underground artery and lifeline for several hours.
An operation on this scale, well beyond the capacity of the notorious Black Widows, brought home to the Kremlin and the world the rising momentum of the bloody contest in which Moscow and the Islamist insurgents of the North Caucasian republics are locked.
One of the female suicide bombers blew herself up on a train at the Lyubyanka Station, underneath the Russian Federal Security Service-FSB headquarters – once headed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The second blast at the Park Kultyry station near Gorky Park was just as symbolic: Russian investigators believe this bomber was supposed to detonate her explosives belt at the Oktyarskaya subway station at the Interior Ministry's "central apparatus" (headquarters), except that a second bomb she was carrying detonated prematurely.
The foremost suspect was the rebel Caucasus Emirate organization headed by the rebel Doku Umarov, who later claimed responsibility. Last month, he vowed to spread the Caucasian insurgency to Russian cities.
Doku Umarov – Emir of All Caucasus
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources note that March alone saw at least five signs that the conflict, which had spared Russian cities for six years, was now spreading:
March 2: Said Buryatsky (real name Aleksandr Tikhomirov), the leading ideologue of the North Caucasian Islamist rebels, died in a Russian Spetznaz (Special Forces) operation in Yekazhyevo, Ingushetia.
March 12: Three passenger trains – the No 373 Baku-to-Tyumen, No. 374 Tyumen-to-Baku, and No. 369 Kharkov-to-Baku – were held up on the North Caucasus railroad after parts of the tracks were bombed and anti-tank mines discovered underneath them.
March 18: In another spetz-operation in the Vendensky District, Russian and Chechen special forces killed Abu Khaled, an Arab who arrived in Chechnya 13 years ago, probably as an al Qaeda operative. His job was to impart technological knowhow and psychological readiness to Chechen terrorists
Khaled was also responsible for the personal security of Doku Umarov, 45, the Islamic rebel chief who on Oct. 31, 2007, proclaimed the Caucasian Emirate and declared himself Emir of the new theocratic state uniting the whole of the North Caucasian.
Al Qaeda is long established and well entrenched
Al Qaeda, entrenched in the Caucasian republics for more than a decade, recently began diverting fighters from Yemen to support local extremist groups and promote Islamist separatist trends. They follow on the fighting strength from al Qaeda's North African branch which reaches the region across the Black Sea through Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo.
March 25: in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino Balkaria, Russian special forces killed Anzor Astermirov, alias "Abu Osman" and "Seifullakh", who was the leader of the Kabardino-Balkaria djamaat, which is the main Islamic terror movement in this land.
March 29: The double suicide attack on the Moscow subway which killed at least 39 people.
March 31: Two days later, in the Daghestan town of Kizlyar, a dual suicide attack left 12 dead, including the local police chief, Vitaly Vedernikov and other police officers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources note that in the West, only a few experts are familiar with the scale and complexities of the conflict ongoing in this remote trouble spot.
A grim picture emerges from the statistics gathered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources on events in the South Russian republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, Kabardino Balkaria and Ngorno Karabakh – in March alone:
At least 41 Russian security personnel and some 32 armed Islamic fighters were killed, with 98 wounded on both sides.
The Islamist insurgents carried out 14 shooting attacks and 15 bombing or roadside explosives blasts; detonated at least 4 booby-trapped cars; used anti-tank mines in 5 attacks; and pinpointed Russian security officers in 9 targeted attacks.
Statistics tell a dread tale
Russian security forces, for their part, uncovered 3 large weapons caches packed with vast amounts of explosives, anti-tank rockets and large quantities of ammunition and grenades.
Russian special forces carried out 5 major raids entailing face-to-face combat with Islamic fighters.
In all, 57 counter-terror or terrorist incidents took place in the 31 days of March, an average of 1.8 terror-related engagements per day.
For comparison, the US-led war in Afghanistan claimed the lives of 57 American soldiers in the first two months of 2010, about 28 victims per month.
The Russian counter-terror operation in North Caucasus, which is less than a quarter of the size and population of Afghanistan, is nonetheless comparable in danger and complexity.
As the violence gathers momentum, Moscow has become disillusioned with Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic who kept the lid on the Islamist violence for some years. One factor is the failure of his security forces to defeat the Islamist insurrection which has resurged this year. Another is his overweening ambition, which has led him to try and undermine his Ingushetian counterpart Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, a personal appointee of President Dmitry Medvedev.
After five years in power in Grozny, Kadyrov will be hard for the Kremlin to write off or sideline without risking him becoming a thorn in their side as a troublemaker.