In the afternoon of Monday, 3 April, the historic city of St. Petersburg joined other European cities like Brussels, Paris and Nice in becoming the target of a terrorist attack.
The victims were travelling on the city’s Metro rail system that carries two million passengers daily. Between two stations, a suicide bomber blew himself up and killed 14 passengers, besides himself, and injured dozens of others, many of them quite severely.
A second larger device was discovered at another station and defused suggesting to investigators that this might have the main attack but for the fact that the bomb failed to explode. The bombing took place on the day President Putin was visiting St. Petersburg to meet his counterpart from Belarus. Investigators are said to be looking for two other associates of the bomber.
The perpetrator has been identified as 23-year old Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Russian citizen born in Kyrgyzstan, who has been living in Russia for the last six years. While most official sources have so far been cautious about discussing the affiliation of the bomber, the Russian Interfax news agency has said that Djalilov was “linked to radical Islamic groups”.
Russia experienced considerable terrorist violence in the 1990s and 2000s, but these were linked to separatist movements in Chechnya and Dagestan. In 2002, Chechen rebels had taken 170 hostages at a theatre in Moscow, and later, in 2004, they occupied a school in Beslan and took 1,100 hostages. About 390 persons were killed in the rescue operation. In January 2011, in a suicide attack at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport by the Chechens left 37 people killed.
Terrorists associated with the Dagestan struggle were responsible for the suicide bombing at Volgograd station in December 2013 in which 16 persons were killed, followed by an attack on a trolley bus a day later in which 14 were killed. Russia has also experienced violence carried out by ISIS, but this has been outside Russia itself. In October 2015, the Russian Metrojet airliner blew up over the Sinai, in which 224 passengers were killed.
As ISIS collapses in the Levant, its lethal tentacles have reached out several thousand kilometers to perpetrate violence upon its enemiesTalmiz Ahmad
While a direct link of ISIS to the St. Petersburg is not yet apparent, commentators note that, in the wake of attacks in Mosul and Raqqa, in recent months ISIS leaders have asked potential recruits to avoid coming to their capital cities and instead carry out attacks in their own home countries. This has led to an upsurge of “lone-wolf” attacks in different cities by persons with no direct links with ISIS or other radical groups, who were perhaps motivated to violence by the allure of extremist propaganda on social media.
Such a scenario cannot be ruled out in the case of the St. Petersburg bombing. Russia is home to at least 200,000 legal Central Asian migrants and a similar number of illegals, who work in gruelling conditions of discrimination and injustice to support families at home. They have in the past flocked to join militant groups in the conflict theatres of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
ISIS has had a special allure for Central Asian fighters. A Georgian Chechen, Abu Omar Al Shishani, was a senior field commander in the ISIS forces till his death in a US air attack in July 2016.
In 2015, the special services chief of Tajikstan, Gulmurod Khalimov, defected to ISIS and had urged Central Asian workers in Russia to join the organization with the words: “Working in Russia you became slaves of kafirs [non-believers]. You’re churki [“dark-skinned”, a pejorative Russian word used to describe Central Asians] for them, nothing more… Do jihad, come to the ISIS.”
It is estimated that between 1500-4000 Central Asians joined militancy in Syria, with some militia specially dedicated to these fighters. With ISIS now under pressure, potential recruits are available to perpetrate terror at home.
Putin’s role in Russia
In Chechnya, this is facilitated by the Chechen independence movement now calling itself the “Caucasus Emirate”, seeking to set up a “caliphate” in Chechnya and calling fighters from all the neighboring republics.
Besides the Chechen factor, attacks on Russia by radical groups have been encouraged by the strong military and political support that Russia has extended to the Assad regime in Syria. Not only has Russia boosted the military capabilities of the Assad regime, its air force has also carried out massive attacks on ISIS positions across Syria. This has ensured not just the survival of the regime but also the imminent destruction of “caliphate” itself.
There are reports that some days before the St. Petersburg bombings some ISIS websites had encouraged attacks on Russia and President Putin himself for his role in Syria. One image showed an ISIS fighter standing in front of the Kremlin with the caption “kill them where you find them”, while another encouraged its supporters to launch strikes on Moscow.
After the attacks, some ISIS-related websites have shown its supporters celebrating the attacks: an ISIS supporter on the group’s al-Minbar platform wrote: “We ask Allah to bless the operation by the lions of the Caliphate, we ask Allah to kill the Crusaders.” Another said that the bombing created “a metro to hell for the worshipers of the Cross”, and claimed that the attacks were revenge for Russia’s attacks on ISIS in Syria.
As ISIS collapses in the Levant, its lethal tentacles have reached out several thousand kilometers to perpetrate violence upon its enemies.
Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.