What Can We Learn from St. Petersburg’s Attack

 

 

It is not the first time Russia knows terrorist attacks on its soil, even if for the past four years, the country has been free of the kinds of large assaults (apart from the North Caucasus region) that have periodically hit Europe and the United States.

This relative peace moment ended last Monday, when an explosion torn apart a coach in a St. Petersburg tube station, killing 14 people and injuring more than 50. A second device was found later and dismantled at a nearby metro station.

On Tuesday evening, the attack had still not been claimed.

An unfamiliar profile

For the first time in the history of Islamic terrorism in Russia, it is not a Caucasian citizen who is involved in an attack but a recently Russian-naturalized citizen from Kirghizstan, one of the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia[1].

In the Central Asia, allegiances to local religious groups – such the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Hizb ut-Tahrir – are multiple, but with no exclusivity granted to the Islamic State. The Kyrgyz authorities had blamed these organizations on the August 30, 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, the capital.

As in every country with citizens who have join the Islamic state in the Middle East, it is the prospect of their return, while Daech knows military reverses on the ground, which worries the authorities.

Akbarjon Djalilov was actually of Uzbek ethnic origin. He lived for a long time in Och, in the Ferghana valley, a Kyrgyz town on the border with Uzbekistan. This famous valley is an epicenter for jihad candidates and one of the most unstable place in the world. In 2010, inter-ethnic riots caused 470 deaths in that same city, fanned by religious and political hatreds. By 2015, twenty people from the same family had left to Syria.

A poorly planned operation

Despite 14 dead and more than 50 injured, it is possible to assess that the operation was poorly planned and Akbarjon Djalilov was an unsophisticated actor and certainly not a trained-terrorist operative.  Starting by the choice of the time of the attack, a pre-rush hour. A little later in the day and the death toll would have been dramatically higher. The discovered of a second explosive engine (defused by the security forces) in Vosstaniya square tube station shows that the attack intended to be much larger. We do not have information if this bomb was planned to be detonated either by timer or remote control.

Analysis

The device was also uncharacteristic for Russia. Indeed, the first reports indicate the bomb was not made of T.N.T., an easy material to get in Russia, previously used in every terrorist attack in the country.

A worrisome prospect for Moscow is that the perpetrator was a grassroots jihadist not belonging to AQ, IS or the Chechen rebel groups.

Leaderless operatives are a new and unfamiliar enemy for the Kremlin. Though the Russian government has closed on much of the radical jihadist material circulating on the Internet, it is simply impossible to get rid of all of the jihadist propaganda.  

Moscow isn’t accustomed to contending with terrorism threat coming from abroad, despite all its experience combating traditional domestic terrorism networks. It is estimated that 5,000 Russian citizens who have left the country, mostly from the Caucasus, to fight with the Islamic State are returning to continue the war in their homeland.

In addition, if Russian security forces find that the attack in St. Petersburg was reprisal for Russia’s involvement alongside the Syrian regime against the Islamic State in Syria, the Kremlin may have to rethink its campaign there. Moscow initially got involved in the conflict to rally patriotism among the Russian people and support for their government, a self-styled defender against the extremist group.

But over the past year, the public’s enthusiasm for the Kremlin’s Syria campaign has faded away. Recent polls indicate that today, less than half of all Russians approve of their country’s continued involvement in Syria, down from 65 percent. Indeed, many Russians, worried by the national economic situation, would rather see the Kremlin focusing on domestic troubles than on problems abroad.  

 

[1] According to the Russian Ministry of the Interior, there are about 500 Kyrgyz amongst the 1,500 Central Asian mercenaries fighting in Syria. Today, Kyrgyzstan has more than 2,300 mosques and many madrasas, compared with only 39 at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union.

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