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Analysis & Opinion
30.11.09 Blood On The Tracks
By Roland Oliphant

The attack on the Neva Express has traumatized the nation. Coverage of the incident has dominated news coverage for the past three days. President Dmitry Medvedev has issued his own statement of condolences to the families of the injured and killed. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, on Sunday hosted a memorial service in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in which he condemned the terrorists for breaking “not only the law of man, but the law of god.” But amid the mourning, professionals are looking hard at who carried out the attack – and why.

The explosion of a charge planted under the tracks derailed the train to St. Petersburg from Moscow at 9:34 on Friday night as it sped through a remote section of countryside on the border of the Tver and Novgorod regions. By Monday 25 people were confirmed killed, at least 90 hospitalized and four still missing. It was easily Russia's worst rail disaster, and the worst terrorist attack outside the North Caucasus, in years.

Even before the FSB, Russia’s internal security services, confirmed on Saturday night that it believed the tragedy was a terrorist attack, it looked too suspicious to be an accident. The Neva Express is known to be favored by the elite of Russian society – high-ranking government officials and businessmen – and it is particularly busy on Friday nights. It also just happened to be derailed at an especially remote point in its journey. And, most suspiciously, it has been struck by terrorists before. On August 13, 2007 a bomb planted on the track succeeded in derailing the train and injured 60 people, although no one was killed.

“The motive for hitting the Neva Express is quite obvious,” said Andrei Soldatov, an independent security analyst. “If you are trying to attack the authorities, it is the most vulnerable target. You can't attack the State Duma or the White House; but you can bomb a train.”

This time, the attackers seemed to have refined their tactics, with horrible success. The 25 dead include at least two high-ranking officials – Boris Yevstratikov, head of the State Reserves Agency, and Sergei Tarasov, chairman of the Federal Highways Agency. “It is unprecedented to kill two such high-ranking officials in a single attack,” noted Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The attack seems to have been carried out by a relatively professional team. According to the FSB's press releases, the blast had the equivalent explosive power of an explosion from five to seven kilograms of TNT. Preliminary testing of explosive traces found at the scene suggest that the charge was a home-made mixture of plastic explosive, TNT and ammonium nitrate, which was wrapped in plastic and buried underneath a rail. A second charge planted near a telegraph pole was detonated when investigators arrived at the scene on Saturday afternoon. No one was hurt – the bomb apparently malfunctioned in some way – but it was clearly intended for the investigatory team, and, as one unnamed expert told the Kommersant daily, “that kind of sabotage is not carried out with 'the Anarchist’s Cookbook'.” In other words, it was the work of professionals.

If this is indeed the case, it probably rules out the far-right group Combat 18 as suspects. Although one of their members claimed on the group's blog to have had a part in the bombing, “general opinion is that nationalists do not have the kind of specialists who could carry out this kind of attack,” said Soldatov. “It is quite difficult to organize an attack on a train like this. And if you look at the history of these kinds of attacks, the perpetrators are usually quite well trained. The 2007 bomb, for example, was quite a sophisticated device. And the attack on the Moscow-Grozny train in 2005 was carried out by a specialist with military experience from fighting in Yugoslavia. So my impression is that it is most likely North Caucasian terrorism.”

To add to the intrigue, one of two Ingush men on trial for the 2007 bombing pleaded guilty on November 25 – just two days before Friday's repeat attack.

Although the insurgency in the North Caucasus has found renewed vigor in the past two years, the violence has mostly been contained to the Caucasian republics. Friday's attack has brought back the memory of the shocking spate of terrorist attacks witnessed by Russians in the first half of the decade, such as the appalling Dubrovka Theatre Siege in 2002 and the Beslan School siege in 2004. The Islamist insurgency is still too weak to repeat attacks on that scale, but it is able to mount small, cell-based operations involving three or four people.

“They have to show that they have the ability to do something, but they have no possibility to repeat the success of large operations like Beslan or the Nazran raid of 2004,” said Soldatov. “So they switch to cell-based operations. And cell-based terrorist groups are quite capable of carrying out attacks like this, far from home territory.”

The Fall Out

It is no exaggeration to say that the targeting of the Neva Express has sent a shock wave through Russia's ruling class – this is probably the first time terrorists have so openly targeted Russia's civil servants, rather than ordinary civilians. One might expect that to prompt a strong reaction from the authorities. In 2004, the Beslan siege prompted a significant change in the law that effectively strengthened the Federal Center at the expense if the regions. But a similar shake-up is unlikely this time.

“After Beslan they were eager to introduce the changes announced as the 'Beslan package', but Beslan was used as the pretext,” said Petrov. “This time I don't think they are eager to make the electoral or political system any tougher than it already is.”

Nor is there likely to be much of a change in counter-terrorism tactics. “The priority for Russian counter-terrorism has always been preventing the loss of control of a certain area, as happened when insurgents took over Nazran for a couple of days in 2004. In this instance, there was a bomb and several people were killed, but there was never any danger of losing control of Tver region, for example,” said Soldatov.

In a country where roads are often rudimentary, railways are a particularly attractive target for such cells. And even more so because they are difficult to protect. “We have 86,000 kilometers of track in this country,” Vice president of Russian Railways Alexander Boreshov said when grilled by the Echo of Moscow radio station in a debate on whether the attack could have been prevented. “What do you think can be done to ensure security?... protecting the entire network is physically impossible, and you should understand that.”
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