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Analysis & Opinion
29.03.10 The Martyrs’ Brigade
By Tom Balmforth and Roland Oliphant

Two female suicide bombers detonated explosives on Moscow’s packed, rushed-hour metro on Monday morning, claiming at least 39 lives and injuring 77 more. CNN has reported that Chechen separatists have claimed responsibility for the attacks at the Lubyanka and Park Kultury metro stations in central Moscow, and suspicion has fallen on a crack squad of female suicide bombers from Russia’s troubled North Caucasus. Could this blast be the first of more to come?

The first bomb exploded as a train rolled into the Lubyanka metro station at 7:56 a.m., and less than an hour later a second bomb was detonated on the platform at the Park Kultury station. At least 37 people were killed and 66 injured, with many still in serious condition, an Emergency Ministry statement said. A third, unexploded bomb belt rigged with 1.5 kilograms of TNT was then discovered at Park Kultury, reported, but the authorities later denied the claim. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has ordered regional Interior Ministries to tighten security in all cities with a metro system.

“The train came into the platform and the doors opened for about thirty seconds,” said Valery Chuverov, who was boarding the train at Park Kultury when the bomb went off. “People were trying to get in and out because there was a huge crowd on the platform and the carriage was totally loaded…I pushed my way into a train car and turned around, and there was a bang and a flash, but it wasn’t that big,” said Chuverov.

The explosions had the equivalent strength of three kilograms of TNT and the bombs were packed with bolts and nails, ministers later told President Dmitry Medvedev on national television. But Chuverov said that reports of two to three kilograms of explosives were false – “there couldn’t have been more than one…The explosion was not that big, but there were just too many people there. That’s why there were so many casualties. As we were all trying to get out, I saw about seven injured people who were all covered in blood, one guy in particular – his right side from his head to his toes was totally ripped. That’s why I think there was some kind of shards of metal put inside,” said Chuverov.

The attacks on central metro stations, both of which are intersected by two metro lines, paralyzed Moscow rush hour traffic as police cordoned off streets and helicopters circled above the stations. Amid the chaos, cab fares shot through the roof, as drivers looked to turn a quick profit. But terrorists could have targeted larger transport hubs. The reason they chose to bomb Lubyanka was “symbolic,” said Sergei Markedonov, an independent political analyst and Caucasus expert, because the FSB’s headquarters are based at Lubyanka. Meanwhile, the bomb at Park Kultury, four stops south of Lubyanka, was detonated on the Sokolnicheskaya line used by the FSB to get to work. “The timing as well – it’s the normal time for servicemen to be going to work,” said Andrei Soldatov, an independent security analyst. The Park Kultury bomb may also have been originally intended for the Oktyabrskaya metro station, one stop away, where the Interior Ministry headquarters are located.

Today’s bombings are thought of as revenge attacks for the insurgents killed by Russian strongmen in the violent Muslim North Caucasus region. But Markedonov said it is too early to speculate who was responsible for the attacks. “So far we know there have been two crimes, a lot of victims, but no one is taking responsibility. It’s a bit far-reaching to speculate…It’s easy to say that it’s the Caucasus, but still, it’s a groundless statement – there’re no facts,” said Markedonov.

Soldatov said the trail pointed to Doku Umarov, the top rebel Islamist leader in the North Caucasus. “There are claims that Doku Umarov has resurrected a unit in the Southern Jamaat [his combat team] capable of dangerous operations. He erected this unit in 2008 and there have been a number of suicide attacks carried out by women in Vladikavkaz [the capital of North Ossetia], so I think it was just a question of time when it would happen in Moscow,” said Soldatov.

On February 16, in an interview published on the Islamist Web site, Umarov, cited as the “Caucasus Emirate's Emir Dokka Abu Usman,” claims to have founded a unit of suicide bombers, the “Riyad-us-Saliheen Martyrs’ Brigade,” with the aim of taking the fight beyond the Caucasus. “The Martyrs' Brigade is replenished with the best among the best of the Mujahideen and if the Russians do not understand that the war will come to their streets, that the war will come to their homes, so it is worse for them,” Umarov said.

The strategy of the female suicide bomber is originally a Chechen phenomenon from back in 2000, employed by Shamil Basayev, the notorious Islamist militant killed in July 2006 by Russian security forces. The Riyad-us-Saliheen was originally one of Basaev’s units. In the North Caucasus, the occurrence of families which no longer have men in them, in conjunction with the conservatism of society, means that women are particularly vulnerable to coercion into such radical groups.

Soldatov said that today’s attacks had strong echoes of the recent bombings in North Ossetia. “Today looks very different to suicide attacks in Ingushetia, or in Chechnya…But in Vladikavkaz what’s been happening is very similar to what’s happened in Moscow today. In both cases, women were involved,” said Soldatov.

So should the FSB really have seen the attacks coming? “I think so, yes. There were a number of similar attacks in 2004 and recently Doku Umarov has been making public statements about it. Of course, they had to pay attention to this,” said Soldatov. Moreover, the authorities were slow to react this morning. When at a press conference, one journalist asked why the metro line was not immediately closed after the first bomb, Vladimir Vasiliev, the chairman of the State Duma’s Security Committee, acknowledged that it was “a very good question” but failed to answer it.

Soldatov was a little lukewarm on the dynamism of the future investigation. “The first question will be: does it threaten political stability? In this case, we can say that of course the answer is no. There’s no threat to political stability. There’s no intrusion of large numbers of militants to this region, so I think we can expect the same reaction as with the Nevsky Express: an investigation and some claims,” said Soldatov.

Markedonov said that we can expect more terrorist attacks. In the past, attacks on Moscow have come in spates. Late in the summer of 2004, a rash of terrorist acts carried out beyond the borders of the North Caucasus included suicide bombings on the Moscow metro and on two planes departing from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, blowing them up mid-flight. Just over a week later, on September 1, 2004, terrorists seized a school in Beslan in North Ossetia resulting in the deaths of 334 civilians. “Soon or not that soon, that’s a secondary question. But more terrorist attacks are of course possible,” said Markedonov.

“So what lessons we draw from this? Terrorism is, as one American political analyst put, a grey war without frontiers and armies. We cannot give guarantees of security in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, just as there weren’t guarantees in London and Madrid,” said Markedonov.
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