Home-grown terrorism in Saint Petersburg or Syrian spillover?
The suicide bombing in the Saint Petersburg Metro was not unexpected. Russia has witnessed some of the worst terrorist attacks in Europe: The Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis in 1995, the attack at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in 2002, the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004, the Moscow Metro bombings in 2010 and the suicide bombings in Volgograd in 2013.
Russian authorities identified a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen as the perpetrator of the latest assault. The logic of the attack against a soft, high-profile target was straightforward: To inflict massive casualties on the population and undermine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image as a strong leader.
The timing of the attack is significant, coming during a period of increased political tensions between the Kremlin and the liberal opposition. By targeting civilians, the group behind the assailant likely hoped to spark a racist backlash against the country’s Muslim communities and thus gain more recruits. The rise of Islamophobia has led to physical and verbal attacks against Muslims in Russian cities.
Akbarzhon Jalilov, the alleged perpetrator, probably did not act alone. Although there is no effective way to prevent a determined individual from committing an act of mass murder, Russian security services must answer a fundamental question: Was the attack an act of home-grown or international terrorism? Their response could have serious ramifications for Russian foreign and security policy.
The Russian Federation is a heterogeneous country, composed of many religious groups, including approximately 20 million Muslims. Many of them are heavily Russified and tend to be secular but over the last two decades, and accelerating in recent years, there has been a process of radicalisation of Russia’s Muslim communities. The hotbed of political Islam remains the North Caucasus.
The Russian-Chechen conflict started as a separatist conflict but turned into a religious one. Bombings and other attacks have spread to neighbouring autonomous republics of Karachay- Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, indicating an ever-widening scope of operations for jihadist groups.
The Saint Petersburg suicide bomber could have been a member of such North Caucasian groups and acted on their behalf.
On the other hand, the internationalisation of the Syrian conflict means that networks and links have been established between at least some of Russia’s jihadist groups and their counterparts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Thousands of Russian and Central Asian Muslims have joined the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Within the transnational jihadist networks, there is a clear division of labour among those who radicalise individuals, recruit fighters, raise funds, provide logistical support, participate in the actual fighting and propagate messages to a larger audience.
Was Jalilov a member of such a transnational jihadist network? If yes, that means the Islamic State (ISIS) or another jihadist group has targeted Russia and more attacks are likely to take place. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin has portrayed the intervention in Syria as a preventive war against jihadist terrorists. It is a narrative that resonates well with many Russian citizens.
Yet the flow of Russian and Central Asian jihadist volunteers to Syria presents a unique challenge to Moscow. If the history of Arab Afghans is a guide, the return of Russian fighters to their home country after the end of the war may contribute to the outbreak of jihadist campaigns in Russia or other former Soviet republics. Having gained military skills and operational experiences, jihadist veterans may be tempted to target their own country.
Moscow must carefully choose strategies and policies for dealing with this new security threat. For instance, a harsh security response could push more Russian Muslims to join transnational Islamist networks in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. While investing more in intelligence-gathering is a necessity, a successful strategy should focus on promoting further integration of Muslim communities. As a visible minority, Russian Muslims have greatly suffered from exclusion and discrimination.
The siege of eastern Aleppo and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the Russian Air Force were bound to radicalise many young Muslims. The Syrian city is the Srebrenica of the 21st century. While Bosnian Serbs attempted to hide the evidence of mass murder in the UN-protected enclave, the suffering of Aleppo’s civilians has been documented by social media users and citizen journalists. The memories will not go away easily.