St Petersburg bombing only latest indigenous terror incident

Sunday 16/04/2017
Trouble at home. Russian police officers stand guard outside Tekhnologicheskiy Institut Metro station in St Petersburg, on April 3. (Reuters)

On April 3, Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, a 22-year-old ethnic Uzbek from the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan who had obtained Russian citizenship, set off a bomb on the St Petersburg Metro after a train left Sennaya Ploshchad station. The explosion killed 14 people and wounded 51, heightening concerns about security in the city Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting that day for meetings with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Following the attack, Putin went to the St Petersburg Federal Security Service (FSB) directorate to discuss the incident with the FSB, the successor of the Soviet-era KGB, officials from the Interior Ministry and Emergen­cies Ministry as well as National Guard personnel.
Eight days later, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov said six members of terror cells were detained in St Petersburg and two in Moscow in connection with the attack. All the suspects were from former Soviet Central Asian republics.
Given Russia’s deepening involvement in the Syria conflict, where it is supporting embattled President Bashar Assad, the Metro attack raises ominous questions about future extremist attacks in Russia. Russia’s frequently dolorous centuries-long interaction with the Muslim world indicates such concerns are not unfounded.
Unlike other European coun­tries, Russia has been in conflict with Islamic states for more than 500 years, fighting Tatars and other Muslim tribes who were subsequently incorporated into Russia.
The Russian Empire also fought wars against the Persian and Turkish empires, incorporating many of their Caucasian and Central Asian former territories into Imperial Russia. After 1917, many of them enjoyed a brief period of independence before being absorbed by the USSR, only regaining their independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
After 1991, the Russian Federa­tion fought two wars to retain Chechnya, which many believed were because of the region’s oil reserves and potential value as a transit route for the developing Caspian oil reserves. Terrorist activity continues to plague neighbouring Dagestan.
Adding to the problems, none of the post-Soviet Caucasian or Central Asian countries that emerged were democracies. In the worst case, Tajikistan fought a civil war from 1992-97 in which more than 50,000 people died and left the country effectively bankrupt.
Given the autocratic nature of many of those regimes, disaf­fected citizens seeking a deeper knowledge of their Islamic heritage travelled to the Middle East, where they became radical­ised. The Russian Foreign Ministry says 5,000-7,000 Russian citizens are fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Fear of these battle-hardened jihadists returning home to utilise their combat skills is a significant factor in Russia’s stalwart support of Assad. Lack of employment in Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has led millions to travel to the Russian Federa­tion in search of employment, where they are subjected to official abuse and low wages, as Dzhalilov allegedly was.
While previous terrorist attacks on the country’s transport infrastructure, including the bombings of Moscow’s Metro in 2004 and 2010 and its interna­tional airport in 2011, have been linked to the restive North Caucasus insurgencies, the St Petersburg Metro bombing appears to fit a different profile and represents an ominous development, in which former Soviet Muslim citizens are willing to attack soft targets in European Russia.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Russia has far more Muslims within its borders than most Western countries. Esti­mates are that about 16 million of Russia’s 144 million citizens are Muslim, along with about 4 million migrant workers from former Soviet Central Asia, making Muslims about 14% of the population.
Russians are the Islamic State’s largest non-Arab contingent of foreign fighters. In a further worrying sign for Russian security services, on April 4 in Astrakhan, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for two attacks on policemen and a National Guard unit in which two Russian security personnel were killed.
Whether Russia’s indigenous Muslim population will exhibit further signs of radicalisation and join its citizens returning from waging jihad in the Middle East to pursue such activities at home is unclear but must be an increasing source of worry for the Russian government.