Moscow Subway Bombing Puts Pressure on Putin

Putin Moscow Bombing Reaction

Female suicide bombers have killed at least 38 and wounded many more in a terrorist attack on the Moscow subway this morning.  If, as all the circumstantial evidence currently points, this is the work of Chechen extremists, it will be a stern test for the Putin-Medvedev regime.

Clifford Levy for NYT ("Subway Blasts Kill Dozens in Moscow"):

Female suicide bombers set off huge explosions in two subway stations in central Moscow during the Monday morning rush hour, Russian officials said, killing more than three dozen people and raising fears that the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia was once again being brought to the country’s heart.

The first attack occurred as commuters were exiting a packed train at a station near the headquarters of the F.S.B., the successor to the Soviet-era K.G.B. Officials said they suspected that the attack there was intended as a message to the security services, which have helped lead the crackdown on Islamic extremism in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus region in southern Russia.

The two explosions spread panic throughout the capital as people searched for missing relatives and friends, and the authorities tried to determine whether more attacks were planned. The subway system is one of the world’s most extensive and well-managed, and it serves as a vital artery for Moscow’s commuters, carrying as many as 10 million people a day.


Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, the country’s paramount leader, cut short a trip to Siberia, returning to Moscow to oversee the federal response. Mr. Putin built his reputation in part on his success at suppressing terrorism, so the attacks could be considered a challenge to his stature.  Mr. Putin vowed that “the terrorists will be destroyed.”


In the early part of the last decade, the subway system suffered several attacks related to the separatist war in Chechnya. With the explosions on Monday, Muscovites expressed renewed concerns that they might again become targets.

The earlier raft of attacks had repercussions far beyond the security situation in the Caucasus and rest of the country. In 2004, Mr. Putin, the president at the time, responded by greatly tightening control over the government, saying that the country had to be united against terrorism. He pushed through laws that eliminated the election of regional governors, turning them into appointees of the president, and that made it harder for independents to be elected to Parliament.

The working speculation of the international press and learned observers is that Chechen terrorists are indeed behind the act.

Will Stewart and Jenny Booth, The Times of London ("Women suicide bombers ‘kill 38’ in Moscow Metro attacks"):

Within a couple of hours a website supporting Chechen terrorism claimed responsibility for the blasts, CNN reported, but the claim could not immediately be verified. Suspicion is likely to fall on Chechen militants and other groups from Russia’s North Caucasus, including the flashpoint regions of Ingushetia and Daghestan, where Russia is fighting a growing Islamist insurgency.


Moscow has suffered repeatedly from Chechen violence, beginning in 1999 when more than 200 died in the bombing of blocks of flats. The 2002 Moscow theatre siege was the prelude to an intense three year period of terrorism, during which trains and Metro were frequent targets.

Analysts say that the situation in Chechnya itself has stabilised recently, although at the expense of neighbouring states when Islamist Chechen insurgents have taken refuge, regrouped, recruited among local disaffected youth and launched fresh campaigns of violence.

Time‘s Simon Shuster ("Moscow Bombing: Are Islamist Rebels Behind It"):

Pointing to a possible motivation behind the attacks was the fact that one of the bombers struck just beneath the headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s secret police. Known as the KGB before the fall of the Soviet Union, the agency’s harsh security tactics in the isolated Caucasus Mountains have incensed local separatists who’ve been fighting for years to turn parts of the country into an Islamic caliphate governed by strict Sharia law.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent who later became head of the FSB, has overseen several brutal campaigns against the Islamic separatists, starting with the second Chechen war in 1999 that established his popularity in Russia as an unflinching leader. On Monday, he warned of a new crackdown against those responsible for the bombings. "I am certain that law enforcement agencies will do everything to find the criminals and bring them to justice. The terrorists will be destroyed," Putin said in televised remarks. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, meanwhile, ordered police to tighten security across the country and urged people to stay calm. "It’s absolutely clear that these kinds of acts are well-planned and intended to cause mass shock, to destabilize the country and the society," Medvedev said.

BBC ("Moscow Metro hit by deadly suicide bombings"):

The BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow says no group has yet said it carried out the attacks, but past suicide bombings in the capital have been carried out by or blamed on Islamist rebels fighting for independence in Chechnya.

Spiegel ("Suicide Bombings Kill Dozens in Moscow Subway")

It was unclear on Monday morning who may have been responsible for the attack, though initial speculation centered on Islamist insurgents from the Northern Caucasus region in Russia’s south. Moscow is fighting a growing insurgency in the region. Authorities immediately opened a terror investigation on Monday to look into the blasts. In addition, the country’s civil aviation authority ordered that security be increased at all Moscow airports.

Andrew Osborn for The Telegraph ("Moscow metro blasts: female suicide bombers kill 38")

Islamist rebels seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate on Russia’s southern tip have largely confined their attacks to the North Caucasus area they want to control in recent years. But a bombing of a passenger train between Moscow and St. Petersburg last November that left dozens dead suggested they may be preparing to widen their campaign to Russia’s big cities.

Russian security forces claim to have killed a number of high profile militants in recent months including one of the movement’s principal ideologues and strategists. Russian politicians said at the time that the rebels were likely to strike back to show they are still a force with which to be reckoned.

Fred Weir, writing for CSM’s Global News Blog ("Does Moscow subway bombing mark the return of the black widow?") provides a backgrounder on the presumptive perpetrators:

If Russia’s security services are correct in blaming two Chechen "black widows," or female suicide bombers, for attacks that killed almost 40 people on Moscow’s crowded metro Monday morning it represents the return of a nightmare that Kremlin thought it had ended years ago.

The use of women to strike civilian targets was pioneered a decade ago by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who was seeking a way to smuggle explosives past Russian checkpoints at the outset of the Kremlin’s second war to subdue separatist Chechnya, say security experts.

"Basayev started up a ‘martyr’s brigade’ comprised of women, who proved very successful in killing Russian officials and destroying administration offices," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of, an on-line journal that focuses on Russia’s security services.  "After Basayev was killed by Russian forces in Ingushetia in 2006 we were told that the martyr’s brigade had been disbanded," says Mr. Soldatov. "Some rebel websites have since claimed that it was resurrected, but only now do we see clear evidence that it’s back."

The women, who call themselves "shakhidy," or martyrs, are typically the widows or mothers of Chechen men who’ve been killed by Russian forces.

"Chechen society is very hard for women who’ve lost their menfolk, or who have no breadwinner, and they become vulnerable to recruitment," says Soldatov. "There are potentially very many such women in the north Caucasus at the present time."

Independent journalist and FDD fellow Bill Roggio provides an in-depth look at the Riyad-us-Saliheen martyr brigade and its complex relationship with al Qaeda. ("’Black Widow’ female suicide bombers kill 37 in Moscow metro blasts"). Money ‘graph:

After Basayev’s death in 2006, the Chechen and Caucasus jihadists united under the command of Doku Umarov, one of the last remaining original leaders of the Chechen rebellion and a close associate of al Qaeda. Prior to that time, Umarov had denied having connections with al Qaeda and rejected terrorist attacks against civilians. But in 2006, Abu Hafs al Urduni announced that the Chechen jihad was being reorganized under the command of Doku Umarov after the death Basayev. By November 2007, Umarov had declared an Islamic emirate in the greater Caucasus region and named himself the emir, or leader. Russian security forces thought Umarov was killed during a raid in November 2009 that killed several of his close aides, but he has since resurfaced.

As I noted in a January 2006 piece for TCS Daily ("Suicide Girls") neither suicide bombing nor the use of women to carry them out are unique to Islamists.  Both the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and the Tamil Tigers used female suicide bombers well before the outbreak of the first Chechen War.   But, while the Chechens didn’t pioneer the practice, they did perfect it. 

If in fact today’s attack was the leading edge of a new wave of Islamist terrorism against civilian population centers in Russia, it poses interesting questions for Putin and his political future.  His reputation for toughness is his prime asset, so one would expect an immediate crackdown and a gross overreaction would hardly be surprising.  

It also provides yet another opportunity to reset his relationship with the United States.   After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration decided that the Chechen rebels were Islamist radicals that needed to be put down rather than freedom fighters under siege from an authoritarian government.  It will be interesting to see how the Obama administration feels about the matter.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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