As the story of the horrific January 24 bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport continues to unfold, the parallels with past major terrorist attacks in Russia are striking. It is not just the high number of casualties (36 dead and 160 wounded) and that the perpetrators appear to have come from the volatile North Caucasus. As with earlier such violence, there were also serious warning signs in advance that were ignored, and the immediate handling of the attack by the authorities was botched. Above all, the confusing and contradictory response of both the security agencies and Russia’s leadership has once again raised troubling questions about the Kremlin’s counter-terrorism policies.
This is discouraging news for Russians, since most experts agree that there is a strong likelihood of another major attack in the not too distant future. As for the Kremlin, if its leaders do not revamp their strategy towards terrorism and start taking concrete steps to eradicate the deeper causes, it could be increasingly difficult to retain credibility with the Russian public. With parliamentary elections looming next December and presidential elections following in March 2012, the problem is all the more urgent. Increasingly, support for the government may depend on its ability to address the violent instability in the seven predominantly Muslim regions of the North Caucasus, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetiya among them. Yet the Kremlin’s record there so far and the appalling failure of the powerful Federal Security Services (FSB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to thwart attacks from this region suggest that this could be a daunting task.
In the case of the Domodedovo bombing, the FSB reportedly received anonymous warnings in early January of an impending terrorist attack at one of Moscow’s airports. Despite this, no extra preventative measures, such as security checks of people before they entered the airport, were taken. In fact, the staff of the police at Domodedovo (which are controlled by the MVD) was cut by 50 percent in the months preceding the attack, and most of their efforts were reportedly focused on extorting bribes from hapless passengers arriving from Central Asia.
Even more disturbing, the Russian journalist Yulia Latynina reported recently on Echo of Moscow Radio that the alleged suicide bomber, identified by Russian authorities as 20-year-old Magomed Yevloyev from the republic of Ingushetiya, had been seen at Domodedovo Airport several days before the attack, apparently acting strangely. He had used the bathhouse there, but had no money to pay, so the person in charge threatened to call the airport police, and he finally came up with a credit card. According to Latynina, on the day of the attack the bomber wandered around the arrivals hall of the airport for close to an hour with his left hand in his pocket before the bomb was ignited.
This alarming lack of vigilance on the part of the security services is eerily reminiscent of earlier attacks, such as the hostage taking at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002 by a group of Chechen terrorists. No one was ever able to explain how the perpetrators, some of whom had earlier been in police custody and then released, managed to gather in Moscow for several months before the attack without attracting the attention of the security services. Similarly, in the case of the terrorist siege of the school in Beslan, North Ossetiya in September 2004, most of the large group of attackers—there were believed to be between thirty and fifty—had been living for several weeks in the woods in the neighboring republic of Ingushetiya without being detected. This, despite the fact that Ingushetiya was on high terrorist alert. The terrorists even managed to conceal a large number of weapons in the school before the attack. It is difficult to explain such incompetence, given the vast investigative and punitive powers of the security services. Whether in some cases the police or security officers are bribed by insurgents or whether they are simply negligent, they are rarely punished.
As with earlier bombings the authorities’ initial response to the Domodedovo explosion was woefully inadequate. After the bombing, which occurred at 4:40 pm on a Monday afternoon, chaos reigned for hours. A retired colonel with the Special Forces later reported that nearly three hours after the attack, some of the wounded had still not been taken by ambulance to the hospital; and many passengers were stranded at the airport. (Similar chaos occurred at the Dubrovka Theater and in Beslan, where there was an inexplicable shortage of ambulances and medical teams, despite the fact that the sieges had lasted for several days, allowing ample time for emergency response teams to get in place. The FSB official in charge at both these hostage situations, Vladmir Pronichev, was promoted to the rank of army general in 2005.)
Nor was there any coherence in official accounts of the Domodedovo attack. After the explosion, there was the usual flurry of conflicting statements and leaks to the press—the bomber was an ethnic Russian who had been trained in Pakistan; the bomber was part of a group from the Russian Republic of Dagestan—all of which proved to be false. Even President Medvedev, who delayed his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos because of the bombing and was obviously upset that his plans to woo foreign investors there had suffered yet another setback following the verdict against Khordorkovsky, offered his own theory. He said in a speech to the Forum that the aim of the attack was to prevent him from going to Davos. Such speculation about the intention of the lone suicide bomber hardly inspired confidence in the president’s grasp of the crisis.
In the weeks that followed, there were further contradictions between official statements and known facts. The name of the suicide bomber, Yevloyev, was not announced publicly until February 9, yet—as it has now emerged—local police officers arrived in his village in Ingushetiya only two or three days after the bombing. They had allegedly identified the bomber from fingerprints on one of his severed hands, although it was unclear how this identification was made—a crucial element in the entire investigation. Just a few days ago, the chief of the MVD’s internal troops announced that Yevloyev had served for three months in one of his divisions based in Vladivostok in the Far East, before being relieved from duty on grounds of poor health. We have only to assume his fingerprints had been registered with the MVD.
A week after the bombing, the FSB, in a typical show of force, swooped down on the suspect’s village and raided his home. FSB officers took DNA samples from Yevloyev’s family and rounded up those suspected of involvement in the bombing, including Yevloyev’s 16-year-old brother and 22-year-old sister. Some days later the police—apparently by chance—caught the alleged organizer of the bombing, 20-year-old Bashir Khamkhoev, when he was stopped and searched after a car accident.
But as with previous terrorism investigations, this response has done little to clarify the underlying causes of the attack. Indeed, these young people could simply be scapegoats. According to villagers who knew the suspect, there is little in his background to make him a plausible terrorist and his possible motivations for such an attack are hard to explain. The lack of accountability of Russia’s law enforcement organs allows them—in order to “solve” a case quickly— to round up suspects and coerce them into confessing, or to kill them in pursuit or to simply declare that they have disappeared. Thus, the terrorists who carried out the hostage taking at the Dubrovka Theater were killed on the spot and those who allegedly organized the suicide bombing on the Moscow metro last March were said to have later died in a counter-insurgency operation in Dagestan. The investigation into the bombing on the bombing on the Nevsky Express in November 2009 has just been completed and ten suspects from the North Caucasus are awaiting trial, but seven others were killed in the republic of Ingushetiya last year.
The Domodedovo case was complicated further when the notorious Chechen warlord Doku Umarov appeared in a video released on a Caucasian website to say that he had ordered the bombing in retaliation for Russian atrocities in the North Caucasus. But Umarov is seen more as the ideological inspiration of terrorists, rather than a militant who oversees their actual operations, which are said to be carried out by autonomous groups. Thus, some observers suggested that Umarov took credit for the bombing to promote the idea that he is command.
Whoever was behind the devastating attack, those responsible for counter-terrorism in the FSB and the MVD were clearly not doing their job. Yet, so far, Medvedev, who oversees these agencies, has blamed transportation officials instead. Immediately after the attack he fired the head of transport for the MVD in the Moscow region and the airport security chief, for not fulfilling their duties. He later directed FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov to dismiss subordinates who were also negligent, but predictably, he too targeted people from the transport department.
As security analysts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, co-authors of a book about the FSB, noted: “This underscores Medvedev’s narrow, bureaucratic approach.” In addition to visiting airports and train stations to check on security procedures, as he did last week, the president should be calling the chiefs of the FSB and the MVD to account and demanding why, with all the resources they have available, they have not been able to penetrate terrorist groups and use intelligence-gathering to thwart attacks like the one at Domodedovo.
Journalist Latynina lamented in her recent radio broadcast that “We live in an occupied country, a nation occupied by cops…And they have not prevented one terrorist attack.” Many Russians seem to agree. In a poll conducted by the respected independent Levada Center at the end of January, 58 percent of the respondents characterized the performance of the police and special services as “bad” because they enabled the terrorists to attack Domodedovo. 33 percent of those polled said that corruption among officials and law enforcement officers was the main reason that the attack was successful. And remarkably, 26 percent said the special services were either definitely (9 percent) or probably (17 percent) involved in organizing the bombing. (Similar suspicions were voiced after the 1999 apartment bombings.)
President Medvedev could perhaps use the public’s growing disillusionment with the security services as an opportunity to distinguish himself from the hard-line approach associated with Putin and address the underlying economic and social grievances of the North Caucasian people. (In Ingushetiya, where Yevloyev came from, an astonishing 50 percent of the workforce is umemployed.) He also might try to put a stop to the use of special forces who commit extra-judicial reprisals against suspected insurgents—which only swells terrorist ranks with new recruits. This would of course involve the difficult challenge of taking on the vested interests of the siloviki, which Medvedev has been reluctant or unable to do. He has, after all, been president for almost three years, a period during which terrorist incidents have risen at an alarming rate. If he wants to persuade Russians that he, rather than Putin, should be candidate for the presidential elections next year, he must show that he is finally prepared to take decisive action to counteract this threat to Russia’s security.