Author: Irina KHALTURINA
At least 14 people were killed and 50 were injured after an explosion ripped through between St. Petersburg metro stations Sennaya Ploshchad and Tekhnologichesky Institut on April 3. Among the victims were nationals of Uzbekistan, Belarus, and Tajikistan, as well as residents of 17 regions of Russia. Also, two ethnic Azerbaijanis became victims of this vehement act of terror – one of them was a Russian national who died, while the other one was wounded.
The population of megacities in most countries of the world has long resigned to unsafe living and working conditions. Nowadays, the acts of terror can occur at any time and place - from a Tunisian beach to the Westminster Bridge in London. Russia has always been among the most desired targets of international terrorists: the Russians are well aware of brutal and cynical terrorist attacks not only from news releases. It is suffice to mention the tragic events in Beslan, explosions of residential buildings in Buinaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk, as well as the hostage taking in Dubrovka. The passengers of the Moscow metro have repeatedly become victims of suicide bombers. The bombs had been planted in various means of transport from aircraft to buses, as well as popular infrastructure facilities such as bus stops, markets, shopping malls, and airports. For some reason, many Russian journalists hastened to inform their audiences that St. Petersburg had never suffered from terrorist attacks. In fact, it had but with substantially less number of victims. The explosions in the Nevsky Express and A321 over Sinai in November 2009 and October 2015, respectively, also had a direct effect on the citizens of St. Petersburg. However, it is the event of April 3 that demonstrated the vulnerability of Russia’s cultural capital and was an unpleasant and painful fact for so many - from ordinary people to government officials. So, why did the strike on the city on the Neva became such a high-profile case?
The home-made explosive device placed on the carriage is thought to be equivalent to 300-500 grams of TNT. A second device was found and defused at the Ploshchad Vosstaniya station. A 22-year-old Akbarzhon Jalilov was a suicide bomber. It was his torn off head found at the scene of blast (the nature of injuries indicates that the bomb was on the body of the suspect). Jalilov’s DNA were also found on a bag with a second explosive left at the Ploshchad Vosstaniya. In addition, Jalilov was caught on surveillance cameras, which show him dressed in a red parka, blue hat and glasses – an image of a regular man so many on the streets of St. Petersburg. He had a Russian citizenship and worked as a mechanic in a car service and then a cook in a sushi bar. According to the local media, the investigation tends to believe that Jalilov have been used as a live bomb without his knowledge. That is, he had to just leave the bomb and leave but his accomplices decided differently.
Immediately after the event, two versions of the act surfaced: conspiracy and Syrian. Apparently, the first version emerged amidst the anti-corruption rallies sweeping through Russian cities shortly before the terrorist attack. Some oppositionists, as well as the Russian and foreign experts hinted that the terrorist attack might have been the act of the Russian authorities in an effort to distract the public attention, shift the accents, get an excuse for “tightening the screws”, or simply lay the blame on political opposition that started the protests. Hence, the reason why the Kremlin launched the Together Against Terror rallies and discussions about the unity of the people against the threats of terrorism on main TV channels instead of discussing the protesting youth. This cynical version does not withstand scrutiny at least because the authorities did not blame the opposition for anything. As for the sense of unity against the common misfortune, it usually passes quickly, people return to routine affairs and problems rather soon. On the contrary, the feeling of constant danger can lead to additional public claims to the authorities, which “poorly monitor security”. In fact, the professionalism of security service of the St. Petersburg metro raises questions: how could they let in a man with a heavy bomb in his backpack, who has also managed to put the second bomb disguised as a fire extinguisher and leave. So, the conspiracy version focused on “switching attention by the authorities” is fraught with unpredictable and dangerous consequences.
The second version based on the Syrian track sounds more convincing, since Russia positions itself in Syria as a flagship of the fight against international terrorism. According to the foreign media, great powers must sacrifice for their ambitions. The Independent recalls that the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra have long promised to get their hands on Russia. There were also rumours about a personal challenge to Putin, who was in St. Petersburg during the explosion. Russian president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that any act of terror in the country was a challenge, even for the head of state.
This, however, sounds neither comforting nor surprising. Terror acts take place in Brussels, Paris, Nice, and Istanbul. Despite the round-the-clock vigilance of the special services, no Russian city is immune from terrorist attacks. Moreover, it is very difficult to recognize terrorists in advance. Prior to becoming a Russian citizen, Jalilov, an Uzbek by birth, lived in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. Hardly anyone can explain why at some point he took a bomb in his backpack and decided to kill his fellow citizens.
Back in 1990-2000, the majority of terrorist acts in Russia could be traced back to the Chechen wars, while the most problematic area currently is Central Asia, the nearest neighbor of Moscow and the main supplier of cheap labor to Russia. Some experts believe in the danger of gradual radicalisation of the southern Kyrgyzstan, Osh region, where Jalilov was coming from, and the entire Fergana Valley, a permanent conflict zone and the most densely populated region of Central Asia. This is thought to be a result of extrusion (but not destruction) of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (Turkestan) from Uzbekistan in the 90s, which in 2014 announced its accession to the Islamic State, as well as the civil war in Tajikistan and, most importantly, yet another “color revolution” In Kyrgyzstan in 2010. One of the consequences of these events was interethnic clashes in the south of the country. Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks clashed in Osh and Jalalabad, which paved the way for the radicalisation and trafficking of young people in the radical structures of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. The Islamists support themselves by smuggling drugs and weapons from Afghanistan and benefit from high unemployment rates prevailing in these areas. These people can then move to Russia relatively easily, at least as guest workers, for permanent residence. Russian special services report that Jalilov flew to Kyrgyzstan in February, traveled to Turkey and tried to cross the Syrian border.
It is notable that the terrorists were recorded not only in St. Petersburg in April. On April 4, unknown people shot and killed two police officers in Astrakhan, who arrived for the registration of a car accident. On the night of April 6, they also opened fire at the post of Rosgvardia. Destroyed criminals were the natives of the Astrakhan region, Chechnya and Dagestan. Later it became known that the IS has allegedly took the responsibility for both attacks.
It is natural that immediately after the St. Petersburg terrorist attack, a wave of protests against migrants, especially from the countries of Central Asia, emerged in the Russian society. The social networks contain reports about the battered children of migrant workers, as well as the calls to tighten the migration legislation instead of the expected adoption of the law on simplified procedures for granting Russian citizenship. The story of Andrey (Ilyas) Nikitin, whose image appeared in all the social networks during the first hours after the incident, was exemplary. A bearded man in black and with a Muslim kufi hat was just an ideal media image of a suicide bomber. This native of Bashkortostan, a former military and truck driver saw himself on TV and came to the police, where he was soon released. But now, he can also be considered a victim of the terrorist attack. Initially, Nikitin was not allowed to fly to Orenburg because some passengers at the Vnukovo Airport refused to be with him in the same aircraft, and was fired later on.
Therefore, in addition to the Syrian version, the terrorist attack in St. Petersburg and the events in Astrakhan may well be aimed at destabilizing interethnic relations in the country, contributing to the outbreak of Islamophobia and undermining integration processes with Central Asian countries. Indeed, just two days after the attacks, the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev made his first and successful state visit to Moscow signing many projects with a total value of some $15 billion. Tashkent is interested in creating a free trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), while Moscow provides a “green customs corridor” for Uzbek agricultural products and food.
Unfortunately, though, we can witness more events similar to the explosion in St. Petersburg and the incidents in the south of Russia. Everything now depends on the Russian special services, and the result of their collaborative efforts can really affect the credibility of the authorities. From this point of view, all versions of the terrorist act in St. Petersburg converge at a single point.