MOSCOW — As details emerge about the deadly April 4 bombing in the St. Petersburg metro, Russian authorities may have to reassess their counter-terrorist strategies to grapple with a new type of threat.
Previous terrorist attacks against Russian cities were perpetrated by the natives of Russia’s North Caucasus, who came with known motivations, clear return addresses, and relatively easily traceable social ties. This time, the bomber was a foreigner by birth and by cause, yet capable of seamlessly blending among native Russians.
Akbardjon Dzhalilov, a 22-year-old native of the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, moved to Russia in 2011, received a Russian passport, and worked in a St. Petersburg sushi bar. He never suffered from the grievances that link most North Caucasus terrorists, such as indiscriminate police brutality, abject inequality, and lack of social lifts. Nor had he been to Syria. He is believed to have been radicalized in a St. Petersburg mosque, where he began a journey that ended when he dropped one bomb in a crowded metro station, stepped onto a train car, and detonated another one on his body. The attack killed 14 and wounded 43.
As workers rushed to complete preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, not far from the restive and predominantly Muslim-populated North Caucasus, the country’s security agencies cracked down hard on the Islamist underground that had waged a protracted and bloody terrorist war in the region — and sometimes beyond, with even the occasional attack in Moscow. The last major terrorist attack outside the region took place in the southern town of Volgograd, where a suicide female terrorist killed 16 people aboard a trolleybus in December 2013. Then came a lull. It lasted until this Monday.
There are two major explanations for this lull. One is that terrorist groups have been deterred by the policy of Russian security agencies, in cooperation with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, to mete out collective punishment to terrorists’ relatives. The second is that most able and motivated fighters left Russia to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Russian officials estimated their number at 2,500, which makes Russia the richest source of ISIS foreign recruits from a non-Muslim country. Russian security officials keep track of these people’s movements and monitor their families.
After the Kremlin deployed military forces to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in autumn 2015, the Islamic State’s leaders declared Russia a top target, on par with the United States. And yet not a single terrorist attack on Russian soil has been perpetrated by a Russian returning from Syria or Iraq.
Still, Russian security services say that in 2015 and 2016, they thwarted nine ISIS-planned attacks across the country, three of them in Moscow. At least 28 men, including several natives of Kazakhstan, another former Soviet Central Asian republic, were reportedly held by the authorities. Never before had a Kazakhstan national been suspected of planning or participating in a terrorist attacks in a Russian city.
Russia has robust military and security cooperation with all the Central Asian republics, and yet the brutal strategy of imposing collective familial punishment to deter terrorist attacks would be much more difficult to implement on foreign soil. This limitation is leading Russian security agencies to focus on scrutinizing Central Asian communities living in Russia, on covert intelligence work with them, on monitoring North Caucasus natives suspected of ties to terrorists, and on infiltrating mosques and prayer houses in the Russian cities where young Muslims can be radicalized. This extra work is a daunting challenge, given that Moscow and its surrounding region is home to over one million Central Asian migrants.
Moreover, this type of government response may disrupt businesses that employ migrants from Central Asia, such as construction, infrastructure building and repair firms, communal utilities companies, and retail operations.
The stakes are high for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who next year will face re-election and host one of the world’s highest-profile events, the FIFA World Cup. The emergence of a new collective terrorist actor sets Putin a task of more dimensions and larger scope than the traditional terrorist challenge from the North Caucasus. Securing the country from terrorists from Central Asia, many of whom are unaccounted by ineffective local security agencies and thus are not on the books of the Russian security services, will be a delicate diplomatic, economic and security balancing act for the Russian government.