Attributing terror attacks in the first hours, when the wreckage is still smoldering, is never an easy business. That’s true anywhere and doubly so in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in recent years has become the global source for online conspiracy theories and fake news stories.
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Shortly after news broke Monday of the bombing on the St. Petersburg metro, killing 10 and wounding 47, the Russian web was alive with rumors and theories linking the bombing to everyone from Putin to the pro-democracy protesters who filled Russia’s streets last week.
But while allegations of “false flag” operations are usually the preserve of the eccentric, serious experts on contemporary Russia believe that the country’s FSB security service has played a role in orchestrating terror attacks. These include the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow’s suburbs that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and helped pave the way to Putin’s rise and the Second Chechen War.
This doesn’t mean the Russian state lacks enemies who in recent years have carried out similar attacks against civilians. Moscow’s metro system and airport have been the target of multiple attacks, as have other main cities. Chechens and other Muslim minorities, ruthlessly suppressed by Moscow, have usually been the immediate suspects.
The last similar attacks were the three bombings of the public transport system in Volgograd in October and December 2013; more than 80 people were killed. The attacks were carried out by members of the Dagestan branch of the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamic militant group.
The lull in attacks by the Emirate can be attributed to a number of factors. The first is the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which attracted many of the Russian-born Islamists to shift their allegiance to the caliphate and move to the Middle East often it seems with Moscow’s active encouragement in the hope they never return.
Other reasons for the Emirate’s weakening are the intensification of Russia’s counterterrorism and intelligence operations following the Volgograd bombings and in advance of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Also, Moscow outsourced part of its anti-Islamic counterterror operations to the ruthless autonomous forces of Putin ally and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Most of the Emirate’s leaders have been eliminated.
Until more details emerge, and even then, it will be difficult to say for sure who is responsible for the St. Petersburg bombing. But at this point it seems unlikely that any organization with ties to the Kremlin would carry out a daylight attack in the center of Russia’s most cosmopolitan city while Putin himself was in town for a meeting with Belarus' strongman, President Alexander Lukashenko. An attack by remnants of the Emirate makes more sense but is also unlikely given the improved Russian security arrangements and St. Petersburg’s distance from the North Caucasus strongholds.
In the absence of other proof, the leads point toward Syria. Whether the bombing was carried out by fighters who returned from there, or local terrorists directed from Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa, the level of sophistication needed to prepare and plant three powerful explosive devices (two of which went off) points to relatively well-organized and skilled operators.
The Islamic State may not have carried out attacks on Russian soil yet, but the downing of a Russian airliner by its Sinai branch in October 2015 and the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey last December by an off-duty Turkish cop shouting “don’t forget Syria, don’t forget Aleppo” were both reprisals against Russia’s military involvement in Syria on the Assad regime's side. It would hardly be surprising if this latest act of terror is the blowback of the Syrian war, finally reaching back to Russia’s cities.