The Federal Security Service (FSB) has abandoned its initial opinion that the near-simultaneous crashes of two civilian airliners on August 24 were likely the result of pilot error, mechanical defects, or problems with fuel quality. Within days, the FSB announced that investigators had found evidence pointing to terrorism. On August 27, FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko announced that traces of the explosive hexogen, also known as RDX, had been found in the wreckage of the Sibir Airlines Tu-154 that came down near the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The following day, Ignatchenko said traces of hexogen had also been found on the Volga-Aviaexpress Tu-134 that crashed near the city of Tula, south of Moscow, just three minutes before the Sibir airliner went down in Rostov (Itar-Tass, August 27-28). Both flights had originated from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Ninety people were killed in the two crashes.
Investigators say they have also zeroed in on the likely perpetrators of the bombings. Rossiiskaya gazeta reported on August 26 that investigators were focusing on two female passengers with “oriental names” who had “bought tickets at the airport literally just before takeoff” and checked in at approximately the same time, even though they were boarding different flights.
Kommersant and Izvestiya reported that the investigators are focused on two women passengers, both apparently Chechen. One is identified as Amanta or Aminat Nagaeva, a passenger on the flight that crashed near Tula, the other an “S. Dzhebirkhanova,” who was aboard the plane that crashed in Rostov. They are apparently the only two passengers on the ill-fated flights who have had no relatives inquiring about them. According to Kommersant, Dzhebirkhanova was sitting in seat 19F, nine rows from the tail of the aircraft, where the engines and toilet are located. “Specialists believe that this is the most convenient place for the assembly of an explosive device and for an explosion,” the paper reported (August 27). Nezavisimaya gazeta on August 30 cited FSB sources as saying that investigators also suspected Nagaeva and Dzhebirkhanova were the bombers because their remains, unlike those of the other crash victims, were spread over a wide area, suggesting that each of them had been in the “epicenter” of the blasts aboard their respective planes.
Izvestiya on August 28 quoted Dogman Akhmadova, the head of the administration in the Chechen village of Kirov-Yurt, who said that Nagaeva was born in the village, moved with her family to Rostov Oblast or Stavropol, and later returned to Kirov-Yurt. Three or four years ago, one of Nagaeva’s three brothers was abducted, apparently by Russian forces and never heard from again, Akhmadova said. “As experience shows, practically all of the women-suicide bombers who have blown themselves up in Moscow and in the Caucasus were wives of [Chechen rebel] fighters killed in battle with federal forces or who lost close relatives involved in the activities of the rebels,” the paper wrote. “Aminat Nagaeva had an obvious motive to become a suicide bomber: by blowing up herself and the plane, she avenged her brother.” Izvestiya reported that the only thing known about Dzhebirkhanova is that she was from Chechnya’s Shali district (August 28).
It should be noted that Akhmed Zakaev, spokesman for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, categorically denied involvement in the plane crashes and condemned “any form of terrorism” (Reuters, August 25). On August 27, an Islamist website carried an Arabic-language statement by a group calling itself the Islambouli Brigades and claiming responsibility for hijacking the Russian planes. “Our mujahideen in the Islambouli Brigades were able to hijack two Russian planes and they were successful despite the obstacles that faced them at the beginning,” the statement read. “There were five [mujahideen] in each plane” (Reuters, August 27). Some media reported that the group is ideologically affiliated with the assassins of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and may be linked to al-Qaeda (Associated Press, August 27).
The fact that terrorist bombs apparently brought down the two airliners has raised questions about the state of Russia’s security and intelligence apparatus similar to those raised by the rebel attacks on law-enforcement and other governmental installations in Ingushetia in June. “It is completely obvious that the authorities had no information in advance about such plans by terrorists and now they must frantically once again try to explain how this could have happened,” Vremya novostei wrote. The paper added that the special services have not yet been able to figure out how the terrorists managed to get the bombs on board the planes (Vremya novostei, August 30).
In a separate article, the paper reacted to FSB spokesman Ignatchenko’s August 28 comment that President Vladimir Putin has ordered the agency to study how other countries combat hijackings, “including proposals to use the Israeli system of checking and monitoring air security, which today is recognized as the most effective in the world” (Moscow Times, August 30). Israelis, Vremya novostei wrote, “patiently answer all questions by all manner of special services because, first of all, they realize they are on the front line and, secondly, because they trust the special services. These are probably the two cornerstones of the Israeli security system. And therefore it is impossible not to ask the question: Would you mind telling me how our special services will use this experience?” (Vremya novostei, August 30).