On August 15, the newspaper Kommersant, quoting sources in the Russian security services, reported that the Federal Security Service (FSB) had thwarted a major terrorist attack in Moscow region. A group of young North Caucasians allegedly planned to derail the high speed Sapsan train that connects Russia’s two largest cities –Moscow and St. Petersburg. Investigators said that the primary organizer of the terror attack, 22-year-old Islam Khamuzhev, befriended his other three accomplices, Murad Edilbiev, Murad Umaev and Fyarit Nevlyutov, at a Moscow mosque. Khamuzhev had purportedly moved from Kabardino-Balkaria to Dagestan, where he joined the rebels and received relevant training. In 2010, the organizer moved to Moscow, where he convinced other young men to take part in the attack (www.kommersant.ru, August 15).
The FSB announced its sensational success back on July 18, when FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov stated that his agency had prevented “a major attack” on highly populated areas and transportation infrastructure in Moscow region. At the time, Bortnikov said that all four suspects hailed from the North Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 18). It appeared later that one of the suspects, Nevlyutov, actually came from Mordovia, which is in the Volga region in the central part of European Russia.
The Sapsan high-speed train, which was launched in 2009, is capable of traveling at speeds of 155 mph, which makes it the fastest train in Russia. Curiously, according to RIA Novosti, “the Sapsan made its first unofficial journey in late November , when it evacuated passengers from the Nevsky Express train, which had derailed as a result of a bomb attack that killed 26 people and injured over 90” (https://en.rian.ru/russia/20091217/157266771.html). The Nevsky Express train, which had been the fastest train before Sapsan’s introduction, was derailed on two occasions, in 2009 and 2007. While is still unclear who derailed them even though some suspects were announced and others arrested, it is also widely assumed that the North Caucasian militants were behind the attacks (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/190840/).
The main information resource of the North Caucasian rebels, the Kavkaz Center website, instead of taking responsibility for plotting the attack, accused the FSB itself of instigating the young men’s plot. According to Kavkaz Center, agents of the security services incited the young people online to come up with a plan, helped them find a bomb and then “solved the crime, preventing the terror attack” (https://www.kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2011/08/15/84413.shtml).
It must be noted that the Russian security services have indeed been notorious for claiming to have prevented terrorist attacks. There are some puzzling features of this averted terror attack as well. The leader of the group, Islam Khamuzhev, came from Kabardino-Balkaria, something not seen in recent years. However, just before the planned attacked, Khamuzhev reportedly announced that he needed to leave Moscow to visit home. Khamuzhev entrusted one of his accomplices, Murad Edilbiev, who is of Chechen origin, with carrying out the attack. The FSB boasted that “all preparations for the railway terror attack, especially, at the final stage, were under control of FSB operatives” (www.kommersant.ru, August 15). Kavkaz Center pointed to this phrase as evidence of an FSB plan to artificially create a group of young radicals and then crack down on them. According to Kommersant, after Khamuzhev, who had hatched the plan for the attack, withdrew from the plot, it quickly fell apart because Edilbiev felt he might be framed and simply dumped the explosive materials in a Moscow park, where he was promptly arrested (www.kommersant.ru, August 15).
These evidently half-hearted, hapless attackers and the FSB’s trumpeting about its success raise several important questions. The two previous attacks on the Nevsky Express were not solved and the perpetrators of the 2007 attack on the train were sentenced for other crimes, but not for carrying out the attack. The 2009 attack is still under investigation. This raises the question of whether the previous attacks were also “prepared” by the FSB, but at some point went out of the security services’ control and led to civilian casualties. In the 2009 derailment, 27 people died, while the 2007 derailment did not claim human lives.
If we conclude from the last “prevented attack” that the FSB engages and incites “risk groups” like young North Caucasians to launch attacks, we can apply this rule retrospectively. For example, it turns out that a number of the attackers in the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis had been prisoners of the Russian security services who for some reason were released (https://www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/86/00.html). Assuming that inciting an attack for one reason or another is an established technique of the Russian security services, the attack in Beslan may have been designed to trap a leading rebel leader but for some reason went wrong. The Dubrovka theater attack in 2002 may have been designed to present the Chechen anti-colonial movement as a bunch of inhumane criminals.
While conspiracy theories normally do little good, the details of the latest averted attack are so strange that they call for an intensive scrutiny. Assuming that the Russian security services really work this way with risk groups – trying to incite them to take illegal actions– these activities also blur the line between genuine malevolent actors and government agencies. Yet another aspect is that the FSB could potentially look for and positively identify ethnic Russians willing to assassinate Russian government officials, supplying them with logistic and moral support. The Russian security services do not seem to engage in those kinds of activities, so it appears they choose at will whom to target and whom to present as enemies of the state.
This case once again appears to indicate that there is an astonishing lack of control over the security services by the civilian authorities in Russia, which opens the way for all imaginable abuses of power.