On January 24, an explosive device detonated in the arrivals area of Moscow’s Domodedovo international airport. A suicide bomber with an explosive device equivalent to 5-7 kilograms of TNT allegedly caused the blast. At least 35 people died in the attack and over 100 persons were injured, some of whom were in critical condition. President, Dmitry Medvedev, ordered that security on Russia’s transport systems be heightened and postponed his visit to the annual international economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. Prime Minister, Putin Vladimir, promised to provide financial support to the victims of the attack and their families (RIA Novosti, January 24).
As of January 24, there was no information immediately available about a link between the North Caucasian rebel movement and the attack at the airport. Still, many observers are inclined to make this connection. Domodedovo is the most advanced international airport in Russia, serving over 22 million passengers per year. If the rebels were behind the attack they may have hoped to demonstrate their ability to strike not only in the North Caucasus, but also in the capital of Russia.
In fact, the rebels managed to stage an attack in the Moscow metro less than a year ago –on March 29, 2010, when 40 people died in what is believed to be a double suicide attack. The investigation of this attack never arrived at a clear conclusion about who organized it and how it was carried out. On May 13, 2010, the Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Aleksandr Bortnikov, boasted that three suspects in Dagestan who were supposedly involved in the Moscow metro attack had been killed (RIA Novosti, May 13, 2010). In August 2010, it came to light that a rebel killed in Dagestan on April 26, 2010 was also a suspect in the Moscow metro bombings. Finally, on August 21, 2010, Russian security forces killed the head of the Dagestani insurgency, Magomedali Vagabov, who had been dubbed the organizer of the Moscow metro attack (RIA Novosti, August 25, 2010). So, instead of there being a proper investigation and at least one live perpetrator of the attack in Moscow going on trial, the Russian public received only unclear evidence that the presumed attackers had been killed.
Earlier, on November 27, 2009, the luxury Nevsky Express train connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg was derailed by an explosion. Twenty-eight persons died in the attack including several top Russian government officials. On January 20, 2011, investigators announced that seven rebels killed in Ingushetia in 2010, including their ideologue, Said Buryatsky, and ten other people were the perpetrators of the attack (RIA Novosti, January 20). The Nevsky Express had also been attacked on August 13, 2007, but that earlier attack had caused no casualties. Two men from Ingushetia were charged with staging that attack, but eventually the terrorism charges against them were dropped and they received shorter sentence for illegal arms possession (RIA Novosti, June 21, 2010). Some Russian analysts alleged that the government had “appointed” the two Ingush men to be the perpetrators of the Nevsky Express derailment in 2007–which, they said, explained the unusual softness of the Russian court.
The latest attack comes as an embarrassment for Russian authorities after President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin vowed to improve the safety measures in Moscow and across the country on multiple occasions in 2010. The well-known Russian blogger and Internet activist, Anton Nosik, suggested that the explosive material used in the attack may have been smuggled into the airport through the side entrance from a parking lot, which is habitually not guarded during the cold time of the year (http://dolboeb.livejournal.com/1970564.html). Distrust of official information in Russia is so great that it almost becomes a routine to challenge the official death toll following a massive loss of lives. Unofficially, some sources estimate that the number of people killed in the Domodedovo bombing is around 70 people (www.echo.msk.ru, January 24).
In the aftermath of the airport bombing, information was leaked to Russian news agencies about the Russian security services having had prior knowledge of a possible attack. Yet, an airport security source alleged that the number of the security servicemen there had been reduced by 50 percent while “the police just went about to extract bribes from those arriving from Central Asia” (www.lifenews.ru, January 24). However, Moscow police spokesman Yevgeny Biryukov denied that there was prior information about an attack threat (Interfax, January 24). This contradictory information appears to reflect conflicting agendas and a power struggle between the Russian security services, primarily the FSB and the Interior Ministry (MVD).
Following the March 2010 attack on the Moscow metro, the Russian government announced plans to introduce a terrorism alert system similar to alerts mechanism in some Western countries. However, the system was never implemented, even though discussions about the feasibility of such a system have restarted (www.gazeta.ru, January 24). The government may be reluctant to go this way, because an alert system would increase the government’s liability in the event of a successful terrorist attack during an alert.
According to Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Putin previously used large-scale terrorist attacks to solidify his grip on power in Russia. Putin came to power following the bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities in 1999 and the ensuing war in Chechnya. The hostage seizure at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002 justified censorship of Russian TV, and the terrorist attack on the school in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004 was used as a pretext for abolishing elections for regional governors (www.gazeta.ru, January 24).
It is certainly harder for Putin to make use of this latest attack: there is no Chechnya to conquer, there are fewer freedoms to infringe upon further and there is hardly any more political power out there that Putin could realistically aspire for. There is still the strong possibility, though, that the terrorism threat will be used in the battles inside the Russian elites in the election cycle of 2011-2012. If a North Caucasian link to the airport bombing is established, the attack will deepen resentment among ethnic Russians against the peoples from the North Caucasus. Just in December 2010, an old-fashioned pogrom took place on central Moscow’s Manezh square. The Russian government’s plans to invest substantial financial resources in the North Caucasus combined with the attacks in Moscow and the Manezh pogrom may all contribute to highly volatile and eventful politics in Russia in 2011.