They struck during Moscow’s morning rush hour. On Monday, two female suicide bombers—members of a team police say may have included as many as 30 people—ignited belts of explosives in two of the city’s subway stations, killing 39 and wounding at least 70 more. The double bombings amounted to the worst terrorist attack in the Russian capital in six years. And they raised fears that the blasts could be followed by similar attacks across the country by insurgents from Russia’s south.
Agents of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) had an uncomfortably close perspective; the first explosion, at 7:52 a.m., occurred at Lubyanka station, underneath FSB headquarters. Another detonation, three stops further south along the same line, occurred 40 minutes later. Both underscored the intelligence failures of the bureau, the successor agency to the KGB. Earlier in March, the FSB did manage to find and kill Said Buryatsky, a Muslim convert who had rapidly become the chief ideologue of the persistent Islamic insurgency in Russia’s turbulent North Caucasus. But these bombings showed that the rebels could hit back, and that armed resistance to Moscow’s rule had now spread across five republics—Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, as well as Chechnya.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who built his enduring popularity in part through a military win in Chechnya, had characteristically tough words following the attacks—he promised to destroy those responsible. President Dmitry Medvedev took just as hard a line. “We’ll find them and we’ll eliminate them all—to dust,” he said. Medvedev had wanted to bring economic modernization and a campaign against corruption to the impoverished region. But those goals are now threatened by Kremlin hard-liners favouring a military solution. Also holding such views is Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed Chechen strongman who has imposed a repressive regime on his republic, and called it peace. Writing in Izvestia after the bombs went off, he said: “Terrorists must be hunted down and found in their lairs; they must be poisoned like rats, crushed and destroyed.”
The rhetoric has been just as harsh on the other side. Doku Umarov, the undisputed leader of the insurgency, warned on a rebel website in February—before the assassination of his right-hand man Buryatsky—that “the zone of [rebel] military operations will be extended to the territory of Russia; the war is coming to their cities.” The first blow was struck on Monday, in an escalation of a conflict that has spread through the Caucasus even as the Russian media, tired of the bloodshed, have often ignored the ambushes, bombings and attacks on police stations across the largely Muslim south.
Indeed, Russia has been trying to subdue the region for more than 150 years. And although the Kremlin unilaterally declared in April 2009 that its counterterrorism operation against separatist rebels was over, the conflict continues to make itself felt in Russia. In July 1996, a bomb that went off in the Moscow metro, killing four people, was followed hours later by another blast in a Moscow tram. Three years later, explosions levelled two Moscow apartment buildings, killing 212 people; Russian officials blamed Chechen separatists. In a foreshadowing of the latest attacks, two women blew themselves up at an outdoor rock festival in July 2003, killing 15 concertgoers, while in August 2004, another two women talked their way past a security guard and a ticket clerk at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and boarded two planes. The aircraft exploded almost simultaneously shortly after takeoff, killing 89 people.
In fact, shahids—religious martyrs, or black widows, as the female Caucasian suicide bombers have been called—have taken part in some of the worst atrocities. Among them: invading a performance at Moscow’s Nord-Ost theatre in October 2002 (129 people were killed, along with 41 rebels, 19 of them women), and the seizure of a school in Beslan, Ingushetia, in September 2004. That incident ended with at least 385 hostages dead, many of them children.
With such blood-soaked events still fresh in many Russians’ minds, many are wondering whether the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi will be a target of violence. Sochi is beside the troubled region: right next to Abkhazia, the breakaway province of Georgia, while Chechnya and the other restive republics are just a few hundred kilometres away. By 2014, according to one popular theory, Putin will have regained the presidency he (temporarily) left to Medvedev. Winning the Sochi Games was one of his proudest achievements, and he now shows little sign of changing the tough, militaristic approach he used during the last Chechen war. That such a policy failed to work was evident earlier this week in two blood-stained subway stations.