Moscow Bombings: Are Islamist Rebels Behind Them?

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Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters

Emergency workers carry away the body of a victim of the Park Kultury metro station bombing in Moscow, Russia.

Russia was again the scene of grisly carnage as two suicide blasts ripped through the packed carriages of separate trains on Moscow's metro during the morning commute on Monday, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens of others. Judging in part by the severed remains of the two female attackers, Russian officials blamed the coordinated bombings on homegrown Islamist rebels, raising fears that the militants' vow to escalate their insurgency in the troubled Caucasus region had caused violence to spread to the Russian heartland for the second time in four months.

Pointing to a possible motivation behind the attacks was the fact that one of the bombers struck just beneath the headquarters of the FSB, Russia's secret police. Known as the KGB before the fall of the Soviet Union, the agency's harsh security tactics in the isolated Caucasus Mountains have incensed the local separatists who have been fighting for years to turn parts of the country into an Islamic caliphate governed by strict Shari'a law.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent who later became head of the FSB, has overseen several brutal campaigns against the Islamic separatists, starting with the second Chechen war in 1999 that established his popularity in Russia as an unflinching leader. On Monday, he warned of a new crackdown against those responsible for the bombings. "I am certain that law-enforcement agencies will do everything to find the criminals and bring them to justice. The terrorists will be destroyed," Putin said in televised remarks. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, meanwhile, ordered police to tighten security across the country and urged people to stay calm. "It's absolutely clear that these kinds of acts are well-planned and intended to cause mass shock, to destabilize the country and the society," Medvedev said.

The 1999 Chechen war was precipitated by a series of deadly apartment bombings in Russian cities, including Moscow, and human-rights activists have warned that new terrorist attacks could lead to more military campaigns in Chechnya or the other violence-wracked parts of the North Caucasus — Ingushetia and Dagestan. The insurgents' leader, a warlord named Doku Umarov, renewed his pledge last month to bring "holy war" to Russia's cities and industrial centers in an effort to carve out an Islamic state. "Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns. The war is coming to their cities," Umarov said in an interview posted Feb. 14 on the separatist website "If the Russians think this war is being waged on television screens, somewhere in the far-off Caucasus ... then God willing, we are about to show them that this war is coming to their homes." The government has faced criticism for failing to heed his threats, even after he took responsibility for the bombing of a train traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg in November that killed 27 people.

Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the General Prosecutor's Office, said a preliminary investigation indicated that two female bombers carried out Monday's attack. "The bombs seem to have been attached at waist-level and consisted of between one and two kilograms of TNT, which was powerful and had been packed with shrapnel," he told reporters gathered at Lubyanka Square, home of the FSB. Eyewitnesses described stunned victims fleeing the Lubyanka station moments after one of the attackers struck there at 8 a.m., some with their clothes covered in blood. "Others were leaning on each other and staggering, and another man kept crossing himself as he walked by, thanking God he was alive," says Lyudmila Samokatova, a newspaper vender on Lubyanka Square. In the tunnels, there was panic. "There were definitely hundreds of us packed in there, and nobody was moving. People started saying there could be a third explosion, and things got frantic," says Natalia Kuznetsova, a theater ticket vendor near Lubyanka Square who was on another train at the time of the attacks. By early afternoon, emergency workers had begun carrying the dead out of the station in black bags and taking them to the morgue.

The site of the second attack, which came within 40 minutes of the first, was the Park Kultury metro station, a few miles southwest of Lubyanka Square. The entryway to the station was filled on Monday morning with the smell of char rising up from the deep tunnels. An ambulance driver outside the station said the death toll could be expected to rise, as hospitals were filling up with the wounded and the work of recovering the dead was still under way. "We're taking [the injured] wherever we can, all over the place. I've heard calls go out for drop-offs to about a dozen hospitals," he says, declining to give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the press.

At Sklifosovsky Hospital, one of Moscow's largest, a grim vigil began in the late morning as roughly a dozen people lined up to ask about missing family members. Igor Yegorov was there to look for his wife. "She went to work as usual this morning, and I can't reach her. Hopefully it's just that the cell-phone networks are down. But I don't know," he says, pale and shaking as he waited to check the hospital list. By late afternoon, the flow of ambulances to the hospital had stopped, and service had been restored to the rest of the metro system, which was not damaged in the blasts.

Whether the attack was part of the Islamic insurgency in the Caucasus or not, one thing is clear: terrorist groups are now capable of carrying out dramatic attacks in the heart of the capital. Putin and Medvedev will now face public pressure to wipe out the rebel groups for good, and it may be hard for them to resist the temptation to boost their approval ratings by using the harshest means available to do so.