On Dec. 31, a powerful bomb exploded in a seedy motel room on the outskirts of Moscow, not far from Domodedovo airport. Nobody took much notice. Most people were busy celebrating New Year's Eve. Besides, the only person killed that night was a middle-aged Chechen woman, with a tight headscarf and a thick accent, whom the motel's staff describe as dowdy and cold. She had three associates who vanished. But is it possible that those missing accomplices may have then regrouped to build a much bigger bomb, detonating it on Jan. 24 in the arrivals hall of the Domodedovo and killing 35 people? If so, that New Year's explosion would seem like a premonition, one that the police may have failed to fully grasp.
So far, Russian officials have firmly denied being aware of any plot leading up to the airport bombing. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Jan. 26 that the investigation had found no Chechen link in the case. But it seems likely that the terrorists, Chechen or not, made their presence felt a first time and, despite police being aware of it, the plotters were then still able to proceed.
The story seems to have begun at Moscow's SSK shooting range on Dec. 28, when two Chechen women checked into a room in one of the five dingy motel-cottages available for rent on the rundown grounds, located by a forest on the southeastern edge of Moscow. According to an employee at the facility who was there for their arrival, one of the women was named Zeynap Suyunova, 24, well-dressed and easy-going "like a European" and spoke Russian with no accent.
The other woman was the 50-year-old Chechen whose remains would later be found in the motel room. The employee could not remember her name. In an interview with TIME on Thursday, the employee (who asked to remain anonymous) said the women were accompanied by two men from the North Caucasus, the home of Russia's Islamist insurgency, and over the next three days the men came back several times to bring the women food and supplies. "They never allowed housekeeping inside the room, which was strange," the employee says. "But about 90% percent of our clientele are men from the Caucasus, and a lot of them house prostitutes here and visit them once in a while to party. So I didn't think much of it."
Then, on Dec. 31, at around 8:00 p.m., a massive explosion shook the entire complex, a far louder clap than the sound of the shotguns that usually carries over from the firing range. The blast was so powerful that it blew out all of the windows in Cottage No. 1, scorched the interior and left only its brick carcass standing. A maid who was in her small room at the cottage at the time got away with scrapes and a concussion. All that was left of the 50-year-old Chechen was a leg and her head, says the employee who was on duty that night. "The cops told us later that she had been making a suicide vest and accidentally triggered it," the employee says. The younger Chechen woman, who had stepped out of the cottage just before the explosion, escaped before police arrived. "They took a while to get here, I guess because it was New Year's Eve." But according to Russia's leading daily, Kommersant, police caught up with Zeynap Suyunova on Jan. 6 in the Russian city of Volgograd, where she was arrested and taken back to Moscow to stand trial for possession of explosives.
After a series of interrogations, the staff of the shooting range then went back to business as usual, assuming that the investigation had been closed after police stopped coming by. But on the morning of Jan. 25, the day after the bombing at Domodedovo airport, the shooting range got another call from the authorities. "They suggested we close up shop immediately, so we were closed for all of the following day while police came back to question us again and look around," the employee says. "That's when we realized there must be some connection [to the airport bombing]."
That connection has since started coming into focus through reports in the Russian press. In the past two days, media reports have suggested that the women who rented that motel room had strong links to a terrorist cell called the Nogaisky Djamaat, which now appears to be at the center of the airport bombing investigation. On Thursday, news reports identified the still unnamed older woman whose remains were found at the shooting range as the widow of Temerlan Gadzhiyev, the radical Islamist leader of the Nogaisky Djamaat.