The March 29, 2010, martyr-bombings in the two Moscow Metro stations served as a reminder of the escalating and evolving jihadist surge into Russia’s soft underbelly.
The bombing took place at peak rush hour. The first martyr-bomber detonated herself at 7:56am in the Lubyanka station which serves the Kremlin’s bureaucracy. The second martyr-bomber detonated herself at 8:37am in the Park Kulturi station, a connection and transfer station from the Ring Line leading to Moscow’s center. Both martyr-bombers detonated themselves inside train cars just as the doors were opened to let passengers in and out. At the time of writing, the death toll stands at 39 fatalities and more than 70 wounded.
The Moscow bombing was a classic Chechen “Black Widow” operation carried out by young women from the Northern Caucasus. The term “Black Widows” was coined by the Russian security authorities in the mid-1990s after the Chechen jihadist leadership identified the first female martyr-bombers as widows and relatives of martyred mujahedin out to avenge their blood. As with previous “Black Widow” operations during the first half of the decade, the jihadist commanders were apprehensive about the possibility that the would-be martyr-bomber would change her mind at the last minute.
A couple of such changes of heart did happen during the first half of this decade, providing the Kremlin with tremendous intelligence gains. Therefore, the jihadists developed a system of female chaperons who escort the would-be martyrs to the spot of detonation to make sure they could not abandon their mission. They leave the would-be martyrs only a few minutes before detonation. The Metro CCTV recorded the presence of, and hovering by, such chaperons in both Metro stations.
The CCTV recordings also enabled the Russian security forces to already locate the bus driver in the line between Chechnya and Moscow who took the four women (the two would-be martyr bombers and their chaperons) and a male who seemed to be in charge (and might have also been caught in the CCTV).
The waist-bombs worn by the two martyr bombers were of a modern design. This type of bomb was perfected in recent years by the jihadists in Iraq and subsequently in operations in Afghanistan-Pakistan. These waist-bombs are smaller and lighter than earlier generations of vest-bombs and thus easier to conceal.
The bomb at the Lubyanka station had only 4kg of high-explosives and the bomb at the Park Kulturi station had 2kg. At the same time, these waist-bombs are more lethal in crowded places because of more concentrated directional explosions and a better distribution of shrapnel. Initial forensic evidence suggests that both bombs also had secondary-fuses which could be activated by cell-phones; probably a fall-back method in case the “Black Widows” hesitate at the last minute.
The mere fact that the female martyr-bombers were wearing this kind of waist-bombs is in itself a strong indication of direct connection between the perpetrators in Moscow and the jihadist training facilities along the Durand Line in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistani senior intelligence officials concur that the Moscow bombings “were most likely planned and executed by people trained in Pakistan’s tribal areas”.
The mere occurrence of terrorist strikes in Moscow need not come as a surprise.
These were anticipated for a long time. Given the evolving security regime within the jihadist movement, it was only a question of time before a jihadist team would strike out at the heart of Russia. Moscow has always been the jihadists’ preferable objective.
The imminence of jihadist strikes at the heart of Russia has been the result of a confluence of two major developments: (1) The rejuvenation and escalation of the training and preparation infrastructure along the Durand Line in Afghanistan-Pakistan; and (2) The expansion of the jihadist Jamaat system in the North Caucasus due to the reopening of supply and support lines via Georgia.
The training infrastructure in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area was restored in the Autumn of 2007 to the point that prolonged and sophisticated courses can now take place without interruption. The main courses are provided to would-be commanders, expert-trainers and organizers from the West. These include a growing number of Western converts (West Europeans, Americans and Russians) who retain their original identity papers and looks for easy travel in the West. This effort is under the personal command of Ilyas Kashmiri, the top Pakistani-Punjabi commander whose 313 Brigade, also known as the Lashkar al-Zil or “Army of the Shadows”, is the primary strike force of the jihadist movement.
The actual training, handling. and control of all foreign fighters is in the hands of a small group of veteran Arab commanders, all of whom are reported to have operated in Europe for many years. The three key commanders involved in anti-Russia operations are Abu-Hanifah who commands the Turkish Kurds, Bosnians and Chechens (a generic name for all mujahedin from the Caucasus); Abu-Akash who commands the Uzbeks, Tajiks and other Central Asians; and Abu-Nasir who commands the Uighurs and Pakistanis.
Most of the jihadists in these groups arrive from or via Turkey. The jihadists maintain identity clearing facilities within Turkey’s large Chechen and Uzbek communities. Since mid-2009, a growing number of mujahedin have been able to travel via Iran.
In the last couple of years, the upper-most jihadist leadership has been emphasizing the global importance of the Emirate of the Caucasus. The jihadist leadership has resolved to exploit the separatist struggles throughout the North Caucasus — popularly known as the war in Chechnya — as the rallying point and springboard for a broader strategic jihad against Russia and the states of Central Asia.
The jihadist master-plan envisages a pincer offensive launched from the Caucasus and Afghanistan-Pakistan, converging at the heart of Central Asia and then surging northwards into the heart of Russia. The declared objective of this master-plan is the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Khorasan which encompasses the Central Asian republics, the northern parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Moreover, the upper-most jihadist leadership is convinced that victory in the Caucasus and Khorasan would then create conducive conditions for Islam’s triumph in the “end-of-time battles” in the Middle East.
With the US-led West disengaging and withdrawing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East, the upper-most jihadist leadership is convinced time is most opportune for launching this grand strategic surge. Hence, the escalation of jihadist operations throughout the heart of Asia and Russia.
In practical terms, the jihadist surge in the Caucasus would have far more difficult to implement had it not been for the renewal of support by the Government of Georgia. Tbilisi seeks to exploit jihadist terrorism in order to hit Russian pipelines in the hope of ensnaring the US into actively supporting a new confrontation with Russia.
In early December 2009, Tbilisi organized a high-level meeting of jihadist commanders from the Middle East and Western Europe in order “to coordinate activities on Russia’s southern flank”. In Tbilisi, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Lordkipanadze was the host and coordinator. The meeting was attended by several Georgian senior officials who stressed that Pres. Mikhail Saakashvili himself knew and approved of the undertaking. The meeting addressed the launch of both “military operations” in southern Russia and ideological warfare.
The jihadists of the North Caucasus — including the Arab commanders in their midst — came out of the meeting convinced that Tbilisi was most interested in the spread of terrorism. The meeting was attended by, among others, Makhmud Muhammad Shabaan, an Egyptian senior commander who is also known as Seif al-Islam and who has been involved in Caucasus affairs since 1992. He took copious notes. According to Shabaan’s notes, the Georgian Government wanted the jihadists to conduct “acts of sabotage to blow up railway tracks, electricity lines and energy pipelines” in southern Russia in order to divert pipeline construction back to Georgian territory. Georgian intelligence promised to facilitate the arrival in the Caucasus of numerous senior jihadists by providing Georgian passports.
Georgia agreed to facilitate the secure transfer of jihadists for training and indoctrination in Islamist madrassas in Turkey, and their clandestine return to Russia. Tbilisi also promised to provide logistical support including the reopening of bases in northern Georgia. Russian intelligence was not oblivious of the meeting. Seif al-Islam and two senior aides were target-killed on February 4, 2010. The Russians retrieved a lot of documents in the process. Moscow signaled its displeasure shortly afterwards when the presidents of Russia and Abkhazia signed a 50-year agreement on a Russian military base in order to “protect Abkhazia’s sovereignty and security, including against international terrorist groups”.
The new jihadist focus on the Emirate of the Caucasus emboldened Chechen jihadist leader Dokka Umarov to threaten in mid-January 2010 to unleash a new wave of terrorism at the heart of Russia. He declared that “the Brigade of Martyrs, Riyad-us-Saliheen, has been really recreated and is in action”, and would spearhead the coming jihad. “The Martyrs’ Brigade is replenished with the best among the best of the mujahedin and if the Russians do not understand that the war will come to their streets that the war will come to their homes, so it is worse for them.”
Umarov stressed there was no substitute to a marked escalation in the fighting throughout Russia because “the Islamic ummah can be liberated from the slavery of infidels only with weapons by means of the jihad”. He reiterated that “the zone of military operations will be extended to the territory of Russia” and that “blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns” in the North Caucasus. “The war is coming to their cities,” Umarov declared. “If the Russians think that war only happens on television, somewhere far away in the Caucasus, where it can’t reach them, then InshAllah, we plan to show them that the war will return to their homes.”
In mid-February 2010, Umarov formally declared the launch of a strategic offensive against Russia. He announced that the Caucasian Mujahedin under his command “will [soon] liberate the Krasnodar Territory, Astrakhan and the Volga lands”.
Operationally, the key to the new jihadist offensive would be the jamaats — literally societies — prevailing in the North Caucasus. The jamaats are minuscule jihadist cells which operate clandestinely. The Islamist-jihadist movement is now seeking only a few dedicated zealots as the core of the jamaats. After all, it takes only a few martyr-terrorists to inflict massive carnage. Not seeking popular support and recognition, the Islamist-jihadist jamaats could operate clandestinely and in great secrecy, thus constituting a major challenge to the Russian security forces.
With the frustration of the jihadists in the jamaats growing, and their self-radicalization intensifying in their self-imposed isolation from society, so grows their readiness to inflict substantial carnage on society as a manifestation of their own wrath.
Cognizant of the looming threat, Russian intelligence intensified operations against the jihadist elite in the North Caucasus. Starting early March, the Russians had a series of impressive successes in target-killing several key jihadist commanders, both Arabs and Caucasians.
On March 2, 2010, Russian security services located and target killed Said Buryatsky in the Ekazhevo village in the suburbs of Nazran, Ingushetia. The Russian security services located Buryatsky and his group of guards in a house that served as a bomb making factory for regional operations. The Russians assaulted the building, killing Buryatsky and six mujahedin, and capturing a few wounded mujahedin. The killing of Said Buryatsky — real name Alexander Tikhomirov — was a major achievement.
Buryatsky was a convert from the east Siberian Buryatia region. For many years, he “trained for jihad” in Egypt under the auspices of the militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Upon his return to the North Caucasus about five years ago, he emerged as a fiery imam and most influential ideologue of the jihadist movement. He was the ideologist behind the revived Riyad-us-Saliheen.
In this capacity, Buryatsky identified, recruited and indoctrinated several groups of would-be martyr-bombers. Most important is a group of 30 young women smuggled to Turkey for intense training and indoctrination as the core of the new generation of “Black Widows”.
A gifted and charismatic imam, Buryatsky also issued numerous jihadist manifestos which had tremendous influence in the jamaat movement. Since 2005, Buryatsky authored the statements taking responsibility for more than 15 terrorist strikes including the August 2009 martyr-bombing of a police headquarters in Ingushetia which killed more than 20 and injured some 140, and the November 2009 bomb attack on the Nevsky Express Moscow-to-St Petersburg train which killed 26 people.
Although Buryatsky was said to have yearned for his own martyrdom in jihad in all his sermons and manifestos, his death leaves a gaping hole in the ideological foundations of the jihadist movement in the Caucasus.
On March 17, 2010, the Russian security forces located and killed six senior mujahedin commanders close to Umarov — three of them Arab — in the village of Khazhi-Yurt in Chechnya’s Vedeno district. One of the commanders was the Arab mujahed Abu-Khaled, then in charge of providing the personal security for Dokka Umarov and his inner-circle. Fearful of penetration by Russian intelligence, the jihadist leaders in the North Caucasus rely on Arab bodyguards provided by the upper-most jihadist leadership in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Two other Arab bodyguards — known only as Muhammad and Yassir — were killed. The Russians were operating on information that Umarov himself was to show up for a meeting with Chechen commanders in preparations for escalation in the Grozny area. Apparently, Umarov changed his mind at the last minute and did not show up. However, the Russian source was reliable. Acting on this information, the Russians were able to track down Salmbek Akhmadov, the emir of the jihadist forces in Grozny. He immediately escaped to a safe-house in Makhachkala, Dagestan.
On March 21, 2010, Russian special forces stormed the house and target-killed Akhmadov.
On March 24, 2010,Russian security forces cornered Emir Sayfullah — real name Anzor Astemirov — in Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria. When he refused to stop, he was shot in a brief fire-fight. Sayfullah was the emir of the jihadist forces of the United Vilayat of Kabarda, Balkaria, and Karachai. Sayfullah studied theology in Saudi Arabia before assuming a command position with the jihad. His religious-theological influence spread throughout the North Caucasus.
In 2008, Umarov named him Head of the sharia court of the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate, the third-most-senior position in the jihadist hierarchy. Indeed, the communique about Emir Sayfullah’s martyrdom published by the “headquarters of the armed forces of the United Vilayat of Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachai” emphasized that “the Circassian peoples have not had a military commander who enjoyed such respect and authority” since the Caucasus wars of the 19th Century.
On the night of March 27-28, 2010, Russian security forces raided a few jihadist hideouts in Ufa, Oktyabrsky city and the Chelyabinsk region, in Bashkiria (or Bashkortostan Republic). They were seeking the jihadist leaders in Bashkiria. Several firefights erupted and the mujahedin suffered numerous casualties. However the senior leaders succeeded to escape. The next day, the security forces succeeded to locate the safe-house in the Chelyabinsk region and surrounded it with massive forces.
Bashir Pliyev, known as the “Emir of Bashkiria”, and eight members of the local Uighur Bulagaar Jamaat group surrendered without fight. An ethnic Ingush, Pliev joined the jihad while serving as a mole in the Russian Police. After he was suspected in 2005, he escaped and joined Shamil Basayev’s Riyad-us-Saliheen. He was very close to Basayev and served as his driver and guard on several operations. In 2006, Pliev was sent to Bashkiria to organize and train the local jihadist jamaats.
The aggregate impact of this chain of target-killings and captures of jihadist commanders is the realization among the jihadist senior leaders that the Russian security services must have discovered ways to identify them and strike at the heart of the jamaat system. Hence, there is a growing pressure on the jihadist jamaats to carry out operations already in the pipeline before their assets are exposed and neutralized by the Russian security forces. By late March 2010, only seven of the 30 “Black Widows” who Buryatsky had indoctrinated and trained were known to be dead. Then, two detonated themselves in Moscow on March 29, 2010, and two more detonated themselves in Kizlyar, Dagestan, on the morning of March 31, 2010.
Hence, of this “Black Widows” group alone there are 19 unaccounted for would-be martyr-bombers. As there are numerous other would-be martyrs trained and indoctrinated by Buryatsky and several other sheikhs and emirs in other jamaats, the threat of spectacular terrorism at the heart of Russia, as well as in the North Caucasus, is far from over.
Russia is therefore facing a long and painful struggle.
Despite the impressive successes of the Russian security forces, the jamaat system remains extremely difficult to identify and penetrate because of its inherent character and structure. There should be no doubt that there are numerous jamaat cells throughout Russia, not just the North Caucasus, that are still intact and yearning for jihad. Moreover, with the jihadist training and sponsorship system in the “emirate” of Khorasan now functioning, Kashmiri, Abu-Hanifah, and their Arab colleagues have resumed the training and dispatch of new networks and cells into Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the heart of Russia.
The recent reactivation of the communication routes and safe-havens in Georgia enables the jihadist leadership to sustain the escalation of jihad in and via the “emirate of the Caucasus”. Kashmiri and Abu-Hanifah are putting emphasis on dispatching to Russia combat-hardened expert terrorists, mainly Chechens, Arabs, and Turks. These expert terrorists will serve as organizers, trainers and commanders of locally recruited and indoctrinated jihadists throughout the North Caucasus in order to expedite their anticipated strategic surge. This way, the jihadist leadership is maximizing the effectiveness and value of each and every expert terrorist they succeed in installing at the heart of their enemy’s lands.
Hence, there developed a race between the jihadist movement and the Russian security forces. Ultimately, the Russians will win this race. However, until then, there will be a growing number of increasingly painful terrorist strikes at the heart of Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.
On March 31, 2010, Dokka Umarov finally claimed in a statement responsibility for the Moscow bombing. “As you all know, on March 29, two special operations were carried out to destroy the infidels and send a greeting to the FSB.” He added that the Moscow bombings “had been organized under my personal order”. As in previous such statements, Umarov insisted that the bombings were “a retaliation and a retribution” for Russian massacres of Chechen innocent civilians. He stressed that the Moscow bombings were the first in a series of strikes which would soon be carried out in several Russian cities.
There would be new and painful retaliations against the Russians “who send their gangs to the Caucasus and support their security services, who carry out massacres”. Umarov concluded by reminding that he had already promised the people of Russia that they would no more “idly watch the war in the Caucasus on their TV sets, watch it quietly, with no reaction to excesses and crimes committed by their gangs, which are being sent to the Caucasus under the leadership of Putin. Therefore the war will come to your streets, and you will feel it with your own lives and skins.”
Umarov is serious, and the Kremlin is cognizant.
Analysis By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.