A day after a suicide bomber attacked a train station in the southern Russian metropolis of Volgograd, killing 17 and wounding scores more, a second bomb blasted through one of the city’s trolley buses during the Monday morning rush hour. At least 14 people were reported dead and more than two dozen wounded—including a six-month-old child—in the second suicide strike. The city, formerly known as Stalingrad, serves as a major transport hub for people traveling by train to Sochi, where the Winter Olympic Games will be held in just six weeks. As the world turns its attention to Russia’s latest terrorism threat, here are four things to know about the bombings, the possible perpetrators, and how this will affect security at the Games.
1. Who Is Behind The Blasts?
While no one had claimed responsibility for the attacks as of press time, experts suspect the bombings to be the work of Chechen rebels inspired by or under the command of separatist leader Doku Umarov, who has called on his followers to unleash “maximum force” on Russia in the run-up to the Sochi Games. As the head of a group called the Caucasus Emirate, Umarov has claimed responsibility for a spate of prior suicide bombings in Russia that killed over 100 victims, including the 2011 attack on the Domodedovo airport, the 2010 bombing of the Moscow subway, and the 2009 targeting of the high-speed Nevsky Express train. Umarov and his cohorts have also been blamed for a suicide bombing outside the Chechen Interior Ministry in 2009. In July, the U.S. State Department declared the Caucasus Emirate to be a foreign terror group and put a $5 million bounty on information leading to Umarov’s arrest.
After reviewing security tapes of Sunday’s bombing, Russian officials now believe a man and woman, working in tandem, detonated a backpack or bag filled with shrapnel as they approached a metal detector outside the train station entrance. Russian television ran pictures allegedly depicting the severed head of the “black widow” behind the attack, a Caucasus woman who reportedly lost two separatist husbands at the hands of Russian security forces. A male suicide bomber was also believed to have detonated the Monday blast, which decimated the back half of a trolley bus. Authorities say the bombs were of a similar make, and that the attacks are likely linked.
2. Why Are Chechens Blowing Themselves Up?
If Chechen rebels are in fact found to be behind the twin suicide blasts, it would make the attacks only the latest in a long line of terror acts by separatists from the mountainous, wartorn region. In addition to the bombings linked to Umarov’s group and numerous suicide attacks in the Chechen capital of Grozny, Chechen militants were most famously behind the horrific Beslan school massacre that took the lives of 186 children and 148 adults in 2004, and the bombing of two Russian airliners and two separate attacks on the Moscow metro the same year.
Chechnya and its neighboring republic of Dagestan have been the sight of decades of fighting by armed insurgents, many of them Islamists, against Russian forces. Russia’s rift with the North Caucasus dates back hundreds of years: by the 19th century, Sochi and other cities in the region were captured by Russian forces and brought under centralized control. But in 1991, as the former Soviet Union broke apart, Chechnya and Dagestan declared their independence from Moscow. Eight years later, Russia crushed what it saw as a rebellion with military force, and in 2007 installed a former separatist-turned-pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, to run the region. Yet separatists have continued their insurgency against Russia, and for most of the last decade, President Vladimir Putin has backed harsh anti-terror operations in the Caucasus. In 2009, Russia formally ended its war in the republics, but has continued to wage counterterror strikes against mujahedeen in Chechnya and Dagestsan.
3. Is There A Connection To The Boston Marathon Bombing?
After two Chechen-born brothers planted backpack bombs at the Boston marathon this year, causing widespread carnage and prompting a manhunt that left one suspect dead and the city under lockdown, many national security experts speculated that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could have harbored ties to Doku Umarov, aka “Russia’s Bin Laden.” According to The Daily Mail, the Tsarnaev’s mother claimed that the FBI tracked her eldest son for five years after learning from Russian intelligence that he had been in direct contact with Chechen terrorists. Six months before the Boston bombing, Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan, where Umarov is thought to be holed up, and U.S. authorities are investigating whether the trip served to radicalize the siblings.
4. What Does This Mean For The Olympics?
Experts say that the Volgograd bombings may bode ill for security at the Sochi Games, which begin on February 7. Back in July, Doku Umarov published a video urging his followers to attack the Olympics, calling the Games “satanic” and saying Russia’s decision to hold the Games in Sochi—which Chechens still consider disputed territory—is a bold provocation. “They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea,” Umarov said in the video.
Putin has placed great stock in the Sochi Games—analysts say his recent amnesty that freed the Greenpeace activists, Pussy Riot band members and longtime political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky was prompted by his desire to burnish Russia’s image at a moment when global attention will turn to the country. As such, the president has stepped up safety measures for the Olympics—visitors will be subjected to tight security checks and traffic in and out of the city will be tightly monitored. Moscow has also deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to Sochi for additional protection, and drones will reportedly be deployed over Olympic facilities during the competitions. However, some experts predict that terrorists could focus on other parts of the Caucasus and Russia, or could target athletes as they move between the Olympic Village and their events. American law enforcement officials have said that the Sochi Games have posed the highest security threat in any Olympics since Athens in 2004.