On Monday 3 April, a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg, Russia, metro, killing 14. At first, there was some confusion about the identity of the perpetrator, having originally been blamed on a man from Kazakhstan. After he turned himself in and was cleared, the real attacker was identified as 22 year-old Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, an Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan. Initially, no claims of responsibility came. Then, on 18 April, a claim of responsibility showed up on al Qaeda’s North African channel, Agence Nouakchaott d’Information (ANI). In the statement, it was said that Dzhalilov was a member of a previously-unknown AQ group called Iman Shamil Battalion. The statement also said that Dzhalilov was acting on instructions from Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri, to coincide with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to St. Petersburg, and threatened more action:
“To the Russian government, which apparently has not taken a lesson from its defeat in Afghanistan, we say: This operation is only the beginning, and what is to come will make you forget it, Allah permitting.”
Following the attack, 8 people from Central Asia were detained in connection to the investigation. Several weeks later, 12 people were detained in Kaliningrad, suspected as being part of a terror cell there. The Kaliningrad cell was said to be led by an Uzbek wanted on extremism charges, and are supporters of Islamic State.
Terrorism in Central Asia is next to nonexistent. Economic conditions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have many seeking to find work elsewhere. They often end up in Russia, where they are treated as lower-class citizens. The alienation they experience can, in part, lead to their being vulnerable to extremist via recruiters, as I wrote here. In recent years, more of their numbers have shown up in terror attacks outside of the region. In June of last year, the attack on Turkey’s Ataturk Airport included Central Asians. The New Year’s Eve attack at an Istanbul nightclub was perpetrated by an Uzbek. This year’s truck attack in Sweden was also carried out by an Uzbek. These attacks, however, were directed or inspired by Islamic State.
Despite the claim of responsibility by AQ, many questions remain. First, why was the claim of responsibility was released on a side channel and not on AQ’s main channel? New York Times writers Rukmini Callamachi and Ivan Nechepurenko spoke of this in an article on 25 April. They raised the question of why this showed up on ANI, AQ’s North Africa channel, but not on their main channel, where they speak of European operations. The statement was first released in Arabic, then later in Russian.
Second, the suspect did not show any of the signs typical of recent terrorists. Dzhalilov was, by most accounts, not an overly religious person, he did or didn’t pray (depending on the report), and save for a couple of “liked” Islamic groups, his social media showed no clues. He, likewise, did not have a criminal record, and did not do drugs. It had been reported that he had quit his job and “disappeared,” rumored to have gone to Turkey and Syria. How did this young man end up following orders from Zawahiri to blow himself up in St. Petersburg? One of the suspects arrested after the attack said in a court appearance that he was acting on someone else’s orders, and that he didn’t know he was part of a terror attack. Whose orders was he following, and what was he told? Dzhalilov told people he had an uncle in Turkey, but was that the real reason he went there? Was there someone who can confirm that he was in Turkey, and who, if anyone, did he talk to there?
Third, the Imam Shamil Group was an unknown group prior to this attack. Who are they? The group is named after a Caucasus imam who led the fight against the Russians in the nineteenth century. Shamil’s name is used frequently in the Caucasus, and it is not out of the question that this group was formed specifically for this attack. It is not an uncommon practice; the most well-known example may be the Madrid bombings in 2004. Mark Youngman, who follows extremism in Russia, gave a lengthy response as to why this group and the claim should be viewed with some skepticism.
One possibility is that al Qaeda is looking to become relevant again. With the rise of Islamic State, al Qaeda has been pushed out of the spotlight, and has lost members to IS. They could be seeking to expand their network outside the Middle East and the Caucasus, with the Imarat Kavkaz (IK) insurgency in the North Caucasus having been largely contained. There have been attacks, but nothing on a large scale. Ramzan Kadyrov’s security forces have been particularly effective at neutralizing the threat. Recruiting Central Asians already in Russia’s cities is one way of expanding their network inside Russia. Although there are factors in place to recruit Central Asia migrants as terrorists, it has not been a common occurrence. Despite the numbers of migrant workers in Russia, there have been very few instances of terror attacks involving them in the country. Most Central Asians involved in terrorism seem to be mostly aligned with Islamic State in the Middle East.
Another (conspiratorial) possibility is the involvement of the Russian government. They have used terror before as a pretext to launch operations, most notably the apartment bombings leading up to the Second Chechen War. And there was once a known Russian-AQ connection. In the 1990’s, the FSB had Zawahiri detained for six months. Besides the apartment bombings, Russia has also aided terrorists in the past for their own gains. Security services allowed known insurgents through checkpoints near Beslan, knowing an operation was possible in the area. The inclusion of the Russian message on ANI by itself means nothing; the attack was in Russia. Maybe an insider had a contact with ANI and not AQ’s main channel. The question here is why would the Russian government need to set up Central Asians as terrorists? Would it be merely to show they can be tough on migrants (who are already treated poorly in Russia)? One result of the apartment bombings was a great increase in the approval rating of the president which, at the time of Yeltsin/Putin, was abysmal. That is not currently the case; Putin enjoys an 80% approval rating.
It has been months since the metro attack in St. Petersburg, and so many questions remain unanswered. Given that this happened in Russia, getting those answers anytime soon is unlikely. The only clues may come from Russia’s future response toward those from Central Asia.
1. David Satter, The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 104