On April 3rd a suicide bomber’s device exploded on a railway train as it was traveling from the Sennaya Square to the Technology Institute station in St. Petersburg, Russia. A second device was found at the nearby Vosstaniya Square station and disarmed. The attack claimed the lives of 14 people (including the bomber) and left 51 wounded.
Russian investigators identified the bomber as Akbarzhon Jalilov, a 22 year-old Kyrgyz-born Russian national living in St. Petersburg since 2011. The Kyrgyzstani security services, the GKNB, has promised to cooperate with the Russians in the investigation. Although no terrorist organization has claimed responsibility for the attack Russian law enforcement suspect Jalilov was inspired by Islamic State.
Jalilov’s native Kyrgyzstan is a predominately Muslim country and about 500 Kyrgyz men have gone to fight for IS. The Islamic State has been known to recruit people via the internet so it is possible that IS recruited Jalilov over the web and pushed him to commit the attack.
The St. Petersburg railway bombing would not be the first time Russia had to confront the threat of Islamic terrorism. In 2004 Chechen terrorists raided a school in Beslan, in the Russian province of South Ossetia. Russian troops stormed the building resulting in the death of over 300 people, many of them children.
Most terrorist attacks in Russia have been carried out by Chechen separatists. These Chechens make up the majority of the 2,700 Russian citizens that have joined the Islamic State and now could be among the IS terrorists returning to their home countries from Syria and Iraq.
Should any of the 2,700 Russian IS members return to Russia they would have the training necessary to conduct attacks similar to that in St. Petersburg. The Islamic State has also been teaching supporters online how to make explosives and carry out attacks.
This means that possible future Islamic State terror attacks in Russia might come either from Chechens or other jihadists with Russian passports who fought for IS in the Middle East, or by those recruited online.
The Islamic State has already conducted attacks against Russian interests with an IS member placing a bomb on a Russian airliner heading from Egypt to Moscow, which killed all 224 people on board. Given Jalilov’s potential links to IS, it is possible that now the organization has carried out a successful attack on Russian soil.
If the St. Petersburg attack is not a one-time incident but part of a continued campaign of attacks, it may strain Russian efforts to conduct domestic security while at the same time continuing to conduct sizeable military interventions in both Ukraine and Syria. This is particularly true since the country’s economic and political situation has worsened considerably.
Although the Russian economy grew by 1% last year and is projected to reach 2 % growth this year, this comes after four straight quarters of contractions. The Russian GDP did not register any growth last year and instead contracted by .5%. So Russia’s economy is still fragile and may not be able to handle any extra defense spending that a response to terrorist attacks might require. With money going to combat IS activities inside the country Putin might find it hard to fund the ongoing Russian military interventions abroad.
This could degrade the ability of the Russian armed forces to support its allies in Ukraine and Syria allowing other groups, such as IS, to fill in the vacuum left by a weakened Russian military.
The country also faces possible civil unrest with Russian President Vladimir Putin cracking down on anti-corruption protests on March 26th ahead of the 2018 Presidential elections. Given that the opposition candidate Alexander Navalny, who has organized anti-Putin demonstrations in the past, has been barred from running more protests will probably take place later this year. Part of Putin’s historic support has come from a perception of being tough on threats both domestically and abroad, and further Islamic State terrorist attacks could feed into the social unrest.
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