Two terror attacks were carried out in the Moscow underground system during the morning rush hour on 29 March. 39 people were killed in the attacks and several dozen injured. According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), two suicide bombers carried out the attacks, allegedly under orders from the North Caucasus’s armed Islamic underground network. The institutions in charge of state security launched an anti-terror and rescue operation immediately after the bombings; the operation was supervised at the political level by President Dmitry Medvedev.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the Russian government may undertake spectacular retaliatory measures against members of the Islamic underground network in the North Caucasus and adopt stricter anti-terror laws. In the long run, however, they are likely to continue their current policy towards the North Caucasus, which combines military measures with programmes to improve the region's social and economic situation. As regards the current dimension of Russia's internal policy, President Medvedev has made enhanced his public image by efficiently managing the response to the crisis.
The first explosion in the Moscow metro took place at 7:57 a.m. Moscow time at the Lubyanka station, near the headquarters of the Federal Security Service. The second bomb exploded at 8:37 a.m. at the Park Kultury station. Both explosions appear to have been pre-planned suicide terror attacks: the choice of a symbolic location for the first attack (the immediate vicinity of the FSB building) may suggest that it was directed against the state apparatus. The bombings were planned to cause as many casualties as possible and unleash panic, as they took place during the morning rush hour at important network junctions. However, the public in Moscow did not yield to panic, partly thanks to the rapid and effective response of the rescue and security services.
The background of the attacks
The Federal Security Service has what seems to be the most probable theory as to who is most likely to have organised the attack; it has reported finding body parts from two female suicide bombers at the sites of the attack, and has suggested a link with the North Caucasus’s Islamic underground network. Since the autumn of 2007, the Caucasus militants have been purporting to represent the ‘Caucasus Emirate’, aputative polity led by Dokku Umarov. They have been fighting on the banner of transforming the entire region into an Islamic religious state governed by sharia law. In recent years, most of their actions have targeted representatives of the institutions of force and the local authorities in the North Caucasus region, although in the course of the last year, Umarov has repeatedly announced attacks against targets throughout Russia. The Moscow attacks seem in line with the recent radicalisation of the armed underground Islamic network, namely a markedly higher incidence of attacks in recent months, and the consistent use of terrorist methods, including suicide bombings. The attacks in the Moscow underground may also be interpreted as the militants' retaliation for the recent elimination of a number of important members of the North Caucasus’s armed Islamic underground network.
The government's response
The Russian authorities’ response immediately after the attacks was efficient and well organised. President Dmitry Medvedev took charge of political supervision over the operation: he held ongoing consultations with the heads of the institutions of force, called an extraordinary meeting of the Russian Security Council and issued the necessary orders concerning security measures and welfare questions (compensation payments to the families of the victims and those injured in the attacks).
Immediately after the bombings, the institutions of force and the security services undertook the measures envisaged for such situations without any major disturbance. Operation Volcano involved road blockades and preventative detentions of suspected persons; the rescue services quickly evacuated the injured from the attack sites, and additional security measures were implemented in major cities throughout Russia. In contrast to last year's attack on the Nevsky Express train, which exposed poor co-ordination between the security services, on this occasion the services co-operated efficiently. Nevertheless, some media in Russia have argued that the services failed to undertake adequate preventative measures after receiving a series of anonymous warnings about possible attacks.
The president’s rapid reaction stood in contrast to the initial absence of any response on the part of Prime Minister Putin, who was on a working visit to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia when the attacks took place. The PM responded only several hours later, and clearly tried to make up for the delay by speaking in a particularly harsh tone (making a call to “drag the organizers of terror out of sewage pipes") and making gestures towards the public (arranging compensation payments to the victims, and paying a visit to the hospital where the injured were being treated). Nevertheless, the general assessment of the two politicians' behaviour in the situation of the terror threat is that Putin has sustained some damage to his image, whereas President Medvedev has demonstrated his efficacy.
Based on the steps taken by the authorities so far, it is not possible to identify the direction of any major changes that might be made in the internal and security policy sphere. At this stage, as regards security policy, it may be predicted that stricter anti-terror laws will be adopted and the existing ones will be applied more rigorously, although the practical results of such changes may be limited. It is unlikely that the Russian institutions of force will be blamed for failing to prevent the attacks, or that any high-level reshuffles will take place there.
As regards the North Caucasus, a tactical, demonstrative force response to the attacks may be staged; this could take the form of a spectacular elimination of more Islamic underground leaders (as already announced by President Medvedev and others). In the longer term, the authorities will most probably continue the current dual policy, which combines the use of force against the Islamic militants and repression against independent communities with the economic and welfare measures initiated this January in order to stimulate the region’s economic development and combat poverty, unemployment and corruption. These measures (both military and economic) may receive more publicity in the Russian media, to consolidate the impression that the Russian authorities are tackling the threats concerning the North Caucasus.
At the highest levels of the Russian leadership, President Medvedev appears to have tactically strengthened his position by demonstrating good organisation and efficiency in the crisis situation. This will probably boost his efforts to build an image of himself as an influential decision maker. Medvedev's gains may be contrasted with the assessment of Vladimir Putin's actions, both in the current dimension (the sluggish reaction to the attacks), and in the long haul (the failings of the long-term fight against terrorism, on which Putin has built his political position).
Co-operation: Wojciech Górecki