2017 Saint Petersburg Metro Blast: Motivations And Strategic Implications – Analysis

After the Westminster attack, the deadly blast on St. Petersburg metro train which killed 14 people and wounded dozens more, not only accentuates the growing threat of deliberate attacks targeting civilians utilising public transport systems but also the vulnerability of law enforcement units in pre-empting and preventing such incidences in an imminent post-ISIS threat landscape.

There have been no immediate claims of responsibility or indications of motive for the bomb blast that ripped through a carriage in the train system of St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city on April 3, 2017. The suspect, 22-year old Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Russian citizen of an Uzbek descent who was believed to be the suicide bomber, left behind little to no clues for the authorities to associate him with any group though there are speculations revealing that he had travelled to Syria.

On a daily basis, about three million people commute the city’s metro transport system. The choice of location, as well as the mode of the attack which makes it seems planned and possibly coordinated, points us to several groups who are likely to be the perpetrators; Chechen separatists, Al-Qaeda-linked Caucasus Emirates, members of the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) or affiliates of the Islamic State terror group. The latter being the top of the authorities’ suspect list judging by the dynamic and erratic nature of today’s terroristic attacks amidst ISIS decline in the Middle East.

Enemy of the Islamic State

Almost immediately, supporters of the Islamic State terror group have begun celebrating the St. Petersburg attack across online platforms as they see it as a form of retaliation to Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict. In fact, Russia has long been targeted in ISIS propaganda and was blamed for its support for the Turkish army and Nusayri regime in bombarding the people of Sham causing the loss of life and the destruction of their mosques, cities and villages.

Abu Hasan al Muhajir, ISIS’s official spokesperson has previously urged supporters to multiply their efforts and intensify their operations against the ‘armies of apostasy’, listing Russia as part of this assembly together with the Crusaders of America and Europe. A 37-minute audio statement by al-Muhajir entitled “So Be Patient, Indeed the Promise of God is True” was also released recently reiterating the cause to bring the war closer to home and distracting the enemies through attacks in America, Russia and Europe.

In 2015, a video threatening retaliation against Russia was released two weeks after the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Sinai. The video produced by the Islamic State Sinai branch led by Abu Osama al-Masri sent a chilling note to President Vladimir Putin delivering a stern warning against the Russian air campaign targeting Sunni rebel positions in Syria.

Putin is also seen as a strong ally to Bashar Assad, with Russia’s substantial military aid to the Syrian Government as part of a broad international coalition against the Islamic State. With the recent chemical gas attack in north-western province of Idlib and horrific footages of adults and children writhing in pain being circulated online, fingers have been pointed not only to Assad but also to Russia as it bears a moral responsibility due to a violation to a Syria ceasefire agreement made in Astana early this year.

Security Challenges in Russia

Russia had previously faced terror attacks at train stations but the trend has been gradually decreasing over the years. Two suicide bombers kill 34 people in attacks on railway station and trolleybus in the Russian city of Volgograd in December 2013. In 2009, an explosion derailed the Nevsky Express which travelled between Moscow and St. Petersburg killing at least 26 people. 40 people were killed when two female suicide bombers, who were natives of Dagestan detonated their explosives at two Metro stations during the morning rush hour in 2010. Similar methods of attack were also adopted during the 2004 Moscow Metro bombings perpetrated by radical Islamist group Karachay Jamaat.

One of the main security challenges for Russia is the return of militants who have fought in Syria and Iraq. It is estimated that around 2,900 Russian nationals and over 7,000 citizens of other post-Soviet republics were fighting alongside the Islamic State terror group (ISIS) in Syria. Russian is also the third language after English and Arabic that is being used for communication in the land of the Caliphate. With the return of North Caucasus militants to their respective home countries, the resonance of jihadist-militancy ideologies will also affect the local population and inspire terrorist activities in Russia.

Another serious concern for Russia is the growing presence of Wilayat Caucasus (Caucasus Province), a branch of the Islamic State terror group formed on 23rd June 2015, in the North Caucasus region of Russia. The first attack on Russia which Wilayat Caucasus has claimed responsibility was in August 2016 when two men attempted to kill police officers at a traffic post in Balashika with guns and axes. A video of the attackers Uthman Mardalov and Salim Israilov, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was later circulated by ISIS media arm who hailed them as “soldiers of the Islamic State.” On 24th March 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for yet another attack, infiltrating the Russia’s National Guard base in Chechnya’s Naursky district and killing six servicemen.

Conclusion

With the neutralisation of the Islamic State terror group and its possible downfall in Syria and Iraq, jihadist militants will no doubt search for new avenues to advance their fight against the West. Jihadist global networks have proven to be operationally active demonstrating its continued relevance and threat outside the Middle East conflict zones.

The recent St. Petersburg attack is likely to be the first of many retaliatory gestures executed to threaten coalition forces and its allies, notably Russia whose involvements and entanglements in the Middle East conflict have made itself more vulnerable to terrorist attacks at home. While Russia may have proven its military prowess in combating the Islamic State through its air strikes on Syrian soil, it still fall victim to attacks in its own major cities, making it seem unprepared to handle a brewing surge of jihadist militancy in a post-ISIS threat landscape.

Remy Mahzam

Remy Mahzam

Remy Mahzam is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He graduated from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) in NTU and pursued higher education at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) in the field of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences.

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