Authorities quickly blamed radical Islamists for the attacks, noting that the two men were staunch defenders of their traditional culture and had been engaged in an escalating struggle against Salafi influence among the Tatars. If they are right, it could mark a turning point for Russia and for its Islamist insurrectionists, who until now have mostly focused on terrorist acts in the rugged North Caucasus, far to the south.
It is also likely to fuel Russian alarm over Islamic extremism, already evident in Moscow’s continuing warnings about al-Qaeda’s presence within the opposition to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Tatarstan, with a population of 4 million, is an important oil-producing region in the middle of Russia. It has been a center of Islamic culture since the 10th century, and it held sway over Moscow until Ivan the Terrible turned the tables and conquered Kazan in 1552.
Yakupov was shot dead in the lobby of his house as he was leaving for work. “He was one of the ideological leaders of Tatar Muslims,” said Alexei Malashenko, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Faizov, his superior, was thrown from his car by an explosion about an hour later. Both his legs were broken, but he is expected to survive.
“They wanted to defend traditional Russian Islam against extremists and radicals,” said Mukhamedgali Khuzin, head of the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia. “Law enforcement agencies should finally wake up. There should be no negotiations with extremists. You should fight this ideology based on hatred with arms, not words.”
Russia fought two wars against Chechen separatists in the 1990s, and radical Islamists have been especially active in neighboring Dagestan, where at least five imams have been killed in the past 13 months, and more than 50 since the 1990s. A replay of Dagestan in Tatarstan would be a nightmare for Russia.
Roman Silantyev, a Christian scholar and expert on Muslim issues in Russia, said the nightmare is at hand. “This is the beginning,” he said, “of a total war against Islam in Russia” — by Islamists.
The Volga region has been calm up to now. But Eduard Ponarin, an expert on Russian Muslims in St. Petersburg, said that when violence begins, it can accelerate rapidly. “The authorities are bound to do something, and then the Salafis will respond, and it can get very bad,” he said.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a group of lawmakers: “It’s a serious signal. We have on the whole been aware of what’s going on in some Russian regions, but being aware is not enough. It is necessary to understand the situation, analyze it and make timely decisions.”