By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; A01
MOSCOW -- With a pair of powerful blasts on Moscow subway cars that killed at least 38 people Monday, two female suicide bombers shattered Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's claim to have contained a separatist insurgency in Russia's southwest and forced the nation's capital to brace for a terrorist comeback after several years of calm.
The explosions occurred about 45 minutes apart at downtown stations during the morning rush hour. They followed triumphant reports in recent weeks that Russian security forces had killed several top leaders of the Islamist rebel movement, which seeks to establish a fundamentalist state in the North Caucasus region.
The elimination of each militant leader was portrayed as a victory for Putin's tough approach to suppressing the insurgency, which had not mounted an attack in Moscow in nearly six years. "We have been able to break the spine of terrorism," Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin's strongman governor in Chechnya, declared two days ago.
But as crowds of dazed, bloodied passengers emerged from smoke-filled subway stations Monday, and national television showed images of mangled bodies strewn on subway cars and station platforms, officials acknowledged the obvious: The rebels had not been defeated, and they appeared to be making good on threats to stage attacks again not just in their volatile homeland but also in the heart of Russia.
"Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns. The war is coming to their cities," the rebel leader, Doku Umarov, warned in a video interview posted on the Internet last month. "If Russians think the war only happens on television, somewhere far away in the Caucasus where it can't reach them, then God willing, we plan to show them that the war will return to their homes."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the deadly bombings, which also injured more than 70 people. But Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, said preliminary evidence indicated that the attacks had been committed by "terrorist groups linked to the North Caucasus region."
The first blast occurred shortly before 8 a.m. as the doors were closing on a packed train at the Lubyanka station, located under the headquarters of the FSB, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB. The location prompted speculation that the attack was intended as revenge, because the FSB has led the Kremlin's sometimes brutal efforts to crush the insurgency in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus.
A smaller explosion took place at the Park Kultury station, four stops away on the same line. Officials said evidence at the scenes, including body parts, indicated both bombers were women wearing belts packed with explosives as well as bolts and iron bars that acted as deadly shrapnel.
The rebellion in the North Caucasus began in the 1990s as a nationalist drive for Chechen independence. In recent years, it has been transformed into an Islamist insurgency that draws support from other ethnic groups and has spread beyond Chechnya, including to neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan.
The Kremlin has repeatedly asserted it was close to wiping it out, and last spring, it declared an end to military operations in the region. But the militants have proven resilient, staging a string of assassinations, bombings and suicide attacks in the last year.
Still, the government had largely succeeded in limiting the violence to the North Caucasus since 2004, and many Russians had come to think of the turmoil there as an isolated problem irrelevant to their lives. In Moscow, residents shed the fear that gripped them through the late 1990s and early 2000s, when militants staged multiple attacks in the city, including six on the subway system.
Many Russians credited Putin, then the president, with ending the violence. He used the terrorist threat to roll back democratic reforms and consolidate power, pushing through a law that eliminated the election of regional governors, for example.
But Monday's attack, which followed a bombing in November that caused a luxury train between Moscow and St. Petersburg to derail, killing 28 people, presents a direct challenge to that record at a time when Putin faces rising discontent over Russia's worst recession in a decade.
"He's the loser because he promised several times to put an end to the insurgency, and he has failed," said Alexei Malashenko, a political scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Sergei Markedonov, a specialist on the Caucasus at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, said the attacks may prompt a more serious public debate about how to deal with the rebellion.
"Putin gained great popularity by demonstrating his readiness to crush terrorists, but I think after 10 years of brutal rhetoric and actions, it's time for a new understanding," he said.
Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's handpicked successor as president, has promoted a more nuanced approach to the North Caucasus, arguing that the government needs to do more than kill militants and must address the root causes of the insurgency, including widespread poverty, rampant corruption and deep alienation from the Russian state. He and his appointees have reached out to opposition and other hostile groups in the region sympathetic to the militants.
But in televised remarks after laying flowers at the Lubyanka station Monday night, Medvedev adopted an stern tone. "They are beasts," he said of the militants. "Whatever motives they were guided by, what they are doing is a crime by any law and any moral standard. I have no doubt that we will track them down and destroy them."
Putin cut off an official trip to Siberia to return to the capital. He also promised destruction, calling the bombings "a crime terrible in its consequences and disgusting in its manner."
Some officials suggested the attacks may have been in retaliation for the recent raids by security forces in the North Caucasus that left two key rebel figures dead: Alexander Tikhomirov, a charismatic preacher known for recruiting suicide bombers, and Anzor Astemirov, who is believed to have made the original proposal to abandon the goal of Chechen independence in favor establishing what the rebels call the Caucasus Emirate.
Umarov, a veteran Chechen fighter, declared jihad and adopted that cause in 2007 after Russian forces killed many of his colleagues in the leadership of the original Chechen separatist movement.
"They're not very numerous, maybe 1,000 of them, but contrary to the 1990s, they are well trained and can recruit desperate people to use as suicide bombers," Sergei Arutyunov, a scholar of the Caucasus at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said of the rebels. "They feed on the desperation of the public, as well as a huge pool of dirty money from corruption, racketeering, drug trafficking and other sources."
Grigory Shvedov, editor of the Caucasian Knot, a Web site that reports on the region, said the new insurgency poses a serious threat because it is more difficult to negotiate with and is organized as a network, not a hierarchy.
"By killing the separatist leaders, the security forces nearly destroyed the whole separatist agenda," he said. "But this is something different. They're not organized as an army where the general plays a central role. They're religiously motivated warriors, and that's a real dead end for negotiations."