Suicide bomber hit station next to Russia's top security agency

By Greg Miller and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The twin suicide bombings that killed at least 38 people in Moscow's crowded subway system on Monday included an attack on a station just steps away from the headquarters of Russia's premier security service.

The strike shortly before 8 a.m. at the Lubyanka station -- named for the forbidding building that houses Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB -- is part of a wave of suicide assaults that target spy services engaged in violent confrontations with militant Islamist groups.

Monday's attack in central Moscow appeared designed to maximize the chance that Russian intelligence officials would be among the commuters caught in the carnage. If so, the assault would extend a string of losses for intelligence services, which are more accustomed to carrying out lethal operations than being attacked themselves.

A December bombing killed seven CIA employees and contractors near the Afghan city of Khost; the deputy chief of Afghanistan's intelligence service was assassinated in September; and a series of suicide strikes killed dozens of Pakistani operatives at facilities used by the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in cities from Peshawar to Lahore.

A U.S. intelligence official said that spy services have become priority targets for militant groups, since spies are at the forefront of counterterrorist campaigns.

"While every counterterror conflict is different, the fact that the enemy wears no uniform and relies on stealth means that intelligence officers will be playing key roles," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "The more effective they are, the more likely they are to be targets."

The sophistication in a spree of recent attacks on spy services suggests that militant groups are also becoming more skilled at stalking their pursuers. Abdullah Laghmani, the No. 2 in the Afghan intelligence service, was killed last year by a suicide bomber who caught the deputy spy chief as he was leaving a mosque.

In some cases, militants have become adept at using methods that have long been the preserve of espionage agencies. The bombing of the CIA base in Khost was carried out by an al-Qaeda double agent who convinced CIA operatives that he was their asset, and lured officials to their deaths by promising to inform them of the whereabouts of top al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.

Monday's attacks in Moscow were aimed at a more vulnerable target: a subway system used by millions of commuters every day. It was carried out by female suicide bombers who penetrated security systems that were strengthened several years ago after a previous wave of strikes.

A second, less powerful blast at the Park Kultury station on Monday killed 12 people, but Lubyanka appears to have been the main target. It was the site of the first explosion, and at least 23 people were killed there. Security experts said Lubyanka was almost certainly selected because the name serves as such a potent symbol of Soviet and Russian security services.

"The choice of that station is a strategic one," said Sarah Mendelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and co-author of the report "Violence in the North Caucasus: 2009, A Bloody Year." "They were trying to get people who work at Lubyanka on their way to work."

Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, Russia's domestic security service, said those responsible for the bombings have links to insurgencies in the North Caucasus, a largely Muslim region of Russia that has been plagued by violence. The number of suicide bombings in the North Caucasus nearly quadrupled in 2009, according to the CSIS report, with most of the attacks directed at police and security services in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company