Moscow metro explosion

Philip Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 29, 2010; 11:00 AM

Two female suicide bombers set off powerful explosions in separate subway stations in central Moscow during the morning rush hour Monday, killing at least 38 people and injuring more than 60 others in what officials said was the deadliest and most sophisticated terrorist attack in the Russian capital in six years.

Video: Terror attacks in Moscow (CBS News, March 29)

Washington Post foreign correspondent Philip Pan was online Monday, March 29, at 11 a.m. ET from Moscow with the latest information on the blasts and the investigation.


Philip Pan: Hello all. A tense evening rush hour is underway in Moscow after two female suicide bombers set off powerful explosions at separate subway stations downtown during the morning commute. The latest information is that 38 people were killed in the attacks and more than 60 injured. The capital is on edge and worried that Muslim insurgents are making good on their threat to move their campaign out of the North Caucasus and into Moscow and the Russian heartland again after a lull of several years. I'll try to answer questions for the next half-hour.


Freising, Germany: In an effort to destroy the terrorists, do you think that efforts will focus on Chechnya again?

What is the background on the leaders surrounding this proposal to create a fundamentalist Caucasus Emirate in the Caucasus?

Philip Pan: The authorities have already declared that they have evidence linking the attacks to terrorist groups in the North Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, so it is reasonable to assume that the region will be a focus of attention again. Though the Kremlin declared an end to military operations in Chechnya last year, the insurgents have stepped up attacks in the region over the past year. President Medvedev has sought to promote a more nuanced approach to the region, seeking to create jobs and reduce corruption, but so far with little to show for it. It will be interesting to see if these attacks lead him to abandon that effort and endorse the Kremlin's more traditional, bare-knuckle approach.

As for the Caucasus Emirate, many of the individuals involved are former fighters in the two wars for Chechen independence. But they have sought to recruit Muslims from other ethnicities and regions outside Chechnya to their cause. It's unclear how organized this insurgency is. Most analysts describe it as a loose coalition.


Alexandria, Va.: Did the bombs damage either station? How many are injured?

Philip Pan: Damage to the stations themselves appears minimal. More than 60 people have been transported to hospitals for treatment, officials say.


Washington, D.C.: Bortnikov of the FSB declared that DNA tests of body parts of the bombers showed they were from the North Caucasus ... is it really possible to do a test that quickly, and further tell the region someone is from because of their DNA?

Philip Pan: That's a good question. As far as I know, Bortnikov has not said anything about DNA or provided any specific evidence backing up his assertion that these bombers were from the North Caucasus.


Shenandoah Valley, Va.: What response has Putin given?

Philip Pan: Putin was on an official trip to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk at the time of the blasts. He held a teleconference with emergency officials in Moscow and then cut off his trip to return to the capital. "I am confident that law enforcement agencies will do everything to find and punish the criminals," he said. "The terrorists will be destroyed."


Washington, D.C.: This seems unusual for it to happen in Russia. Usually these suicide bombers are in the Middle East. Have the Chechens engaged in this type of terrorism before?

Philip Pan: Yes, there's a long history of such attacks dating to the 1990s. I think this is the sixth attack on the Metro system in Moscow since 1992. But the past few years have been relatively calm.


Harrisburg. Pa.: The reports state that the two suicide bombers in these Moscow bombings were female. I presume it is too early to know much about them, but what do you know about the use of female suicide bombers in general and do their motivations and actions appear similar to those of male bombers, or are there differences?

Philip Pan: Yes, there was a period in the first part of this past decade in which several attacks were attributed to female suicide bombers. Some were identified as widows of Chechen guerillas, and they came to be known in Russia as the "black widows."


College Park, Md.: Some Russian media outlets have reported accounts of policemen claiming that there are still three explosions to come. Any word on whether officials have followed up on those predictions? Or is this just a case of misinformation from people in a state of panic?

Philip Pan: The authorities have denied rumors that they have received information about more explosions to come. But they have confirmed that they received a call Sunday from a Metro passenger who reported overhearing a conversation about an imminent attack.


Washington, D.C.: It seems like there really is no way to prevent attacks like this, but random bag searching combined with profiling must help. New York and D.C. instituted such policies following the 9/11 attacks, and I'm sure many other metropolitan areas across the world have as well. Does/did the Moscow metro have such a policy in place? Do you anticipate that policy becoming more stringent?

Philip Pan: In theory, there are police officers in Metro stations conducting random searches. Some activists have complained that these searches have focused unfairly on people who appear to be from the Caucasus or Central Asia. Others have said police have relaxed their watch in recent years and have not been aggressive enough. I suspect that will change at least in the short-term.


Washington, D.C.: How do you break the cycle of violence and revenge in Chechnya and neighboring regions? It seems that what started in the 1990s as a nationalistic attempt to gain autonomy from Russia has turned into a full-blown religious war prompted by Saudi/al-Qaeda-types feeding off a population beat down by Russian brutality. Is there a solution?

Philip Pan: You are right that the original Chechen separatist movement of the 1990s was fueled more by ethnic nationalism than Muslim radicalism, and you are right that this seems to have changed, in part because of the government's crackdown and in part because of outside influences. Analysts disagree on how to stop this violence, but generally agree that it will be more difficult.


Bridgewater, Mass.: The Russian news sites are saying that one of the two women seen on CCTV leaving the area after presumably having given the signal to detonate the vests was "of Slavic appearance." The Russians may have a bigger problem than they think.

Also: I've seen suggestions that changing the borders with Georgia after the war may have encouraged the groups in the Northern Caucasus to renew their efforts to achieve independence. Any thoughts?

Philip Pan: It's unclear if those reports about the "Slavic appearance" of the accomplices is legitimate, but if true, yes, that would be another sign that this has become a cross-ethnic insurgency and not just a Chechen rebellion.

As for the impact of the Georgian war, I have heard some people in the North Caucasus voice frustration with Moscow's decision to recognize the independence of South Ossetia while suppressing demands by other ethnic groups in the region for greater autonomy.


Washington, D.C.: I have seen mixed reports about the extremist leader Anzor Atemirov and whether in the last year he has been killed or not. Can you clarify the confusing reports?

Philip Pan: The authorities claimed on March 21 to have killed Astemirov in a raid in Nalchik. Web sites linked to the insurgency disputed that report.

The authorities then claimed on March 26 to have killed Astemirov in a separate shootout on March 24. This time, the rebel Web sites confirmed that he had been killed.


Philip Pan: Time to get back to work. Thanks for your interesting questions. Apologies to those who sent in questions I did not have time to answer.


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