Julian Buijzen

St Petersburg Bombing: Government Conspiracy or Islamist Terror?

When a bomb ripped through a wagon on the St Petersburg metro at approximately 14.40 on 3 April, a war with terror that had almost predominantly been consigned to Western Europe was catalysed thousands of miles east into Russia’s cultural heartland. One homemade bomb was detonated forty metres underground on the tracks between the stations Sennaya Ploschad and Tekhnologichesky Institut whilst another found at Ploschad Vosstaniya was detonated before it could case any harm. Russia, once again, is now in the crosshairs of the terrorists four years after the Volgograd bombings.

Although the 22 year-old Uzbek, Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, has been arrested, the authorities are still in the dark as to what extent Dzhalilov is to blame for the bombings. The naturalised Russian citizen, who moved from the Kyrgyz city of Osh, was spotted on CCTV at the two stations carrying a rucksack suspected to contain the bomb. Forensics then found his DNA on the rucksack carrying the unexploded bomb at Ploschad Vosstaniya. His disfigured body was found at the scene and investigators have found components required to make a homemade explosive device at his flat, including tinfoil and double-sided tape.

Whether he was acting alone and why a man described in glowing terms by those who knew him would blow himself up are questions still plaguing the authorities. Three days after the attack eight people were arrested, six in St Petersburg and two in Moscow, yet investigators are still no closer to finding a link between the suspects. The overriding suspicion that it was perpetrated by an Islamist terrorist group has so far not been confirmed by anyone claiming responsibility. The Russian Daily Kommersant however, believes that Dzhalilov could have fallen under extremist influence in Syria. Although unconfirmed, the newspaper reported that the suspect travelled there in February via Turkey and the burned sugar found among the bomb components is indicative of ‘Syrian know-how.’

Julian Buijzen
Image courtesy of Julian Buijzen, © 2017, some rights reserved.

This question of Syria, however, is problematic. Since the Russian invasion in 2015, the Islamic State (IS) has threatened to carry out an attack in response to this interference. Although Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has denied that the attack is a result of Russian aggression, if the opposite were proven true domestic support for the campaign could dwindle. As political analyst Kirill Rogov points out, ‘If somebody announces that it is related to the Russian invasion in Syria, it would be a sensitive scenario for Putin, because the Syria campaign would lose support in Russia.’ This goes someway to explaining the reserved response that has characterised the government so far.

Whether Islamist militants are culpable, the reaction, and the lack thereof, both in Russia and around the world, has been illuminating. Official government sources and state-owned TV channels have avoided whipping up a frenzy with Vladimir Putin refusing to pin the blame on anyone specific. In a highly scripted statement he explained that ‘the reasons behind the explosion are not clear yet, and so it would be premature to speak about them. The investigation is ongoing. Of course, we always consider all scenarios, including accidental or criminal action, and above all, those of a terrorist nature.’ Television news channels have offered varied suggestions in order to avoid questions about the effectiveness of Russian Security Service’s fight against terrorism.

The opposition, on the other hand, has been more imaginative with individuals such as Dmitry Gudkov hinting that the bomb could be the work of the KGB in order to give Putin leverage to crack down on civil liberties after recent protests against corruption. The attack also allows the Kremlin to shift the conversation from fighting corruption to protecting the nation. Although this theory has gained little traction, the rally outside the Kremlin to show support for residents of Petersburg proven to have been orchestrated with people being offered $7 to attend. Analysts suggest it was a government attempt to prove it they can garner as much support as the opposition. According to Alexei Makarkin of the Centre for Political Technologies, the support rally was ‘an indirect response to the mass rallies against corruption, the large scale of which came as a surprise to the authorities.’ So even if the bomb itself wasn’t government orchestrated, the Kremlin has not missed a chance to leverage it.

It is also poignant to acknowledge the muted response from the Western world. Unlike after previous atrocities, the Brandenburg Gate or Eiffel Tower haven’t been lit up with the colours of the Russian flag in a show of solidarity. The only real response from the Western world has come from President Donald Trump who tweeted ‘Happening all over the world, absolutely a terrible thing.’ Despite the lack of empathy from Europe, this attack may be used by the Kremlin to foster some sort of understanding with the West.

One newspaper analyst believes that Putin will use the attacks to emphasise common ground with the West at a time when relations are plummeting to their lowest point since the Cold War. Putin himself is likely to enjoy a short-term boost in popularity as the nation adopt a rally around the flag mentality, which is not going to help the opposition which could well find itself marginalised after this attack. One member of the state Duma even proposed a temporary ban on political demonstrations in response to the atrocity. Far more sinisterly, the attack could provide a pretext for a further crackdown on terrorism by increasing the search and seizure rights of the police force.

Although the casualty count at the moment puts the dead at thirteen, excluding the bomber, far less than other European atrocities, it is likely that the consequences will not be short-lived. Whether this turns out to be an issue related to Syria and Islamist extremism or government opposition, the Kremlin is unlikely to bypass a chance to strengthen its control within each sphere that this attack provides.

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