Was the St. Petersburg bomber the one that got away?
Russian media have reported that the deadly April 3 bombing that shook St. Petersburg metro, killing 11 people, was carried out by a 23-year old suicide attacker from Central Asia. Media in Kyrgyzstan have cited the State Committee for National Security as saying the main suspect is a man called Akbarjon Djalilov, born in 1995, and a native of Osh, but now a Russian citizen.
If these claims are confirmed, they would fit into a clear pattern established by the numerous terrorism-related arrests of people of Central Asian origin in Russia over the past few years. The implications for the vast community of embattled migrant laborers living in Russia could be grave and will pose a thorny security and political challenge to authorities in Moscow.
Of late, reports of Central Asians being detained across Russia — including in St. Petersburg — on suspicion of involvement with radical Islamic groups are so common as to barely elicit much attention.
Just to cite some cases at random, Life News website reported in November that a court in St. Petersburg had ordered the arrest of a Tajik citizen, 25-year old Umar Mirzoyev, on suspicion of recruiting Russian citizens into the Islamic State group. Mirzoyev was detained in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport as he prepared to embark on a flight to the southern city of Samara.
Also in November, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, announced they had intercepted a terrorist cell planning terrorist acts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At least 10 people were detained in that instance, although it is unclear how many were eventually charged.
More recently, in February, in the Far Eastern Pacific island of Sakhalin, special services claimed they had detained three citizens of Uzbekistan and one from Kyrgyzstan who they said were planning to use Russia as a jumping-off point to make their way to link up with militants in Syria — specifically with the Islamic State group.
Again in February, a court in St. Petersburg sentenced a 19-year old Russian citizen born in Kyrgyzstan to seven years in jail after being found guilty of participating in militant activity with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda.
As an aside, it is worth noting here that according to research by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, based in The Hague, in the period from December 2015 through November 2016, of the 186 foreign citizens known to have embarked on suicide missions in Syria and Iraq, easily the largest subgroup — 28 — comprised citizens of Tajikistan.
In September, the FSB said they had detained more than 100 people from across the former Soviet Union in connection with an investigation into an alleged terror plot in the city of Ufa. Officials said that as part of that sweep, they had identified a group of Central Asian citizens engaged in forging documents and fraudulently legalizing the status of unauthorized migrants in Russia.
Similar stories surface on a very regular basis and attribution to groups described as radical Islamist is as arbitrary in Russia as it is in Central Asia. Suspects are variously assigned to the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra among others, or even Hizb ut-Tahrir, which operates legally in many countries and has formally foresworn any ties to armed militancy.
As Noah Tucker has persuasively documented in his research into the phenomenon of Central Asians gravitating toward armed combat in the Middle East, Russia has steadily emerged as a prime recruiting ground.
“As recruiting gained momentum in 2013 and 2014 … many sources report that the preponderance of new Central Asian recruits began to come from Russia. There are up to seven million Central Asians working as migrant laborers under difficult conditions in Russia, with better Internet access and relatively more freedom to recruit in person without the resistance of local community structures or omnipresent security services. As a result, migrant workers became the primary target audience for Central Asian groups recruiting for the conflict,” Tucker wrote in a 2015 paper.
Identifying the who, where and how may be the relatively easy part, but establishing coherent personal motivations or tactical goals behind the arbitrary killing of civilians is an undertaking that defies straightforward evaluation.
What is more certain is that while arrests of suspected Islamic radicals from Central Asia have become commonplace, the numbers are in truth infinitesimally small when measured against the total number of citizens from the region pursuing blameless lives in Russia, where they toil in often miserable conditions to provide for their families back home.
But all the same, with a notional threat now materialized into hard reality, politics could well come into play and many a blameless Central Asian — not to speak of Muslims from elsewhere in Russia — will pay a price.
The Russian government has a complicated track record with anti-migrant xenophobia in the mainstream. While overtly racist messaging is rarely far from the surface, there are surprising instances in which the public mood has been prevented from spilling over in potentially dangerous ways.
One notable example involved the grisly 2016 case of an Uzbek nanny killing and beheading her five-year old charge in Moscow.
Appearing to sense the danger, state media imposed a de facto blackout on reporting on the incident — a decision some argue may have prevented a public backlash that could potentially have taken on xenophobic qualities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov certainly appeared to be of that view at the time.
"You know that the media around the world often give shots or show pictures of various tragic or horrific accidents. Such examples are many. In this way certain media express their position in society," Peskov said. "In any case, it is not something that should be covered in the media. And here I fully agree with the decision of these channels.”
In the instance of the St. Petersburg bombing, authorities may seek to pursue a similar approach, although the recent anti-corruption protests across Russia have starkly illustrated the limitations of a state-mandated news blackouts.
When it came to the now almost decades-long fight against the North Caucasus-centered Islamist-inspired insurgency, Russia’s security services developed a broad range of often heavy-handed responses, and in Chechnya they could rely on the brutality of its vassal ruler.
This fresh threat presents a more diffuse challenge and one that risks opening sores that will not quickly heal. Worst of all, the consequences of mishandling the reaction to the threat — and now actual manifestation — of violence could prove even more dangerous than the original threat itself.