The tragedy that occurred on April 3 in a metro station in St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, has profoundly shocked the public, with the toll from the terror attack rising to 14 dead and more then 60 wounded. Also, it has revealed a whole new challenge to Russia, which has faced deadly attacks connected to militants from its North Caucasus region in the past but has never before seen such violent extremism perpetrated by Central Asians.
Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, 22, whom investigators believe to have been the suicide bomber in the terror attack inside a metro carriage at Sennaya Square station, was born in southern Kyrgyzstan and moved to Russia in 2011, where he was granted citizenship. In my view, it is Dzhalilov’s background and the story of rising extremism in southern Kyrgyzstan that is crucial for understanding the St Petersburg bombing.
Dzhalilov left his motherland a year after clashes broke out between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the city of Osh, where his family was part of the Uzbek minority. The bloody conflict led to at least 189 deaths and hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and subsequently the clashes of 2010 resulted in social isolation of ethnic Uzbeks in the Osh and Batken regions of southern Kyrgyzstan.
This environment turned out to be fertile ground for the spread of radical islam, with extremist recruiters benefiting from local Uzbeks’ failure to integrate in the society.
As the head of the Eurasian Analytic Club, Nikita Medkovich, told RBC news agency, there is an underground network of Islamist radicals in Kyrgyzstan, which, as a rough estimate, constitutes several thousand members. Ethnic Uzbeks from the country’s south form the basis of these radical movements. Medkovich indicated that there were examples of imams from rural mosques being engaged in recruiting young Uzbeks, first to go to Afghanistan and now being asked to leave for Syria and Iraq.
Among the terrorist groups operating in southern Kyrgyzstan, the most active can be singled out. These are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has spanned throughout Central Asia, the Katibat Imam al-Bukhari and the Jannat Oshiklari. Apart from that, the Hizb ut-Tahrir advocating re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate and the Tablighi Jamaat urging Muslims to return to primary Sunni Islam consistently carry out extremists propaganda in the country’s territory.
As of 2014, some 2,500 supporters of radical islam were on file with the police, while about 500 had left Kyrgyzstan to join ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
According to a representative of the 10th Police Department in Osh, Azis Tazhbulatov, at least 36 extremism-related criminal cases were initiated in the city alone, KyrTAG agency reported last year. Osh city police concur on the acute need to upscale counterterrorism efforts, given that a lot of previously agreed measures remain on paper. In particular, local authorities have set up mobile teams comprising police officers, imams and journalists, but these efforts have provided no results so far.
Regarding Dzhalilov, it is not clear yet whether he was a suicide attacker or was just tasked with delivering the bombs to two subway stations – a second one was discovered and defused at Ploshchad Vosstaniya metro station.
It is highly possible that Dzhalilov was used by accomplices as a suicide bomber without his knowledge or that something went wrong and the device detonated accidentally. As a law-enforcement source told Interfax news agency, “multiple factors” provide evidence of that version, including Dzhalilov’s behavior and the fact that he had been radicalized quite recently, whereas the process of preparing a suicide murderer takes a long time.
Investigators learned that in February, Dzhalilov visited his native town of Osh, where he could have actively engaged with his radical countrymen and likely fell under their influence. Dzhalilov’s acquaintances noted that he returned to St Petersburg from Osh “sullen and withdrawn”.
Although we cannot say for sure what the attacker’s motivation and specific circumstances were under which he made a decision to commit the atrocity, now it is a matter of fact that he didn’t act alone. Eight suspects allegedly involved in the terror attack have been detained within the framework of the investigation.
A police search found an improvised explosive device similar to the one planted at Ploshchad Vosstaniya station. Investigators believe that the detained men, who also came from the Osh region, were Dzhalilov’s accomplices in the attack, and have not ruled out two of them a being failed suicide bombers.
These findings highlight the crucial role of networks and social environments in terrorist activity. As yet, there is no precise understanding of Dzhalilov’s possible links to Islamic State: On the one hand, ISIS has not claimed responsibility for the St Petersburg metro bombing so far, but on the other, the investigation has revealed that in 2015, Dzhalilov left Russia for Turkey. After that, he possibly crossed the border into Syria, where he could have been trained in terrorist camps. He was outside Russia for quite a long time, investigators have indicated.
In any case, we should take into consideration that Dzhalilov and his accomplices could have been influenced by ISIS propaganda, even without contacting the group. This pretty much reflects the general situation in Kyrgyzstan, where Islamic State is not represented directly, while its ideology finds supporters in some milieux.
That is why counterterrorism efforts, both at the national level and globally, should first of all address the broader issues of the spreading of radical Islamist ideology and the exploitation of marginalized regions as an enabling environment for recruitment in acts of violence to be carried out worldwide.