Sunday, November 29, 2009

Terrorists Behind Russian Rail Crash, But Which Terrorists?

Russian officials are blaming terrorists for the crash of a luxury Moscow-to-St. Petersburg train on Friday, but who these terrorists are remains a mystery.

The luxury Nevsky Express derailed after an improvised explosive device blew a three-foot deep crater under the tracks, sending the last few cars of the train off the rails. Latest reports are that at least 25 people were killed in the crash, with 90 others injured, some of them seriously. The attack happened on a remote, rural area of the route, which kept rescue teams from reaching the site of the crash for several hours. According to reports posted on Russian social media sites, some unhurt passengers provided immediate first aid to their injured fellow travelers.

With the rescue efforts finished, the focus is now shifting to who might be responsible for the worst act of terrorism in Russia (outside of the volatile North Caucasus region) in five years. The immediate suspicion is falling on the usual suspects, Islamic militants from the Caucasus region - most likely from Chechnya. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has fought two bloody wars in Chechnya, and the early part of this decade was marked by several high profile terror attacks throughout Russia carried out by Chechen terrorists.

But as of Sunday afternoon, no Islamic or Chechen groups had taken claim for the attack on the Nevsky Express. And that raises the question, could someone other than the Chechens be responsible for the attack? The Nevsky Express is the high-speed rail-link between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is a train popular with members of the country's business and political elite traveling between Russia's top two cities. One possibility is that this made the Nevsky Express not a target for the Chechens, but rather an ultra-nationalist (and anti-government) group of Russians. According to Russia's independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, a radical, neo-Nazi group phoned in a claim of responsibility on Friday, but that claim hasn't yet been verified and others ultra-nationalist groups used their websites to quickly disavow any connection to the attack.

In the past decade, many neo-Nazi/skinhead groups have emerged in Russia - often targeting immigrant workers from the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia in violent, sometimes fatal, attacks. These groups have also voiced anger at the Russian government for not cracking down on immigration of "non-Russians" and for business and political policies they feel has left Russia "weak". The Nevsky Express then would make a tempting target for groups with such an ideology. It was attacked in a similar fashion in 2006, though no one was killed and few people were injured in that incident. Suspicion at the time initially fell on ultra-nationalist groups, though it was eventually blamed on a small group of Chechen separatists. Russian authorities have a "person of interest" they are looking for to question about Friday's attack, he is described as being 40-ish, stocky with ginger-colored (red) hair - not the description of your typical Chechen.

And then there's the political dimension of the Nevsky Express story. Media reports already contain quotes from average Russians worried about a return to the early 2000s when Russia endured a string of terror attacks from the seizure of a Moscow theater, to airplane bombings to the slaughter of an elementary school. The idea of a new wave of Chechen terror attacks is bad, but the thought of high-profile attacks carried out by Russian nationalists - committing terror attacks not to win the independence of some out of the way corner of Russia but aimed at bringing about a fundamental change of the country's government and economy - could be worse. It may be enough for the Russian government to just blame the Nevsky Express attack on the usual suspects (the Chechens) and move on.
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