On Monday, the subway system of St. Petersburg, Russia’s second city, was the site of a massive bomb blast that killed 14 commuters and wounded more than 50 others. (A second, unexploded device was subsequently found and defused by authorities.) The attack marked the most significant terrorist incident to hit the Russian Federation since December of 2013, when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the main train station of the southern Russian city of Volgograd ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi.
But it is also much more. Monday’s bombing is the latest sign of Russia’s worsening terrorism problem, as well as a portent of things to come.
THE COSTS OF SYRIA
Most directly, Monday’s attack in St. Petersburg can be viewed as blowback from Russia’s ongoing intervention in Syria. Since September 2015, the Kremlin has become a major player in Syria’s grinding civil war, establishing a significant—and open-ended—military presence in the country in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Russia’s involvement has paid concrete strategic dividends, making it possible for Russia to reinforce its historic naval base at Tartus, establish a new air base in Latakia, and forward deploy an expanded naval force in the eastern Mediterranean, among other gains. But it has also made Moscow the target of Islamist ire, with both the Islamic State (also called ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, pledging to retaliate in Russia.
Monday’s attack may well have been the start of just such an offensive. Russian authorities have identified the main suspect in the bombing as 22-year-old Akbarzhon Jalilov, a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen with links to radical Islamists. For its part, ISIS was quick to celebrate the blast (although it stopped short of directly claiming responsibility), suggesting that—at the very least—Jalilov’s actions track closely with its own plans for Russia.
RUSSIA’S JIHADI LEGION
Monday’s bombing also lays bare a larger problem facing the Kremlin: Russia’s Muslims