Andrew Osborn








The deadly Journey

3rd April 2010 16:20

It was an unremarkable long-distance bus journey undertaken by market traders every week. But the bus that pulled out of the dusty southern Russian town of Kizlyar last Saturday lunchtime was different. On board were two ‘black widow’ suicide bombers intent on revenge for their Islamist rebel husbands’ deaths. Less than forty-eight hours and some one thousand miles later, they calmly descended into Moscow’s busy metro and blew themselves up. The death toll from last Monday’s attacks is forty so far. The double suicide bombing was the first major terrorist attack to hit the Russian capital since 2004 and has stirred fears that other such attacks will follow. Doku Umarov, the Islamist radicals’ Chechen-born leader, has already promised more bloodshed is on the way. “You Russians only see the war on television and hear about it on the radio, and this is why you are quiet and do not react to the atrocities that your bandit groups under Putin’s command carry out in the Caucasus,’’ Umarov said in a chilling video posted on the Internet after the bombings. He added with menace: “I promise you that the war will come to your streets, and you will feel it in your lives and under your skin.’’ His is a threat that is likely to linger at the back of Muscovites’ minds each time they enter the metro. Umarov, a veteran of two wars against Russia in Chechnya, has succeeded in spreading panic and garnering publicity. Both the world and ordinary Russians have been shocked into remembering something they had preferred to forget - that a bloody war is continuing to play out along Russia’s southern flank. It is a conflict that pits the Kremlin against radical Islam and a war it repeatedly claims to have won. Yet the bombings, in the heart of the Russian capital, shows those boasts are hollow.   

The two women solicited little attention when they boarded the bus in Dagestan last Saturday. For Muscovites, places like Dagestan are like a foreign land. A predominantly Muslim republic by the Caspian Sea, it is Russia’s most southerly point and closer to Turkey than Moscow. It is also part of the North Caucasus, a clutch of small mainly Muslim territories within Russia’s borders where militant Islam has taken hold. At 36 hours, the bus journey was long but cheap. It cost the equivalent of just thirty pounds a ticket. The two women sat separately and did not talk to one another. Later, fellow passengers would remember that the pair wore oddly bulky coats. It was risky to wear the explosive-packed suicide belts for such a long journey but the two women knew that passengers on such buses were rarely stopped and searched. The bus arrived at two o’clock in the small hours of Monday morning and parked in a car park close to Moscow’s giant Luzhniki football stadium near the Moskva river. As was customary, the driver let the passengers doze on in the bus until the metro opened at 5.30am. When he awoke at six, he remembers the three passengers were gone. Their first target was the Lubyanka metro station in central Moscow. A busy intersection, the station is located almost directly beneath the headquarters of the FSB security service, the successor agency to the KGB. For the Islamists, blowing up the station was a symbolic gesture that would send a powerful signal to the very agency whose special forces were hunting them down in the hills and forests of southern Russia. The identity of the first ‘shakhidka’ or suicide bomber who blew herself up at Lubyanka has yet to be confirmed. Some reports say she was the 20 year-old Chechen widow of a rebel fighter killed last October. What is in no doubt, however, is that she was ‘a black widow’ – a woman whose husband, brother or close relative has been killed by Russian forces leaving her thirsting for revenge. Shortly before 8 am as the train she was travelling on pulled into Lubyanka station, the woman blew herself up. The consequences were horrific. The blast ripped through the carriage, killing people both inside and on the platform. Smoke filled the station, people ran for cover, and the screaming of the wounded filled the air. The bomber was decapitated. That, said the Russian press, was deliberate. Such bombers believe that Allah will pull them into paradise by their ears and therefore wear suicide belts around their waists to keep their heads intact. Some forty minutes later, a second blast rocked the Park Kultury metro station four stops along the same line close to Moscow’s famous Gorky Park. The second bomber, named as Dzhanet Abdullayeva, was the 17 year-old widow of a rebel leader killed in Dagestan on New Year’s Eve. Disturbing photographs of the girl emerged last Friday showing her posing with her late husband. Both are clutching pistols, while in a separate shot Dzhanet is shown posing in a full-length niqab with a hand grenade. The young baby-faced girl, who like her husband was from Dagestan, seems to be doing her defiant best to ooze terrorist chic. Yet she looks like little more than a child playing at being an adult. Authorities in Dagestan had identified her as someone who was inclined towards extremism. People who remember her when she was younger say she used to like reciting poetry and was a quiet girl. They say they are struggling to come to terms with her role as a human bomb. Dzhanet reportedly met her late husband, the leader of Dagestan’s Islamist rebel underground, over the Internet when she was sixteen years old. Her 30 year-old husband, named as Umalat Magomedov, is said to have practically abducted her in keeping with ancient local tradition. Some media reports quoted security officials as saying the singed remains of a love letter written in Arabic had been found on what was left of Dzhanet’s body on Monday. The letter finished with the words: “We will meet in the Heavens.” Her motive for turning herself into a human bomb was revenge. Her late husband and three other Islamist radicals were killed in a shootout with police in Dagestan on New Year’s Eve. Police stopped his Lada for a routine document check and a gun battle ensued. The FSB security service says the dead man was close to Doku Umarov, the Chechen-born Islamist radical who claimed responsibility for the metro bombings and promised more were on their way. Ironically, Dzhanet was brought in for questioning after her husband, whose nom de guerre was Al-Bara, was killed and photographed by the police. Questions are therefore likely to be asked about why they did not keep a better eye on her subsequently. A Malaysian medical student found himself standing close to Dzhanet seconds before she blew herself up and recalls the moment vividly. “She was standing in the carriage near the door in a very abnormal posture as if she wanted to get out of the metro but she didn’t,” Sim Eih Xing told the Moscow Times. “She wasn’t wearing a scarf. Her eyes were very open like she was on drugs and she barely blinked and it was scary,” he remembers. “But I didn’t think she was a suicide bomber. I thought that she might just be mentally ill so I stood behind her.” By some miracle, the student managed to survive the bombing with relatively minor injuries. To compound Russian misery, a second attack took place in Dagestan itself two days later. On that occasion, a double suicide bombing left twelve people dead, nine of them policemen. Such attacks are common in the North Caucasus but coming so soon after the Moscow metro bombings it fuelled fears that a new terror campaign was really underway. The Kremlin’s response has been typically robust. Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, has talked of scraping the terrorists from the bottom of the sewer and President Dmitry Medvedev has promised the terrorists will be hunted down and destroyed. In the North Caucasus, Russian special forces have taken him at his word and stepped up what was already a fierce counter-terrorism campaign. Their sometimes brutal methods have alienated local people and driven them into the arms of the extremists, human rights groups allege. 

The man they are hunting more than any other is of course the self-same Doku Umarov, the self-styled “emir’ of the Caucasus. His stated goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate across the entire region, drive out the Russian “occupiers” and impose sharia law. Yet killing him is unlikely to bring peace. The Kremlin has ‘liquidated’ people like him before. Yet someone else always seems willing to take their place. What seems to be different about Umarov, however, is that he is willing to escalate the conflict. He has resurrected the ‘martyrs’ brigades’ used with such devastating effect up to 2004, and says he sees ordinary Russian citizens as legitimate targets. Like many of his fellow Islamists, he has undergone something of an ideological conversion. When he first started fighting the Russians during the first 1994-96 Chechen war, the simple aim was independence for Chechnya. Yet with time, he and his fellow rebels embraced Islamist extremism and dropped the idea of secular autonomy in favour of creating a giant emirate that would stretch far beyond Chechnya’s borders. Many analysts question his and others’ sincerity believing his ‘conversion’ had more to do with pragmatism than principle. That though is a nuance likely to be lost on ordinary Russians. As buses, trains and planes continue to make the long journey from the North Caucasus to Moscow, they can only wonder whether any more of Umarov’s black widows may be about to strike again.