The bomb that killed 14 in the St. Petersburg subway Monday capped the worst start of a year for terrorism inside Russia since December 2013, according to data from a Moscow analytical group, suggesting the lull seen in recent years could be coming to an end.
“The increase in terrorist activity that we started to see already in 2016 is gathering momentum in 2017,” said Grigory Shvedov, head of Caucasian Knot, which has been collecting the data since 2010 and will present the latest findings on Thursday in Moscow. “The increase of violence in the North Caucasus and growing effectiveness of militants results both from them returning from Syria and the fact that many extremists aren’t going there at all and are staying in Russia.”
About 4,000 militants from Russia are still fighting with Islamic State in Syria, according to government data. Russian leaders have warned of the risk the militants will return to stage attacks at home. In December 2015, President Vladimir Putin said his military would destroy them in Syria to stop that from happening.
Russia’s two biggest cities haven’t suffered a major attack in more than six years. The Kremlin tightened security after hundreds were killed by terrorist strikes in the early 2000s that were later claimed mostly by Chechen separatists. Since Putin sent forces into Syria in 2015, Islamic State has threatened to strike at Russia, taking responsibility for the downing of a plane carrying Russian tourists from Egypt to St. Petersburg, which left 224 dead.
Monday’s suicide bomber was identified by authorities as a 22-year-old native of Kyrgyzstan who had Russian citizenship and lived in St. Petersburg.
In Russia, the start of the year was marked by increased Islamist activity in the largely Muslim republic of Chechnya, which for years had been the most tightly controlled in the North Caucasus region. Last month, a group of militants killed six National Guard soldiers in an assault on a military base in Chechnya. Six assailants were also killed.
Federal Security Service agents are watching more than 220 potential suicide bombers in Russia, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov said last July, according to Interfax.
In the North Caucasus, terrorists have become more deadly, with casualties among law-enforcement forces nearly doubling last year, the report shows. Islamic State has conducted at least four attacks in Chechnya since December.
“The situation in Chechnya is slipping out of control,” said Shvedov. Local authorities deny that.
Shvedov and other analysts warn the threat is already spreading to the rest of the country. The next day after the blast in the St. Petersburg subway, two traffic policemen were killed by attackers in the southern city of Astrakhan. The local governor identified suspects as “radical Islamists.” They escaped, according to authorities.
“We see a whole new level of terrorist threat because it is becoming more diverse. We have Islamic State, big groups, small groups and individuals,” said Alexey Malashenko, a scholar on Islam and politics at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. “In Russia there are sleeper cells across the country, including the Far East, Siberia and the north country.”