Russian metro bomb suspect a Muslim born in central Asia

By Denis Pinchuk and Hulkar Isamova

April 4, 2017


A Russian suicide bomber originally from mainly Muslim Kyrgyzstan detonated the explosives in a St Petersburg train carriage that killed 14 people and wounded 50, authorities said on Tuesday.

The suspect had radical Islamist links, Russian media cited law enforcement officials as saying, raising the possibility Monday's attack could have been inspired by Islamic State, which has not struck a major city in Russia before. So far, no-one has claimed responsibility for the blast.

Kyrgyz officials identified the suspect as Akbarzhon Jalilov, born in the city of Osh in 1995, and Russian officials confirmed his identity, saying he had also left a bomb found at another metro station before it went off.

Biographical details pieced together from social media and Russian officials suggested Jalilov was an fairly typical young St Petersburg resident with an interest in Islam as well as pop music and martial arts but no obvious links to militants.

His uncle, Eminzhon Jalilov, told Reuters by telephone that his nephew was a mosque-attending Muslim, but that he was "not a fanatic".

The explosion in the middle of Monday afternoon occurred when the train was in a tunnel deep underground, amplifying the force of the blast. The carriage door was blown off, and witnesses described seeing injured passengers with bloodied and blackened bodies.

State investigative authorities said fragments of the body of the suspect had been found among the dead, indicating that he was a suicide bomber.

"From the genetic evidence and the surveillance cameras there is reason to believe that the person behind the terrorist act in the train carriage was the same one who left a bag with an explosive device at the Ploshchad Vosstaniya station," they said in a statement.

Russia has been on alert against attacks in reprisal for its military intervention in Syria, where Moscow's forces have been supporting troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad against Western-backed armed groups as well as the hardline Islamic State (IS) which grew out of the conflict.

IS, now under attack by all sides in Syria's multi-faceted war, has repeatedly threatened revenge and been linked to recent bombings elsewhere in Europe.

If it is confirmed that the metro bomber was linked to radical Islamists, it could provoke anger among some Russians at Moscow's decision to intervene in Syria, a year before an election which President Vladimir Putin is expected to win.

Officials said they were treating the blast as an act of terrorism, but there was no official confirmation of any link to Islamist radicals.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was cynical to say the bombing in St Petersburg was revenge for Russia's role in Syria. He said the attack showed that Moscow needed to press on with its fight against global terrorism.

A page on social media site VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, belonging to someone with the same name and year of birth as Jalilov, included photos of him relaxing with friends in a bar, smoking from a hookah pipe. He was dressed in jackets and a baseball cap.

A Reuters reporter visited a house in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, which neighbors said was the family home of Jalilov. The home, a modest but well-maintained one-storey brick building, was empty.

Neighbors said Jalilov was from a family of ethnic Uzbeks, and that while they knew his parents they had not seen the young man for years. They said his father worked as a panel-beater in a car repair shop.

"They are a very good family. Always friendly, never argue. And they have good kids," one of the neighbors, Mirkomil Akhmadaliyev, told Reuters.

Later on Tuesday, Jalilov's mother appeared but refused to speak to reporters, saying she needed to retrieve something and hurry back to a security service office.

Osh is part of the Fergana Valley, a fertile strip of land that straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan which is mainly populated by ethnic Uzbeks. It has a tradition of Islamist radicalism and hundreds of people have set out from the area to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

A blast at a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year's Eve that killed 39 people involved a suspect from the same part of central Asia. The bomber in that attack said he had been acting under the direction of IS militants in Syria.

Jalilov's uncle said his nephew moved to Russia in 2012. He is registered at an upscale apartment in the north of St Petersburg, according to a source in the Russian authorities, and he has a Daewoo Nexia car registered in his name.

A man who said he was a representative of the apartment's owner told Reuters that Jalilov had never actually lived there, but had given the address as his residence in official documents.

His VKontakte page included links to a site featuring sayings from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth century preacher on whose teaching Wahhabism, a conservative and hardline branch of Islam, is based. But there were no links to Islamist militants.

Russia's health minister Veronika Skvortsova said on Tuesday that the death toll from the blast, which hit at 2:40 p.m. (1140 GMT), had risen to 14, with 50 wounded.

St Petersburg television showed footage of the corpse of a man they said was the perpetrator. The man, with a close-cropped beard, resembled footage of a young man wearing a blue beanie hat and a jacket with a fur-lined hood captured on closed circuit television identified by Russian media as a suspect.

"It has been ascertained that an explosive device could have been detonated by a man, fragments of whose body were found in the third carriage of the train," Russia's state investigative committee said in a statement.

"The man has been identified but his identity will not be disclosed for now in the interests of the investigation," the statement added.

President Putin, who was visiting St Petersburg at the time of the blast, went to the site late on Monday.

The Kremlin said it was "noteworthy" that Putin had been in the city. It did not elaborate, but said such attacks on Russia were a challenge for every citizen, including the president.

Two years ago, Islamic State said it had brought down a plane carrying Russian tourists home from a Red Sea resort. All 224 people on board the flight were killed.

Monday's blast raised security fears beyond Russian frontiers. France, which has itself suffered a series of attacks, announced additional security measures in Paris.

Radical Islamic Attacks in a Moderate Region Unnerve the Kremlin

Published: August 25, 2012
The New York Times

KAZAN, Russia — A string of violent attacks by Islamic militants has shattered this city’s reputation as a citadel of religious tolerance and unnerved federal officials in Moscow, who have worked for decades to prevent the spread of radical Islam out of the southern borderlands and into places like this city 500 miles east of Moscow.

Officials have long sought to contain Islamic fervor in the Caucasus to the south while insisting that places like the republic of Tatarstan, where Kazan is the capital, were different, representing a moderate “Russian Islam,” said Aleksei Malashenko, the co-chairman of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s religion, society and security program.

But that comfortable assumption began to crumble just before the start of Ramadan in late July, when a senior cleric in charge of education was shot outside his apartment building on Zarya Street. Roughly an hour later, the city’s chief mufti survived a bomb attack that demolished his Toyota Land Cruiser. A previously unheard-of group, the mujahedeen of Tatarstan, claimed responsibility.

On Sunday, a car carrying three men, an automatic rifle and Islamic pamphlets blew up in Zelenodolsk, about a half-hour west of Kazan, in what the authorities described as the inadvertent detonation of a homemade explosive. “That radical direction exists in Tatarstan,” Mr. Malashenko said. “And it’s dangerous.”

The apparent rise of Islamic militancy could have far-ranging effects on foreign and domestic policy, as the Kremlin increasingly looks for ways to promote moderate Islam and quash radical movements at home and abroad.

Uncertainty over how to address the danger has left the authorities wavering, with some favoring a crackdown, including arrests in Kazan of dozens of Muslim men suspected of extremist ties and pressure on local imams thought to shelter such views in their mosques. Others call for more subtle techniques, like the state-supported creation of Russia’s first Muslim television channel, which began broadcasting last week on the country’s largest cable network.

Russian Islamic leaders, long viewed as beholden to the government, are under mounting pressure to demonstrate political and religious independence, and tend to the needs of a community reshaped by immigration from Central Asia, increasing religiosity among younger generations and closer ties to the rest of the Muslim world made possible by travel and the Internet.

“All over the world, we can watch bloodshed, civil wars, changing of power, changes of political systems, confrontations of various religious groups, confrontations of various political systems and interests,” said Sheik Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia. “The Muslims of Russia are watching very attentively.”

In a country with 20 million Muslims, two million in Moscow alone, that sort of attention has had divergent effects on Russian foreign policy. It has reinforced Moscow’s support of Palestinian statehood, which dates to cold war jockeying between the Soviet Union and the United States. Kremlin news releases typically refer to “Palestine,” and Russia supports United Nations membership for the Palestinian government. On Friday, Sheik Gainutdin led a national day of prayer in support of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, which has become an annual tradition.

Russia’s leaders have also adopted a nuanced view of Hamas, regarding it as a social service organization and a legitimate political player in the region and dismissing allegations of hypocrisy from Israel, which has equated Hamas with the Chechen militants whom Mr. Putin routinely denounces as terrorists.

While these positions are in concert with the views of the Muslim community back home, the Russian government has also strongly favored state sovereignty, even if exercised by dictators, over self-determination in Libya, Egypt and most pointedly in Syria, where it has described the anti-Assad rebels as lawbreakers. It is a stance that could alienate young, more fervent Muslims already suspicious of Moscow’s efforts to limit their religiosity, but it also leaves no doubt how the Kremlin will react to any hint of rebellion within its own borders.

In an interview, Sheik Gainutdin said that Mr. Putin and other leaders had been largely supportive of the Muslim community, but he said that Moscow city officials were risking a conflagration by not doing more to address an acute shortage of mosques. He has often noted that Beijing has 70 mosques for 250,000 Muslims while Moscow has just 4 for two million.

Privately, many Muslim officials blame the Russian Orthodox Church, which is increasingly close to the Kremlin, for blocking efforts to acquire property for new mosques in the capital.

Sheik Gainutdin also went out of his way to praise the United States State Department for defending religious freedom around the world including in Russia, hardly a talking point endorsed by the Kremlin. He attributed the attacks in Kazan in part to a failure of leadership on the part of the wounded chief mufti, who he said had failed to adapt to the rising demands from younger, more fervent Muslim believers.

Still, he condemned the violence and said that rising extremism posed a real challenge.

“Unfortunately such radical groups do exist,” he said. “Thus, the politicians, authorities, official Muslim clergy face a question: What is to be done with these ideologically versed Muslims?”

In a sign of the Kremlin’s sensitivity, Mr. Putin immediately sent a telegram to Muslim leaders in Tatarstan to express condolences and concern about the attacks. “These events remind us once again that the situation in our country is far from ideal,” he said in a statement, adding, “What has happened is a serious signal.”

What followed in Kazan was a swift and at times seemingly indiscriminate crackdown. Dozens of Muslim men were rounded up and arrested. Most have since been released, while the authorities continue to search for suspects, including one man believed to have appeared in a video made by the mujahedeen of Tatarstan.

The wounded chief mufti resigned and has been temporarily replaced by a young cleric largely viewed as a pawn of the regional government.

Some local imams say they have been visited by the police and prosecutors and warned that they are under investigation for extremism.

Gabdulla-Khazrat Galiullin, a former chief mufti in Kazan, who is now imam of the 160-year-old Nurulla mosque, said he had been visited by the authorities and warned that he and his mosque were under suspicion of extremism. Sitting in his office in the mosque basement, wearing a white skullcap and flowing white robe, Mr. Galiullin said that the response by the authorities was heavy-handed.

“They moved with a scythe instead of pulling out only the weeds,” he said. “It is impossible to arrest so many people without having a list prepared in advance.”

Unlike many traditional Tatar mosques, which are empty between prayer services, Mr. Galiullin’s mosque represents the new, increasing religiosity. Even between prayers, it is a nonstop hub of activity. In the main hall, some worshipers chat in small groups, while others nap, and still others surf the Web on laptops. Mr. Galiullin admitted to smoking cigarettes — a sin, he noted — and scoffed at the suggestion that he is a radical. He has hired a lawyer.

But he warned that unjustified arrests, and efforts by the security services to control local religious leaders, would prompt a backlash and potentially provoke the extremism it is intended to prevent. “It’s quite easy to bring people to extremes,” he said. “To start a fire, only one match is needed.”

Domestically, the Russian government is already wrestling with an uprising of a different disgruntled minority — urban, middle-class liberals — which could further limit the patience of the authorities. There are signs that the government may use the same tools against Muslims that it has used against the white-ribbon-wearing liberals.

On Wednesday, officials said two imams in Kazan were under investigation for possibly violating a tough new law barring unsanctioned protests, for having given speeches to worshipers in a park at the end of Ramadan.

Fight over Islam, money and power brings violence to Volga

Radical Islam brewing in Russia's peaceful heartland
July 29, 2012

KAZAN, RUSSIA - Not far from glitzy boulevards where an oil boom has sent up stadiums and high-rises overlooking the Volga River, women in headscarves wander through Islamic bookstores selling pamphlets on the institution of sharia in Russia.

Kazan, capital of Russia's mainly-Muslim Tatarstan region, has long had an image as a showcase of religious tolerance. But that reputation was shattered last week by car bomb and shooting attacks carried out only hours before the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

On the wall outside the bookshop, a flyer in the local Tatar language calls Muslims to unite against the region's top religious leader, Mufti Ildus Faizov, who was wounded in the attacks which also killed his deputy.

"Things will only get worse here and Muslims will be the ones who suffer the most," said Anisa Karabayeva, 43, her face framed by a white hijab, or traditional headscarf.

"Will there be more bombs? Probably," she says flatly, standing in front of a display case stocked with Korans and prayer rugs.

The attacks came against a background of anger among many Muslims who complain that the authorities in Tatarstan are restricting Islam in the name of fighting radicalism. It is a dispute that also involves a struggle for money and influence in the increasingly prosperous oil-producing region.

President Vladimir Putin, who started a new six-year term in May, has repeatedly called for national unity and religious concord in a predominantly Orthodox Christian nation with deep-rooted ethnic minorities, many of them Muslim.

For decades, Russia has endured violence in mostly Muslim provinces in the North Caucasus on its southern fringe, where tens of thousands of people were killed in two separatist wars in Chechnya after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and insurgents are still fighting to set up an Islamic state.

But booming Tatarstan, 2,000 km away from the war zones, had largely avoided unrest until now.

Moderate Muslims in Tatarstan blame the violence on the arrival of radical groups, such as followers of Sunni Islam's strict Salafi movement and the outlawed organization Hizb ut-Tahrir which seeks an Islamic caliphate.

Last week's attack resembles strikes against moderate muftis in places like the Caucasus region of Dagestan next door to Chechnya. Kazan is now on increased alert for more attacks. Outside of mosques, police rifle through the belongings and bags of the faithful, who line up in front of metal detectors.

"Today Islam is growing strongly in Kazan... But there are different sects and movements that you simply cannot control," said Ramil Mingarayev, an imam at the al Marjani Mosque.

"We try to fight radicals, we have tried to clean our city of them, but there are hidden mosques, where they gather and distribute forbidden literature, in basements and in the forests."

Some of those fears arise from threats made by North Caucasus militants far away. Russia's most wanted man, Chechen Islamist guerrilla leader Doku Umarov, called for an uprising among Russia’s Muslims last year, mentioning Tatarstan by name.

"I want to appeal to the Muslim brothers who live on Russian-occupied Muslim land... I call on you to destroy the enemies of Allah wherever you are. I call on you to destroy them where your hand reaches and to open fronts of jihad," he said in a video posted on insurgency-affiliated website Kavkaz Centre.


Since becoming head of the Tatarstan branch of the Russian state's Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in April last year, Faizov has been praised by Kremlin authorities for what they say are measures to clamp down on radical sentiment and encourage traditional forms of Islamic practice seen as more moderate.

Religion is also a big business, which has made him enemies. Four months ago Faizov gave near-exclusive rights in Tatarstan to sell tours to Mecca for the annual haj pilgrimage to Tatar Business World, a company his office's web site says it controls. Many Muslims complained that the price went up.

Rustem Gataullin, the chairman of the company that previously had rights to sell pilgrimage tours, was one of between 40 and 100 people who were detained in relation to last week's attacks, according to Interfax.

"He had his enemies," said Gabid Hayruddinov, 73, who reads prayers for the Muslim faithful who come to him in search of help in the city's main mosque of Kul Sharif.

"He promised to make the haj tours cheaper, but instead they became even more expensive: they went from 120,000 to 150,000 roubles ($4,600)," he said, his light blue eyes set deep against his dark wizened skin.

Small protests against Faizov had bubbled throughout the year in Kazan, culminating with an open letter to him published in Russian and Tatar in various newspapers and on the Internet, calling for the price of haj tours to be cut.

Faizov was unavailable to talk when Reuters called his office. His deputy was likewise unavailable as was another imam with strong ties to the directorate.


Beneath the 18th century al Marjani mosque a dark tunnel leads from the room for prayer to the Islamic school across the street. Five times a day the dozens of students make their way through the stone entrance, perform ablutions, pray and return.

For those who experience Russia's failing social welfare programs and chronically corrupt court system and police force, stricter versions of Islam hold out the hope for a more just society.

"It's good we have the authorities. Without them there would be chaos," said Zakhid Anovarov, a burly 20-year-old student with a thin black beard.

"But it's not a just system because it's a man-made system. If we were governed by shariah, then life would be better, more just," he said of the Islamic law code.

Many of the students are migrants from elsewhere in Russia or other former Soviet states to Kazan, where construction money has created new jobs, including sprucing up the city to hold the World University Games next year.

Zarifa Kamilova came to Kazan in 2004 to escape the aftermath of the second Chechen War in her hometown of Grozny, where federal forces had toppled a separatist government.

Like other Chechens in Kazan, she was drawn to its Muslim majority and the possibility to find work. But she says she fears pressure by the authorities will marginalize Muslims, leading more and more of them to radicalism.

"I have already taken five books off my shelves this year because they were considered too radical," she said, referring to an ever-expanding list of literature outlawed by Russia's Justice Ministry. She and other Muslims say they have felt increasing pressure since Faizov assumed his post.

"This alone is turning normal people into radicals. It's not that more people are becoming radical it's that their definition is encompassing more and more people," she said.

She says she fears a government crackdown on Muslims that will ban more religious literature she would otherwise sell in her store, where everything from electronic Korans to prayer rugs to Chinese-made clocks with prayers on them is on offer.

Referring to previous crackdowns on illegal groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, which thrives in Central Asia and has been brought to Russia by immigrants, she says she has never faced arrest. But: "I have learned one thing, never think it can't happen to you".

Muslims in Kazan say Faizov also launched a bid to take over leadership at the Kul Sharif Mosque, a visual symbol of the renaissance of Islam in Kazan. Completed in 2005, it sits on the site of a medieval mosque destroyed in the 16th century by Ivan the Terrible, who conquered the Kazan Khanate, a Tatar state ruled by descendents of Genghis Khan.


In his battle with radical Islam, perhaps none of Faizov's efforts were as divisive as his demand that imams of all mosques undergo a course in traditional Hanafi Islam, the movement traditionally associated with Tatarstan.

In December, angry Muslims stormed the main mosque in the town of Almetevsk, 270 km (170 miles) and for hours refused to let local religious authorities enter. The confrontation was eventually defused by Faizov, but resentment still burns.

Near Almetevsk, in the village of Novoye Nadyrovo where roosters and chickens wander freely along gravel paths, authorities removed the local imam, Ilnar Kharisov, from his post a few months ago. Friends say he was detained on Friday night, the day after the explosions in Kazan.

Kharisov, a young scholar who had studied abroad and taken the name Abdulmalik, still has a religious following in the village and his sacking as imam split the community. Neighbours say a former communist functionary has been placed in charge of the village mosque. They speak darkly of Kharisov's arrest.

"They've taken all the good imams away and they've replaced them with clowns in their places and they protect them there with police. People are very unhappy here," said a neighbour of Kharisov who gave his name only as Ramil.

Dozens Dead After Suicide Bomb Rips Moscow Airport

Voice of America
24 January 2011

An explosion ripped through the international section of Moscow's busiest airport, killing 35 people and wounding 168, officials said.  

The massive blast, with an explosive force of seven kilograms of TNT, was caused by a suicide bomber, Russian officials said.

Sergei Lavochkin, was waiting in the arrivals hall for a friend to arrive from Cuba, when he heard the explosion.

He said he heard a massive bang, saw panels fall from the ceiling, then heard people screaming, and saw people running away.

British Airways passenger Mark Green had just arrived at the airport.  He told BBC television that after the explosion he saw people streaming out of the terminal, some covered in blood. A British citizen and several other foreigners were among the dead, Russian news agencies reported

The website said many victims had metal fragments embedded in their bodies and that the explosive device was packed with bolts, nuts, nails and ball bearings.

The bomb appeared to have exploded in an area where people gather to meet travelers emerging from customs.  The airport Domodedovo handles almost half the air traffic for Moscow.  Served by 48 foreign airlines, it has flights to 243 cities around the world.

President Dmitry Medvedev, looking somber and downcast, told officials in a nationally televised briefing that it was a terrorist attack.

He ordered authorities to immediately tighten security at Moscow's two other commercial airports and other key transport facilities, including the subway system.

During the past 14 months, terrorists have targeted Moscow's transportation system with three bombings that have killed more than 100 people.  In November 2009, a bomb derailed a high-speed, luxury train to St. Petersburg, killing 28.  Last March, two suicide bombers from Dagestan set off bombs in two Moscow subway trains, killing 40.  In both these attacks, Islamic radicals took responsibility.

In today’s airport attack, Russian news wires report police are searching for three suspects from the North Caucasus.  Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin says experts are trying to identify the suspected bomber.

Interfax reported police found the head of an Arab-looking man, aged between 30 to 35.

Leaders of the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus have vowed to bring the violence to the nation’s capital.  In Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, there are almost daily, armed attacks on government and police officials.

Domodedovo is generally regarded as Moscow's most modern airport, but its security procedures have failed in the past.

In 2004, two suicide bombers were able to board planes at Domodedovo by buying tickets illegally from airport personnel.  The bombers blew themselves up in mid-air, killing 90 people aboard the two flights.  

The blast represents a big setback for confidence in Russia’s security as it gears up for two major international sporting  events, the Winter Olympics in 2014 and the 2018 World Cup.

As President Medvedev postponed his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos,  international sympathy poured into Moscow.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said U.S. President Barack Obama called the bombing "an outrageous act of terrorism against the Russian people,"  

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Twitter he was "deeply disturbed" by the bombing and that "NATO and Russia stand together in the fight against terrorism."   

German Chancellor Angela Merkel slammed the attack as"cowardly"


Militants hit Russia power plant, killing two guards

21 July 2010 Last updated
BBC News

Emergency workers inside the power station assess the damage

Armed militants have stormed a hydroelectric power station in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region, killing two guards and detonating four bombs.

TV footage showed fires raging at the plant, in the mainly Muslim republic of Kabardino-Balkaria republic.

Officials said the fires were now under control, and that electricity supplies had not been affected.

Analysts say it appears to be an escalation of Islamist insurgent attacks on Russian economic targets.

"This shows the scourge of terrorism is not only not subsiding, but expanding geographically," said Gennady Gudkov, deputy head of the security committee of Russia's parliament, according to the Reuters news agency.

President Dmitry Medvedev said that security had been stepped up.

"Spoke to head of FSB [security service] and president of Kabardino-Balkaria. Security at strategic sites tightened after today's explosions," he said in a message on the social-networking website Twitter, which limits messages to 140 characters.

Kabardino-Balkaria has seen less militant violence than the other semi-autonomous republics in the region: Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

The most serious attack in Kabardino-Balkaria came in October 2005 when dozens of men stormed the regional capital Nalchik. The Russian government said 136 people were killed, including 91 militants.

'No disaster threat'

State-owned firm RusHydro, which runs the power station, said in a statement on its website that explosions had hit the plant at 0525 local time (0125 GMT) on Wednesday.

The attackers detonated four explosive devices in the 25-megawatt plant on the Baksan river, but a fifth failed to go off.

Investigators said two explosions shook the plant's turbine room and another two hit the transformer vault.

According to police spokesman Adlan Kakakuyev, two cars carrying half a dozen assailants had attacked the plant, shooting two guards and wounding three other people.

The attackers reportedly seized two Kalashnikov assault rifles from the dead guards.

The same group are believed to have earlier opened fire on a police station in the town of Baksan.

Officials said the flow of water from the dam, on the Baksan river, had been stopped to prevent any flooding downriver.

Electricity supplies had not been disrupted because power had been rerouted from elsewhere, the authorities said.

Regional officials said there was no further danger of a "technical accident or disaster" at the plant, which was built in the 1930s.

According to Russia's Ria-Novosti news agency, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has put Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin in charge of repairing the damaged power station.

Moscow subway attacks fuel fears of widening Muslim insurgency

March 30, 2010

MOSCOW (AP) Brazen suicide bombings in Moscow on Monday confronted Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a grave challenge to his record of curbing terrorism, and raised the possibility that he will respond as he has in the past by significantly tightening control over the government.

The explosions, set off by women in two landmark subway stations, killed at least 38 people and wounded scores of others. Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the bombings sparked fears that the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia, including Chechnya, was once again being brought to the country's heart.

They also revived a peculiar fear in the Russian capital, one that goes beyond the usual terrorism worries of a metropolis: the specter of female bombers, the Black Widows.

Investigators say the remains of the two bombers pointed to a Caucasus connection. They added that they are looking for two women seen on surveillance camera footage accompanying the attackers to the doors of a Metro station in southwest Moscow.

Earlier this decade, Moscow's fear of such attackers was so strong it became a lurid obsession. Women, sometimes casually clad in jeans and blending in to the swirl of the city, committed at least 16 bombings, including two on planes. Such suicide bombings were associated with women from Chechnya, and the attackers came to be called the Black Widows.

World leaders, including President Barack Obama, condemned Monday's attacks. Obama telephoned Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to convey condolences from the U.S.

The attacks during the morning rush hour seemed all but designed to taunt Russia's security services, which have been championed by Putin in the decade since he took power. The first one occurred at the Lubyanka Station, next to the headquarters of the FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB that Putin led in the late 1990s.

Putin, the former president and current prime minister, has built his reputation in part on his success in bottling up the Muslim insurgency in southern Russia and preventing major terrorist attacks in the country's population centers in recent years.

The attacks could throw into doubt the policies of Putin's protege, Medvedev, who has spoken in favor of liberalizing the government, increasing political pluralism and dealing with terrorism by addressing the root causes of the insurgency.

While Medvedev has not yet made major changes, Putin has generally allowed him to pursue his course. More terrorism, though, could cause Putin to shove Medvedev aside and move the security-oriented circle of advisers around Putin to the forefront.

"Putin said, 'One thing that I definitely accomplished was this,' and he didn't," said Pavel K. Baev, a Russian who is a professor at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

"My feeling is this is not an isolated attack, that we will see more," Baev said. "If we are facing a situation where there is a chain of attacks, that would undercut every attempt to soften, liberalize, open up, and increase the demand for tougher measures."

Putin on Monday limited his comments largely to vows to destroy the terrorists who organized the attacks.

But when he last faced a spate of such violence in 2004, he reacted with a sweeping reorganization of the government that he said would unite the country against terrorism but also concentrated power in the Kremlin.

The subway system in Moscow is one of the world's most extensive and well-managed, and the bombings Monday spread anxiety that is unlikely to dissipate for some time. For many people here, the day's events recalled the tense times in the early part of the last decade when the city, including the subway, was hit with several terrorist attacks.

It was during that period when the Black Widows made their reputation.

Suicide bombing was a tactic that came late to Chechnya and was nearly unknown during the first war from 1994 to 1996. But once it arrived, in 2000, in an attack that killed 27 Russian special forces soldiers, it quickly became associated with women.

Women adorned in billowy black robes and strapped with explosives made up 19 of the 41 captors in the October 2002 hostage-taking in the Moscow theater, which left 130 people dead in the city's deadliest terrorist incident.

It ended when Russian special services released a sleep-inducing gas into the building. When soldiers entered the auditorium they reportedly, as a first precaution, shot dead the Black Widows where they lay, lest they wake up and explode.

Alexander Ignatenko, head of the independent Moscow-based Institute for Religion and Politics, said Islamic militants in the Caucasus often recruit women whose relatives were killed by Russian security services.

"They tell them that if they become martyrs, they will join their husbands, brothers and fathers," he said. "And they also persuade them that the Russians as a nation share a collective guilt."

While the Muslim insurgency has not subsided in recent years, major attacks outside the Caucasus region had been unusual, and in April 2009, the Kremlin even announced what it described as the end of special counterterrorism operations in Chechnya.

But in November, terrorists bombed a luxury passenger train that was traveling in a rural area from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing 26 people. Last month, a Chechen rebel leader, Doku Umarov, threatened in an interview on a Web site to organize terror acts in Russian population centers.

"If Russians think that the war is happening only on television, somewhere far off in the Caucasus, and it will not touch them, then we are going to show them that this war will return to their homes," he said.

Umarov has relied on al-Qaeda's financial support and has several al-Qaeda emissaries in his entourage, Ignatenko said.

"Al-Qaeda has established a presence in the North Caucasus, like they did in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Europe," Ignatenko told The Associated Press.


Russia's Caucasus: Two decades of horror

Published: 5/26/2006

PARIS - A timeline of the conflict in Chechnya and inter-linked violence:

1994: Russia sends troops into the predominantly Muslim republic, where the local leadership has declared independence.

1996: After fighting which kills an estimated 50,000 people and leaves Chechnya's cities in ruins, Russia reaches an agreement with the rebels and pulls its troops out, leaving the province with de facto independence.

1999: Chechen separatists launch a series of bloody attacks in the neighbouring province of Dagestan. Some 300 people die in bombings in Moscow and other cities that the authorities blame on Chechen separatists. Independent analysts suspect that security forces may have had a hand in at least some of the bombings.

The government of Vladimir Putin -- prime minister at the time -- launches an assault on Chechnya by air and land forces. The most intense fighting ends in March 2000.

2001: Human Rights Watch estimates the number of displaced persons in Chechnya and neighbouring Ingushetia to be 430,000.

2002: Amid continuing violence in the republic, rebels take hundreds of people hostage in a Moscow theatre. When security forces use gas to storm the building, 130 civilians and 41 Chechen guerrillas are killed.

2003-4: The violence brings an increasing number of suicide bombings, both inside Chechnya and in other parts of Russia.

In September 2004, armed Chechen separatists take some 1,200 children, teachers and parents hostage at a school in Beslan, in the Caucasian republic of North Ossetia. When security forces storm the building two days later 331 civilians and 31 rebels are killed. More than half the dead are children.

Russian forces in Chechnya continue to come under almost daily attack to the present time.

There are no reliable figures for the numbers killed in the fighting. According to official figures, Russia has lost some 10,000 troops in all. Human rights experts estimate the number of civilians killed to be as high as 100,000. Several thousand people have disappeared without trace.