MOSCOW, Russia — Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the Moscow metro at the start of rush hour Monday morning, killing at least 39 people and injuring dozens more.
The coordinated attack, which struck two trains as they pulled into stations in the very heart of Moscow, shattered the calm that had reigned in the Russian capital during the last half-decade, raising the specter of further attacks.
Authorities immediately lay blame on separatists from the North Caucasus, Russia’s mainly Muslim southern region. At the turn of this century, rebels from Chechnya brought their separatist struggle to Moscow, carrying out a series of spectacular suicide attacks — on theaters, concerts and the metro — that killed hundreds of people.
Many of those attacks were carried out by women known here as “black widows” — sisters and wives of Chechen men who were killed or went missing in so-called “clean-up operations,” a favorite tactic of federal and local security forces in which a village’s male population was rounded up because of suspected links to rebels.
The last attack in central Moscow came in August 2004, killing 10 people. Since then, Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, has taken pride in quelling Chechnya’s separatist rebellion, installing a brutal local leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to reign over the republic.
Kadyrov stands accused of countless human rights abuses — including torture, murder and punitive house burnings of those suspecting of housing rebels. Separatist activity has never ceased entirely, and signs of its strengthening have grown in recent months.
Yet until recently, signs of discontent, including suicide bombings, have largely been contained to Chechnya and its equally troubled neighboring republic, Ingushetia. The first attack outside the unstable region came in November, when a bomb derailed the Nevsky Express, a high-speed train traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg, killing 26 people.
The sites of Monday’s bombings were telling. The first bomb struck just before 8 a.m. as the train pulled into metro station Lubyanka, which is located underneath the headquarters of the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB, which Putin headed before joining the Russian leadership in 1999.
(Watch the video below for footage from immediately after the attack. Warning: This contains graphic images.)
The second bomb went off about 40 minutes later, as a train pulled into the Park Kultury metro station, just across the river from the headquarters of Russia’s Interior Ministry, which oversees its police force.
The bombers, in addition to terrorizing the population, were striking as close as they could to the heart of Russia’s feared security services.
No one has yet laid claim to the bombings.
The Chechen rebel leader who organized the separatists’ largest attacks, including the Beslan school siege (which killed over 300 people, including many children, in September 2004) and the bombing of two airliners (which killed 89 people in August 2004), was killed in July 2006.
He was succeeded by Doku Umarov, who in February warned that the attacks that had spread throughout Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan would soon reach the Russian heartland.
The secretive rebel leader has been gaining a larger public profile of late, emerging in July to give a rare interview to Prague Watchdog, a news site devoted to Chechnya. In it he warned of increased attacks.
“As far as possible we will try to avoid civilian targets, but for me there are no civilians in Russia,” Umarov said. “Why? Because a genocide of our people is being carried out with their tacit consent.”
Some Russian Twitter users noted that March 29 marks the 10-year anniversary of a major rebel victory in Chechnya’s second war, when militants ambushed a column of Russian federal troops at Zhani-Vedeno, leaving over 50 soldiers dead.
Rumors multiplied quickly in the wake of the attacks, which did not spawn widespread panic throughout the Russian capital. In the hours following the attack on Park Kultury, metro riders continued to flood out of the station's doors. Tatyana, a waitress who works at a cafe just outside the stop said that immediately after the attack people emerged calmly. The metro remained running other than in the direction the bombed trains were traveling. (Read more about the nonchalant calm in Moscow today.)
As news of the two bombings spread, one Russian news site reported a third bomb had gone off in a northern Moscow metro station. That story was quickly denied and proven untrue. On Monday evening, announcements reportedly went out across the metro loudspeaker warning of further attacks.
Conspiracy theories also thrived. Some Russian bloggers saw the authorities’ hand in the attacks, with the intention of boosting sagging popularity ratings as a result of the crushing financial crisis. Russia's second war in Chechnya, launched in 1999, came after a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities across Russia. Mystery continues to cloud those attacks, after FSB officers were found planting packs of explosives in the southern Russian city of Ryazan following the first four explosions. Russian officials, including then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev, said at the time that they were conducting a safety training exercise to test residents’ awareness. A number of people involved in investigation those bombings, including former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, have been murdered.
The attacks and subsequent war worked to swiftly raise the profile of Putin, who had recently been appointed prime minister.
On Monday, Putin cut short a trip to Siberia to fly back to Moscow. Speaking in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, he kept his comments crisp, saying those who carried out the attacks “will be destroyed.”
President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, on Monday evening visited the site of the first bombing, laying a bouquet of red roses. Earlier he said the country would fight terrorism “without hesitation, to the end.”