Four Questions About The St. Petersburg Attack Answered

St Petersburg attack
An injured person is helped by emergency services outside Sennaya Ploshchad metro station, following explosions in two train carriages at metro stations in St. Petersburg, Russia, April 3, 2017. Anton Vaganov/Reuters

A blast on Monday in Russia’s old imperial metropolis of St. Petersburg killed at least 14 people and injured dozens more. After the initial reports of the blast, confusion spread quickly about its cause, its casualties and until Monday evening state news outlets were even disagreeing about the number of explosions.

Authorities later said affirmed that it was one explosion that struck between Sennaya Square station and the Technical Institute station, although police found and disarmed an explosive device at nearby Vosstaniya Square station as well, the National Anticorruption Committee reported.

Kyrgyzstan’s security services have identified the man behind the blast as Akbarzhon Jalilov, a 22-year-old born in the central Asian republic’s second largest city, Osh. With concrete information slowly coming through, a great deal of speculation about the motivation and impact of the attack persists. Here are four important questions answered.

What links the attack to Central Asia?

Kyrgyz authorities named Jalilov as the likely perpetrator of the attack and St Petersburg’s Channel 5 reported that authorities suspect him of setting the device in place at Vosstaniya station, before detonating the explosive on the train, between subway platforms.

This version of events has not been officially confirmed, though Jalilov is now widely cited by reports in independent and state-run news agencies, as the suspected attacker. The Interfax news agency reported that he’d obtained Russian citizenship six years ago, quoting an unnamed security source.

Kyrgyz authorities released Jalilov’s name and age after the Interfax news agency cited anonymous sources in Russian law enforcement on Monday night, who said that according to a preliminary version of events, police suspected the perpetrator was a 23-year-old man from Central Asia.

Neighboring Kazakhstan ruled out initial speculation that one of their nationals, Maxim Aryshev, who was in the area at the time, was the man in question. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead reported Tuesday that Aryshev was among those killed in the attack. Kazakhstan’s security committee said it is engaged in an “intense information exchange” with Russia over the investigation. Citizens of Belarus and central Asian republics Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were also among the victims, according to St Petersburg’s governor.

Russian security services estimate some 3,000 people from the former Soviet republics have been radlcalized and prior to 2016, travelled to fight for militant group Islamic State (ISIS). The region has a history of sectarian violence.

What inspired the attack?

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack and if the attacker does prove to be of central Asian origin, it will counter the usual cast of suspects in attacks on Russian soil, namely insurgents from the North Caucasus region. Although both areas are predominantly Muslim, authorities haven’t yet presented any evidence that the suspect was a religious extremist.

Attacks from North Caucasus extremist cells have also tended to focus on Moscow, not St Petersburg as targets in the past, and recently, ISIS-linked groups in the region have targeted local police facilities, not civilian infrastructure said Alexander Kokcharov, an analyst from IHS Markit.

Dara Mcdowell from Verisk Maplecroft notes that another way this attack differed from past incidents is how it was carried out, noting that at least one explosive was found “planted ahead of time” in Vosstaniya station, which was disarmed by St. Petersburg police.

“Prior attacks by the Caucasus Emirate have generally used suicide bombers, which are inherently more difficult to prevent,” he says.

Was the attack timed for President Vladimir Putin’s visit?

While Moscow is more populous and has a greater saturation of political institutions than St Petersburg, Russia’s second city had one thing that its capital did not on Monday - President Vladimir Putin. Officials are speculating whether his arrival in the city affected the timing of the attack.

The Russian president - born in St Petersburg when it still bore its Soviet name of Leningrad - hosted his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko during the time of the blast. The Kremlin said the attack did not impede talks between the two, which took place outside central St Petersburg in Strelna. But Putin’s presence in the area and its possible impact on the attack will come under scrutiny, the president’s office said.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told independent news channel Dozhd on Tuesday “it goes without saying that the fact the terrorist attack was carried out at a moment when the head of state was in the city, warrants thinking about and pay attention to it.”

“This is for the special services to analyze,” he said, “Any terrorist attack is a challenge for every Russian, including our president.”

Russian parliamentarian and member of the lower house’s transport committee Oleg Nilov was the first to publicly link the attack to Putin’s visit, saying the timing was “not a coincidence.” He argued that both Putin’s visit and a media forum opening in St Petersburg on Tuesday provided the attacker a rare opportunity of publicity.

Nilov told the NSN news agency, that “evidently, this is a desire to hit where it hurts when not only the president of Russia is in the city, but so are members of the government, lawmakers and also members of the press.”

Law enforcement agencies have not addressed any possible link with Putin’s visit, which the Kremlin announced only a week prior to the attack.

Why target the St. Petersburg metro?

Russia has endured subway attacks in the past, most recently in 2010, when 38 people died in a Moscow subway blast, blamed on North Caucasus militants. The city’s metro was a regular target for militants during the Chechen wars in the 1990s, partly because it is one of Europe’s largest subway networks - servicing around 6 million passengers daily.

St Petersburg’s metro is the second largest in Russia and also among the busiest on the continent servicing over 2 million a day. While terrorist attacks have targeted Russia’s capital in recent decades, the country’s second city has been the subject of repeated, unsuccessful attack plots, police say.

Russia’s federal security service (FSB) announced the arrest of seven people in Yekaterinburg in February last year, for allegedly planning attacks in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The following August, local media in St Petersburg photographed a counter terrorism raid on a residential building on Leninsky prospekt, in which one police officer was wounded and three suspected extremists were arrested.

Police have not linked either incident with Monday’s explosion, however St Petersburg authorities are not treating the blast as an isolated incident. Law enforcement has ramped up stop-and-search patrols and performed a bomb search of every subway station since early afternoon on Tuesday.

Svetlana Petrenko, spokeswoman for Russia’s federal criminal investigation body, the Investigative Committee, said on Tuesday afternoon that its officials have established the identity of the likely killer based on the remains at the site of the explosion, but refused to give any details about the identity of the attacker.

Mcdowell said that because of inconsistencies between the attack and the usual hallmarks of terrorism in Russia, this attack could be an anomaly.

“European Russia has not suffered a comparable terrorist incident since the massive crackdown on Caucasian Islamist groups prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics,” he says. “It is not yet clear whether the Petersburg bombing is the start of a new wave of attacks, or simply a case of a terrorist cell ‘getting lucky.’”