The Verdict: Terror

After days of obfuscation, Russian investigators finally acknowledged Friday that terrorism probably downed one of two planes on Tuesday night, killing 90 passengers and crew. The jets, which left Moscow's Domodedovo airport 40 minutes apart and fell from the sky within three minutes of each other, were traveling to the southern towns of Sochi, a Black Sea resort, and Volgograd. After hinting for days that the tragedy was caused by everything from a thunderstorm to "a breach of civil aviation aircraft operation regulations," the FSB, Russia's top intelligence agency, said that traces of the explosive hexogen had been found at one of the crash sites and that authorities were gathering information on a Chechen woman who had boarded the Siberian Airlines flight. Russian press reports said investigators were also looking for relatives of a second Chechen woman who boarded the second flight.

On Thursday, a group calling itself the Islambouli Brigade claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were in retribution for Russia's war in Chechnya. "Russia's slaughtering of Muslims is still continuing and will not end except with a bloody war," the group wrote on an Islamic Web site. The attacks were apparently timed to coincide with the Chechen presidential elections this Sunday, where Kremlin backed candidate Maj. Gen. Alu Alkhanov is expected to win by a wide margin.

Analysts said Russian investigators may initially have sought to delay their findings until after the election. Indeed, one unnamed FSB official quoted in the Moscow daily Kommersant, predicted the government would put off a thorough accounting of the crashes until next week. "It looks like before the Chechen presidential election the authorities simply do not want to admit an obvious fact: only Chechen fighters are capable of carrying out terrorist attacks of such scale," wrote the paper. According to the unnamed source in the story: "Next week things will clear up."

The government reversed course on Friday after newspapers began reporting details on the two Chechen women and by a statement made by Putin's special envoy to southern Russia, Vladimir Yakovlev, acknowledging that terrorism continued to be the government's main theory. His comments were at first contradicted by other officials and then hastily removed from TV news accounts.

Until Friday, there was a striking incongruity between the scope of the tragedy and the minimal reaction it elicited from the public and the government alike. A Siberia Airlines clerk who sold a ticket Wednesday morning for a flight to Moscow's Domodedovo airport from Tbilisi seemed puzzled when asked if the flight might be cancelled. "All the flights are full, how can they cancel them?" she asked. A pilot aboard a Siberia Airlines flight to Moscow on Wednesday obligingly emerged from the cockpit midflight to offer an interview. No new antiterrorism measures had been put in place, he said. The ones initiated after September 11 were good enough. "You know, in Soviet times we used to carry guns," he said, pointing out how much safer things had become. Domodedovo reported few cancelled tickets and managed to keep most of its domestic flights on schedule; the airport was never shut down.

Perhaps passengers kept their cool because Moscow's main TV stations, all heavily influenced by the Kremlin, did not broadcast wall-to-wall coverage of the crashes, as would certainly have happened in the United States. Sveta Barinova, a product manager from Moscow, says she only learned about the disaster on Thursday when her company sent around e-mails warning employees to not fly through Domodedovo. "I decided long ago to stop listening to the news," she says, adding that she felt she had little control over events in her country, from elections to violent acts. "People have grown accustomed to being targets of terrorism," says Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "It's the Israeli situation. What do you do? You either quit, you go elsewhere or you stay and ignore the odds."