As reported worldwide, terrorists detonated two bombs in the Russian city of Volgograd last month. Is this part of an emerging pattern in Russia and elsewhere? Does it indicate that the upcoming Olympic Games are increasingly vulnerable? Brian Michael Jenkins and Bruce R. Butterworth of the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) wrote this article to examine the likely reasons that transit is targeted and whether those attacks have been successful.
Volgograd’s rail station is hit
The first device exploded on December 29 in Volgograd’s rail station, killing 18 and, as initially reported, injuring 45 persons. The second device blew up on a city trolley bus the following day, killing 16 and again, as initially reported, injuring 30 persons.
Note that conflicting reports about the number of casualties often persist long after such events. Injuries from both attacks are likely to be just under 100. However, some sources are reporting 104 persons injured. Both were suicide attacks, and they followed a previous suicide attack in Volgograd against a bus last October that killed seven and injured 40.
The bomb at the railroad station went off just in front of the security checkpoint. More people might have been killed, but security equipment at the checkpoint deflected the blast. Security measures are also in place to protect bus passengers, but reportedly these are easier to avoid.
Both bombings were blamed on Islamist extremists, specifically a shadowy network of Islamist extremists called the Islamic Caucasus Emirate or Caucasus Caliphate led by Doku Umarov. Umarov and his followers are the latest, and more Islamist, successors to the Chechen rebels, who have fought two wars for independence since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russian authorities brutally suppressed the insurgency, but terrorist campaigns continue.
Umarov’s vow to disrupt the Olympics in Sochi, 400 miles from Volgograd, make him a prime suspect, but he is not the only one with scores to settle in Russia’s ethnically complex and always turbulent Caucasus. To achieve his goal, Umarov is said to have lifted a self-imposed ban on civilian casualties.
Transportation is an attractive target
If body count is the terrorists’ goal, then surface transportation provides an attractive target—crowds of strangers in confined environments. While Umarov’s Chechen predecessors carried out spectacular hostage seizures at hospitals, a primary school, and even at a theater in the heart of Moscow, trains, subways, and buses have featured heavily among their targets.
Russia is indeed one of the current main killing fields in terrorist attacks directed against public surface transportation. Of all attacks in the world, 5.1 percent occur in Russia, which is just behind Israel with 5.3 percent. Only India, Pakistan and Columbia have more.
The restive North Caucasus area generates most of the bloodshed in Russia. According to the Mineta Transportation Institute’s database of attacks on public surface transportation, 157 attacks occurred since 2000, killing 348 persons and injuring nearly 1,200. Of these attacks, 42 (27 percent) were specifically attributed to Chechen or other separatist Islamic terrorist groups from the North Caucasus area, although many of the perpetrators not identified in other attacks are probably connected with the conflicts in that area. Yet these same 42 attacks disproportionately generated 287 (82 percent) of all fatalities and 1,000 (83 percent) of all injuries.