Al-Qaeda-affiliate’s claiming of Saint Petersburg bombing likely to increase threat of one-off Islamic State attack
The Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility for the 3 April Saint Petersburg metro bombing that killed fifteen people (see our Special Report of the following day), via an al-Qaeda-linked website on 25 April. Its statement claimed that the assailant, Kyrgyz-born Russian national Akbardzhon Dzhalilov, had acted on the orders of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It also threatened further attacks in retaliation for Russian actions in Syria, Libya and the North Caucasus. Meanwhile, the authorities have detained at least ten individuals in connection with the attack, all of whom are Central Asian.
The statement is the first public message issued by the group, and the choice of name is likely a reference to Imam Shamil, a prominent rebel who led anti-Russian resistance efforts in the Caucasus during the nineteenth century. It also alludes to Shamil Basayev, a deceased Chechen jihadist leader, who was responsible for the 2002 Moscow theatre siege and the 2004 Beslan school attack. Basayev’s organisation later became the al-Qaeda-affiliated Caucasus Emirate, and the Battalion is likely an affiliate of this loosely-structured group.
The Emirate attracted a number of Central Asians to its cause during the Chechen insurgency and it may have used its remaining networks across Russia to recruit Dzhalilov. We therefore believe the group’s involvement in the bombing to be plausible. That said, the attackers’ ties to al-Qaeda were almost certainly overstated, especially since the authorities have disrupted the Emirate by killing most of its leaders. Moreover, the al-Qaeda claim may be largely opportunistic and intended to exploit Islamic State’s (IS) failure to assert responsibility. Indeed, it remains possible that Dzhalilov was an IS sympathiser, but had no direct ties to the group, and this may explain why the group was unable to associate itself with the blast.
Al-Qaeda’s association with the Saint Petersburg bombing will boost its appeal among hardline Sunnis in Russia and across the Islamic world given the widespread anger towards the Kremlin’s support for the Syrian regime. IS will therefore want to carry out its own, larger attack in Russia in order to overshadow its rival. Should it stage a successful attack, this will help the group to continue attracting defectors from the Caucasus Emirate and boost its credibility at a time of major territorial setbacks in the Middle East. There is consequently a heightened risk of a one-off mass-casualty attack in a major Russian city over the next few months, especially at key transport hubs. However, should IS fail to carry out a major attack, it will damage its credibility among Russian jihadists, and many defectors may then return to the Caucasus Emirate.
However, for now, both IS and the Emirate currently lack the capabilities to mount a sustained campaign of violence outside the North Caucasus. They will consequently seek to encourage their supporters, and especially radicalised migrant workers from southern Russia and Central Asia, to stage low-level attacks in the main cities that boost their respective profiles and allow them to gradually establish a presence in the country.