Terrorism experts today warned that Monday's bus bombing in southern Russia could be the opening salvo in a new series of plots from a desperate extremist group that may target civilians up to and during the 2014 Olympics in Russia, despite assurances from Olympic organizers.
Monday's bombing in Volgograd in southern Russia was carried out by a 30-year-old woman from Dagestan, authorities said, who was reportedly married to an explosives expert in the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. The blast, caught on another driver's dashboard camera, killed seven people including the bomber, according to Russian investigators.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Robert Pape, Director of the University of Chicago's Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, said he has no doubt the bombing was the work of the Chechen insurgency, led by Russia's most wanted man, Doku Umarov. Pape cited the woman's reported marriage to the bomb maker, the widespread use of female suicide bombers -- called "black widows" -- by the insurgency and the fact that generally speaking, no other group conducts significant terrorist attacks of that type in the region.
"Those aren't just loose correlations, there's very little reason to doubt," Pape said.
But what Pape said he was more concerned about was how the latest attack could fit into threats against the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In July, Umarov released a video online calling on his followers to use "maximum force" to put a stop to the Games, which he said was "Satanic dancing on the bones of our ancestors." Sochi lies on the Black Sea near Russia's southern border with Georgia, 300 miles west of the Chechen capital of Grozny, which is nearly a third of the distance from Sochi to Russia's capital in Moscow.
"This morning's bus bombing is an indicator that the threat hasn't abated in spite of a decade of counter-terrorism operations by the Russians," Christopher Swift, a Georgetown University scholar who has met with Chechen rebels for academic research, told ABC News on Tuesday.
Swift said that as Umarov and his followers – arguably the first Islamist extremists to use female suicide bombers -- lost much local support, their behavior has become "more bizarre." But the latest bombing proves they "are trying to follow through on the threat."
"The weaker they've become, the more lethal they've become," Swift added.
The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism last month completed and 18-month study for the Navy of thousands of terrorist incidents and Pape said it concluded in part that the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus in desperation is now more willing to attack civilians over military targets. Pape said Russia's aggressive counter-terror operations have beaten Umarov's group into a corner.
Frank Cilluffo, Director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said he believed the bus bombing to be the "first phase of an attempted campaign by Umarov to attack not only the Russian Olympics."
"They [the Olympics] represent the world so obviously they've always been lightning rods for terrorist attacks," he told ABC News. "Clearly I think we need to take the threat very seriously. Not necessarily the Games – I'm sure the Russians are going to have the most robust and sophisticated security at the Games and the facilities themselves – but around that."
In May 2012 Russian authorities claimed to have disrupted a major terror plot targeting the Olympics when they reportedly uncovered 10 weapons caches including anti-aircraft missiles, which they believed were destined for Sochi.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, a member of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, said after those revelations that Russia is "ready for any scenario."
"Show me an event, any major event in the world, where security is not an issue... It's no different for us," he said then, before acknowledging the proximity of the Games to the traditional home for rebel leaders. "You know the situation in general is not easy in the world. That is why the host nation should be ready for any scenario. I know everything that is needed will be there to protect the Games."
The U.S. Olympic Committee told ABC News that American athletes' safety and wellbeing is "always [its] highest priority."
"No matter the event... we work diligently to keep our athletes safe," the committee said. "As with previous events, for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, we will work closely with the International Olympic Committee, the organizing committee, our State Department and all other relevant government and law enforcement agencies to ensure that our entire delegation is safe while in Russia."