MOSCOW, Dec. 2, 2009 -- An Islamist separatist group from Russia's volatile North Caucasus claimed responsibility Wednesday for the Nov. 27 train bombing that killed 26, the worst terrorist attack outside of that region in five years.
In a letter posted on a Web site linked to Chechen militant groups, the Caucasian Mujahedeen writes that a "special operations group" carried out the orders of their leader, Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed "Emir of the Caucasus Emirate."
"These acts of sabotage will continue for as long as those occupying the Caucasus do not stop their policy of killing ordinary Muslims," the message posted on KavkazCenter.com reads.
Umarov is one of the most wanted men in Russia, a longtime Chechen militant who has led the fight against Russian control of the region for much of the past two decades. Authorities do not have any evidence that the group was involved and refused to comment, the Interfax news agency reported Wednesday. The group's claim has not been verified.
The claim could very well be false, says Nikolai Petrov, an expert on the North Caucasus at Moscow's Carnegie Center who believes that North Caucasus elements were involved. He said not to "pay serious attention" because it is in Umarov's interest to claim responsibility whether he was involved or not.
"In his position, it's good to show that he is not only alive but pretty active and capable to organize attacks," says Petrov.
A Russian official said Wednesday that Friday's attack could have derailed two trains, but the Nevsky Express was running late.
"Things could have been much worse," said emergency services official Leonid Belyayev, according to Russian news agencies. "At that moment, two trains were to pass by each other - the Nevsky Express and the ER-200. The Nevsky Express was one minute late, or three kilometers off, given its speed."
All 26 victims of the Nevsky Express blast 250 miles north of Moscow have been found and identified, Russia's emergency services said Tuesday. Another 90 people have been hospitalized and some 150 have sought psychological treatment.
Police Still Investigating the Attack
Russia's chief investigator had suggested Tuesday that militants from Russia's volatile south are to blame. Alexander Bastrykin told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta that a second explosion detonated by a cell phone Nov. 28 while investigators were combing the scene suggests that they may have been the actual targets and that "such tactics are used by the terrorists in the North Caucasus."
Bastrykin was injured in the second blast but is reportedly in "satisfactory" condition. Authorities are following new clues, saying Tuesday that they found a gray jacket with letters from a prison inmate in it about 300 feet from scene of the explosion. On Monday they released a sketch of a male suspect as a stocky 50-55 year-old who was wearing a red wig.
Police also released a basic description of a second man suspected in the bombing, described as a tall, dark-haired and in his 30s.
Authorities told state-run news agency RIA Novosti that they are also looking for a woman in a light-colored jacket driving a Lada car.
The police have located a house where they believe the suspects were based and found four sets of DNA, including a woman's, officials said.
The explosion derailed the last three cars on the Nevsky Express, a high-speed train traveling to St. Petersburg from Moscow. The bomb consisted of up to 15 pounds of explosives and detonated under the second-to-last car.
A Neo-Nazi group claimed responsibility, but an attack by ultra-nationalists has been downplayed by many Russian security experts because of their lack of resources and expertise. They say that careful planning and execution point to separatist militants from the North Caucasus region.
"It was well-prepared, well-planned, the target was chosen very well," said Carnegie's Petrov. "It means it was done by some organized force and by good professionals."
The Nevsky Express is a popular train that ferries officials, executives and tourists between Russia's two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. One former deputy governor, a federal official and six foreigners were among the dead.
Parallels in the Past
"What is very important is the fact that [the attack] was directed against political elites, that's why this train was chosen," said Petrov. "It was designed to have a huge impact and attract a lot of attention."
Parallels have been drawn with the 2007 bombing of the Nevsky Express which failed to derail the train or kill anyone, though around 60 were injured. Andrei Soldatov, editor of the security web site Agentura.ru, called the latest attack an "improvement" on the methods used in 2007 and said it's possible that the same group of Islamist rebels was involved.
Two men from Chechnya's neighbor Ingushetia have been charged with the 2007 attack, though the man believed to have orchestrated it, Pavel Kosolapov, is still at large. It is unclear whether authorities suspect him of being behind this bombing.
The war against Chechnya's separatist insurgents is officially over, but violence in the North Caucasus has spiked this year with almost daily reports of clashes between security forces and rebels. In an attack similar to Friday's, train tracks in the republic of Dagestan were blown up Monday, though no one was hurt.
The bombing is Russia's biggest terrorist attack outside of the North Caucasus since two passenger planes were downed in August of 2004. More attacks like last week's are possible, Soldatov argues, because the structure of the militant groups has changed, now consisting of smaller cells of three to five people that are more effective.
Russia's security forces have instead focused on preventing large-scale attacks that could politically destabilize regions of the country, he says, rather than smaller attacks that don't pose a threat.
"That's why there's no need to change the system because there is no threat to political stability," says Soldatov.
Nikolai Petrov agrees that attacks similar to Friday's causing "huge damage, huge losses" could happen again "due to the fact that Russian railroads and Russian authorities didn't learn anything from the previous attacks."
Attack Shocks and Scares Russian Public
Meanwhile, the attack has shocked the Russian public, with moments of silence held over the weekend for the victims. Many agreed with the experts that that this could lead to a spate of attacks.
"It's tragic," said Alexander Nagornykh, a 53- year-old engineer. "I think this is the beginning of the new series of terrorist acts…I don't travel a lot but I think that the number of people traveling by train will go down."
Social worker Maria Sokolova said she wouldn't stop traveling, but admitted, "I'm afraid." Seemingly undeterred, the Nevsky Express was back up and running just two days after the attack.