Moscow Domodedovo airport terror act: between shallow security and social unrest
Mikhail Roshchin, EGF Affiliated Expert
While many in Russia have become accustomed to gas disputes with Ukraine as the flagship event hailing in the New Year, the start of 2011 brought with it a far more tragic security crisis when a major bomb blast ripped through the crowded halls of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. The attack occurred in the arrivals area of the airport at 4.32 pm, on 24 January 2011, claiming the lives of 36 individuals and injuring 116 more. An act of terrorism was immediately assumed by many security experts, possibly involving a suicide bomber, who employed an explosive device containing 5-7 kilogrammes of Trinitrotoluene (TNT). Among the victims was Anna Yablonskaya, a 29-years-old Ukrainian playwright and poet who had come to Moscow to receive a prize from the magazine Art of the Cinema for her recent play. This attack follows the March 2010 suicide bombing in which two women, originally from Dagestan, blew themselves up in Moscow’s underground causing the death of 40 commuters. As was the case in the March 2010 attack, separatist-terrorists from the Russian North Caucasus were suspected of involvement in the Domodedovo attacks. These suspicions appeared to be confirmed earlier this month, when Chechen rebel leader, Doku Umarov, claimed responsibility for the bombing on February 4. In his video broadcast confirming responsibility for the attack, Umarov justified his actions on the basis of Russian state policy in the North Caucasus.
In the aftermath of the Domodedovo bombings, the Russian leadership was firmly confronted with the question of whether this tragedy could have been prevented. Aside from the complexities of Russian policy in the North Caucasus, the primary concern that emerges from the January attack is about the shortcomings of the Russian security apparatus, which proved incapable of preventing the attacks. The words of US president, Barack Obama, may have sounded bitterly ironic for Russian security officials in that sense: if there was an explosion in the air that killed a couple of hundred people [and] it turned out that we could have possibly prevented it ... that would be something that would be pretty upsetting to most of us - including me. The question becomes even more important when it is taken into account that, in August 2004, two Russian passenger planes were blown up following their departure from the Domodedovo airport in another tragic incident. Following the January 2011 attack, concerns that Moscow’s busiest airport has become a prime terrorist target due to the shallowness of its security measures is too concrete to be ignored further.
As Russian officials engaged in reciprocal finger-pointing for who should shoulder the blame for failing to prevent the attacks shortly after the incident, several factors seem to confirm that the terrorists chose Domodedovo airport as the target of their attack due to their perceived shortcomings of airport security and other officialdom. It is thought that the attackers perceived that flight delays are a common feature of Domodedovo’s incoming-outgoing flight schedules, resulting in accumulation of passengers in the waiting halls and providing for the prospects of multiple casualties in the event of an attack. Similiarly, the attackers knew that that a major power disruption caused chaos at the airport at the end of December, instilling confidence in them that penetration of the airport security network would be relatively easy. There is also concern about the lack of security cameras and the ineffectiveness of the often outdated metal detectors, whilst there were also (unconfirmed) reports that Russian intelligence services had been informed of a pending attack on a major airport as early as one week prior to the incident taking place. Questions of how to improve all of these aspects of airport security will continue to haunt Russian officials into the foreseeable future.
Efforts to improve airport security, however, will not be the only aspects of the “lessons learned” from the Domodedovo attacks. The terrible incident is likely to further exacerbate the growing social unrest and hostility towards Russian citizens of Caucasus origin, whose presence in Moscow is viewed with some levels of animosity by segments of Russian society. Riots broke out in central Moscow in December 2010, in which little tolerance was shown towards Caucasian Russians. The December riots started after a Muscovite soccer fan was killed by a North Caucasian in the course of a street fight, and whilst they started out peacefully, the demonstrations turned violent. Up to 5,000 protestors from both football clubs and far-right organizations took part in the riots, many of whom adopted explicit slogans against North Caucasians who happen to be migrants in the Russian capital. Thus questions of ethnic discrimination, social tension, terrorism and Russian security policy in the Caucasus all go hand in hand in Russia at present – the tensions arising from them are only likely to be exacerbated further as a result of the bombings at Domodedovo airport on 24 January.
| Security | Russia, Ukraine, Belarus