By Greg Miller and Peter Finn
The twin suicide bombings that killed at least 38 people in Moscow’s crowded subway system on Monday included an attack on a station just steps away from the headquarters of Russia’s premier security service.
The strike shortly before 8 a.m. at the Lubyanka station — named for the forbidding building that houses Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB — is part of a wave of suicide assaults that target spy services engaged in violent confrontations with militant Islamist groups.
Monday’s attack in central Moscow appeared designed to maximize the chance that Russian intelligence officials would be among the commuters caught in the carnage. If so, the assault would extend a string of losses for intelligence services, which are more accustomed to carrying out lethal operations than being attacked themselves.
A December bombing killed seven CIA employees and contractors near the Afghan city of Khost; the deputy chief of Afghanistan’s intelligence service was assassinated in September; and a series of suicide strikes killed dozens of Pakistani operatives at facilities used by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in cities from Peshawar to Lahore.
A U.S. intelligence official said that spy services have become priority targets for militant groups, since spies are at the forefront of counterterrorist campaigns.
“While every counterterror conflict is different, the fact that the enemy wears no uniform and relies on stealth means that intelligence officers will be playing key roles,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “The more effective they are, the more likely they are to be targets.”
The sophistication in a spree of recent attacks on spy services suggests that militant groups are also becoming more skilled at stalking their pursuers. Abdullah Laghmani, the No. 2 in the Afghan intelligence service, was killed last year by a suicide bomber who caught the deputy spy chief as he was leaving a mosque.
In some cases, militants have become adept at using methods that have long been the preserve of espionage agencies. The bombing of the CIA base in Khost was carried out by an al-Qaeda double agent who convinced CIA operatives that he was their asset, and lured officials to their deaths by promising to inform them of the whereabouts of top al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
Monday’s attacks in Moscow were aimed at a more vulnerable target: a subway system used by millions of commuters every day. It was carried out by female suicide bombers who penetrated security systems that were strengthened several years ago after a previous wave of strikes.
A second, less powerful blast at the Park Kultury station on Monday killed 12 people, but Lubyanka appears to have been the main target. It was the site of the first explosion, and at least 23 people were killed there. Security experts said Lubyanka was almost certainly selected because the name serves as such a potent symbol of Soviet and Russian security services.
“The choice of that station is a strategic one,” said Sarah Mendelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and co-author of the report “Violence in the North Caucasus: 2009, A Bloody Year.” “They were trying to get people who work at Lubyanka on their way to work.”
Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service, said those responsible for the bombings have links to insurgencies in the North Caucasus, a largely Muslim region of Russia that has been plagued by violence. The number of suicide bombings in the North Caucasus nearly quadrupled in 2009, according to the CSIS report, with most of the attacks directed at police and security services in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
The FSB has been heavily involved in counterterrorism operations in the Caucasus, battling what appear to be coalescing insurgencies in the republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, as well as Chechnya. Rebels increasingly are adopting the tactics and language of militant Islamists.
Doku Umarov, an insurgent leader who has called for an Islamic emirate in the Caucasus, warned recently that he would strike at Russian cities, where he said the fighting in distant and impoverished Muslim-majority republics barely registers with the public. “Blood will no longer be limited to our cities and towns,” said Umarov in an interview with an extremist Web site. “The war is coming to their cities.”
The FSB is routinely involved in raids, arrests and interrogations in the Caucasus. Human-rights groups have charged that Russia’s campaigns in the region have also been marked by the torture, disappearances or targeted killings of suspected terrorists — tactics that have deeply alienated the general population and bred extremism.
Russian officials have not yet said whether any FSB personnel were killed in Monday’s attack.
Targeted agencies have tended to respond with promises of renewed vigor. The CIA has stepped up drone strikes in the remote corner of Pakistan where the Khost bombing is thought to have been planned.
Even so, the bombings have taken a significant toll. Among the CIA operatives killed in Khost was a longtime agency veteran who served as base chief and was one of the CIA’s leading experts on al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In Pakistan, officials said that a string of bombings has forced the ISI to put operations on hold while it repairs buildings, assesses security breakdowns and finds officers to replace those who died.
At least 74 ISI operatives were killed over the past year in attacks that included the car bombing of an ISI facility in Lahore, a suicide strike at the agency’s main base in Peshawar and a follow-on attack that damaged an agency building in Multan. Each was “a very significant setback,” said a Pakistani military official. Intelligence operations “are a very specialized task in which only certain people can fit in.”