The recent attack on the St. Petersburg metro system left 14 dead and many wounded. The bomber, a Russian citizen of Kyrgyz origin, was among those killed in the apparent suicide blast and only failed to kill more after a second device he left at another station was discovered and defused. It was the first major attack in Russia since a 2013 bombing in the city of Volgograd. But, before a preliminary investigation had been completed, commentators rushed to judge what this really means for terrorism in Russia. The consensus seems to be that this is the beginning of a wave of terrorism bound to hit Russia. While the logic that underpins the argument sounds compelling, the evidence suggests this is unlikely.
That an increase in terrorism is inevitable in Russia has been touted at some of the most prestigious foreign policy think tanks. At Foreign Affairs, Ilan Berman writes that terrorism “is poised to get far worse.” Writing at the RAND Corporation, Colin P. Clarke advances a similar argument in a piece entitled Attacks on Russia Will Only Increase. Militant attacks occur regularly in the North Caucasus, but are mostly contained to the region and targeted against Russian security forces. Both authors suggest that attacks in major Russian cities are bound to increase. This line of thinking suggests that Russia’s aggressive actions in the Middle East, a large contingent of fighters from Russia in Syria, and a disaffected Muslim population is bound to increase in attacks.
Both authors argue that Russia’s intervention in Syria invites blowback. It is true that both the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda have called for attacks on Russia due to its actions. But, Russia intervened militarily in Syria in 2015 and has openly supported the Assad regime since the beginning of the war. The attack in St. Petersburg has been the only major incidence of terrorism in Russia since. The motive behind the attack is so far unknown. It follows a regular pattern, where terrorist attacks have occurred occasionally in major Russian cities. Rather than a sign of increased attacks, the blast in St. Petersburg may be just one in a long line of attacks against the core of Russia.
A second line of reasoning is that the large contingent of fighters in Syria who arrived from Russia will inevitably return and engage in terrorism against their homeland. ISIS fighters from Russia reportedly number up to 7,000. Other fighters of Russian origin are also fighting with Al Qaeda-linked and other radical groups. This fear is not unique to Russia, with many western countries also fearing a return of fighters from Syria.
There is little evidence to support that this will be a significant driver of terrorist attacks. Despite the fact that Russian fighters have traveled to Syria since the beginning of the war, there has been no major incident of terrorism associated with returning fighters. There are indications that the St. Petersburg bomber may have traveled to Turkey and, by implication, Syria. Even if he did train in Syria, this would be the first instance of terrorism associated with a returning fighter. Militants that return from the Middle East must confront effective Russian security services. Though brutal, Russia’s various counterterrorism forces efficiently target and disrupt networks that pose a threat.
Additional arguments are also proffered to bolster the theory of increased terrorism. Berman writes that there will be an increase due to the large, growing, and disaffected Muslim population in Russia. By his own calculation, the Muslim population will increase from 16 percent to 20 percent by 2025. However, he fails to explain how a mere four percent increase will significantly increase the number of attacks, especially since Russia’s Muslim population has always been marginalized, disaffected, and abused.
Clarke argues that the main impetus for an increase in attacks will be a process of “outbidding” between the Al Qaeda-aligned Caucasus Emirate, who claimed responsibility for the last attack in 2013, and the Islamic State, who will engage in increasingly more spectacular attacks to attract followers. While the phenomenon is well known, the ISIS/Al Qaeda split has gone on for several years with no obvious cases of outbidding occurring in the core of Russia. Moreover, no group has claimed responsibility for the St. Petersburg attack. While a claim may come later, without a public declaration the outbidding theory does not hold up.
While these authors present plausible theories for an expected increase in terrorism in Russia, the evidence so far does not support those claims. The reasons for an increase have been present for years and there is no credible explanation for why the St. Petersburg attack will now be a tipping point for more. While future attacks may certainly be motivated by Russia’s actions in the Middle East, it will be one more factor for extremists who have long had motive to target Russia. Just like in western countries, terrorism will continue to be a problem. There will certainly be additional attacks, but they will likely occur at about the same rate as they have occurred since before Russia’s involvement in the Middle East or the war in Syria.