How Did Russian Police Know Who Bombed the Moscow Subway?

It was reasonable to suspect Chechen women, but we still need a thorough investigation.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a subway bombing site

If two bombs went off on the New York subway, and if three dozen people died as a result, al-Qaida would certainly be the first suspect. However, al-Qaida would not be the only suspect: The world is full of crazy people. We saw the damage that homegrown terrorists can do in Oklahoma City, and recent arrests suggest they haven’t gone away. Before the police started investigating every vaguely Arab-looking person who rides the Lexington Avenue Express, they would—I hope—also consider other kinds of evidence.

Will they consider other kinds of evidence in Moscow? The bombs that went off on the Moscow subway yesterday were truly diabolic. Both of the stations—Lubyanka, underneath the old KGB headquarters, and Park Kultury—are major transfer points, very central, and heavily used. The bombs went off in the morning when those trains are usually so packed that it can be difficult to breathe. The number of casualties—39 dead, dozens wounded—is extremely high, but given the timing, the number could have been even higher.

Of course, it is not surprising that suspicion should immediately fall on female Chechen suicide bombers, and it is entirely possible that they are indeed the culprits. Chechen women have blown themselves up, or tried to do so, several times in the recent past. There were women involved in the horrific siege of a Moscow theater in 2002, and two women were also held responsible for airplane bombs that went off separately and almost simultaneously in 2004.

Still, the speed with which this conclusion was reached Monday struck me as odd. How could police know immediately who was wearing a suicide belt on a crowded subway car? Wouldn’t the forensic evidence take more than a few hours to sort out? Although police have said they suspect a connection to the Northern Caucasus, they haven’t yet given any specific links, and no groups took immediate responsibility for the attack.

Terrorism can lead to wrenching political changes, as we know in the United States, as well as in Spain, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Russia is no different: A frightening 1999 bombing campaign across Russia was blamed on Chechen terrorists and thus led to the reopening of the country’s war against Chechnya, which in turn helped bring the current Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to power. In subsequent years, a number of oddities about those 1999 bombs have led many to question whether all of them were really planned in Chechnya and executed by Chechens. Maybe these are conspiracy theories, but a lot of people continue to believe them.

Given all that background, I do hope the Moscow police will present the public with hard evidence that two Chechen women really were responsible for this truly grotesque attack before blaming the incident on North Caucasian terrorists. I also hope that Russian politicians will take hard evidence into account when planning their response. If those explosions had taken place in New York City, I would expect nothing less.

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