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Analysis: Who Downed The Russian Jets?

Russian investigators looking into the causes of the simultaneous plane crashes on 24 August have now established that the same explosive, hexogen, more widely known as RDX, which was found in the wreckage of the first downed airplane, was also on board the second plane. Eighty-nine passengers and crew died in the crashes.

The two airplanes were apparently blown up at the same time, in what investigators believe was a well-coordinated terrorist attack. The planes left Moscow's Domodedovo Airport within 20 minutes of each other and disappeared off the radar screens at 11:00 p.m.

According to "Moskovskii Komsomolets" on 28 August, investigators are looking into the possibility that two young women passengers might have carried the explosives on board and blown themselves, and the planes, up.

The two women, according to "Moskovskii Komsomolets," were seated in the rear of the airplane when the RDX device exploded. That would explain the sudden loss of control and emergency power after the explosion.

The newspaper quoted a source at Chechnya's Interior Ministry who said that the two women suspects were not Chechens but of Nogay ethnicity and might have belonged to a group known as the "Nogay Battalion" or "Nogay Jama'at." The Nogay are a Turkic-speaking people who today live primarily in Daghestan. The source described the group as being responsible for recent terrorist acts in "Stavropol and Kislovodsk as well as in Moscow." At least five people were killed and more than 20 wounded in southern Russia when two bombs blew up under a commuter train on 3 September 2003, Russian and international media reported. The explosion occurred near Kislovodsk in Stavropol Krai. On 5 December 2003, at least 38 people were killed and more than 150 injured by an explosion on a commuter train near the Stavropol Krai town of Yessentuki. Which terrorist act in Moscow "Nogay Jama'at" might have been responsible for the newspaper did not say.

Earlier, a terrorist group calling itself the Al-Islambouli Brigades of Al-Qaeda posted a statement on a website on 27 August claiming responsibility for hijacking the two jets, AP and other media reported.

The statement by the Al-Islambouli Brigades, according to "The New York Times" of 27 August, said: "Russia's slaughter of Muslims is still continuing and will not stop except for a bloody war.... Our mujahideen were able with God's help to deal a first strike, which will be followed by other operations in a campaign aimed at helping our Muslim brothers in Chechnya and other Muslim countries enduring Russia's atheism."

On 31 July, a group by the same name claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister-designate Shaukat Aziz. The group claims to be connected with Al-Qaeda and is believed to be named after Khaled al-Islambouli, the leader of a group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Khaled's brother, Muhammad Shawqi al-Islambouli, is a wanted terrorist and high-ranking leader of the Egyptian Al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya. Muhammad al-Islambouli is also suspected of being linked to Al-Qaeda, and is probably hiding in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iran according to

The organization is not listed on the United States' February list of terrorist organizations. And while it is possible that a group by this name exists, it is somewhat unusual that so little information is available about it and its membership. The failed assassination attempt on Pakistani Prime Minister-designate Aziz on 31 July, for which the group took credit for, was the first time that it had advertised its existence.

According to the website, Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid told AFP on 1 August: "We are trying to examine the website on which the claim has been posted. It is the first time that an Al-Qaeda-linked group has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Pakistani leader."

If the unverified claim of the Al-Islambouli Brigades of Al-Qaeda is true, it would be the first attack on Russia by an international terrorist group.

Earlier this year, on 6 February, a bomb exploded in the Moscow subway killing 40 people. The perpetrators have not been identified and Russian security services suspect that it was the work of a Chechen rebel group.

The downing of the two airplanes and the resulting deaths of 89 people make this one of the largest terrorist attacks in Russia after the controversial explosions in September 1999 in apartment buildings in Moscow and Ryazan, which prompted the Russian government to begin the second war in Chechnya.

During the storming of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in late October 2002, 125 hostages were killed by gas pumped into the theater by Russian forces storming the building and five hostages were killed by the Chechen fighters who had taken over the theater.

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