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Analysis: Is Al-Qaeda Operating Inside Russia?

The claims of responsibility by a relatively unknown terrorist group for the downing of two airliners on 24 August and a suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station on 31 August have fuelled speculation that, for the first time, Russia is being targeted by an international terrorist organization aiding the Chechen cause.

Following the air catastrophes that killed 89 people, a group calling itself the Islambuli Brigades and claiming to be associated with Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the twin attacks in a message posted on the Internet and dated 26 August.

"We in the Islambuli Brigades declare that our mujahedin managed to hijack two Russian planes, and the mujahedin were crowned with success despite problems they initially faced, with a team of five mujahedin on each plane," the statement read, according to an English-language version posted on

"Russia's slaughter of Muslims is still continuing and will not stop except for a bloody war," the message continued. "Our mujahedin 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."

Commenting on the plane crashes following his informal summit in Sochi on 31 August with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: "If one of the terrorist organizations has claimed responsibility for this and it is linked to Al-Qaeda, that is a fact that confirms the link between certain forces operating on the territory of Chechnya and international terrorism."

That evening, a woman detonated explosives outside Moscow's Rizhskaya subway station, killing nine people and injuring about 50, an act that was followed by two communiques in which the Islambuli Brigades initially denied, but later claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.

"We in the Islambuli Brigades declare our responsibility for this operation, even though we denied it before because the news had not reached us by that time," read the second of the two 31 August messages. "This heroic operation, as we have warned you, is an extension of a wave of support and assistance to the Chechen Muslims. Allah willing, this will continue with coming waves until we humiliate the infidel country known as Russia and launch attacks on the evil Putin, who has carried out the slaughter of Muslims time and again ever since he took a tyrannical leadership position in Russia.

"The targeting of Russia is only the beginning of a fierce and bloody war in the face of those who have devoted themselves to the eradication of Islam and the murder of its faithful," the message continued. "And this war will serve to dissuade the criminals in the Russian government from killing Muslims and violating the honor of the Muslims in Chechnya, and the rest of the Muslim countries in the region."

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov commented on the suicide bombing by saying on 1 September that "this is not the first terrorist attack, and I fear it's not the last.... A war is being waged on us, a war where the enemy is invisible and there are no front lines."

The same day, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "the Russian authorities are convinced that the terrorist attacks are organized by Chechen separatists sponsored by the international Islamic terrorist movement. Those forces are enraged by stabilization in Chechnya, and specifically by the election of a president [Alu Alkhanov] on 29 August, so they are doing all they can to destabilize the situation.... These terrorist attacks do not indicate any lack of stability in Chechnya. They merely prove that international terrorists dislike the process of stabilization and aim to disrupt it."

The timing of the attacks -- on the eve of Chechnya's 29 August presidential elections -- and the apparent coordination involved in downing the planes nearly simultaneously, indicate that these were not two "black widow" suicide bombers acting alone.

However, it should be noted that the Islambuli Brigades' claims of responsibility for the acts did contain some inconsistencies. The group's claim that teams of five members boarded and seized the planes goes against public comments that Russian investigators have made regarding the attacks. They maintain that the passenger jets were not hijacked, but were destroyed by blasts without warning.

Furthermore, the existence of the Islambuli Brigades was unknown prior to its claim of responsibility for a failed assassination attempt on Pakistani Prime Minister-designate Shawkat Aziz on 31 July, and while it is possible that this group does, in fact, exist, very little is know about it or its members, although it is believed to be named after Khaled Islambuli, the leader of a group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

So, while caution should be exhibited in laying full blame on the Islambuli Brigades until additional information is gathered, the Internet postings claiming responsibility for the attacks -- and their claimed affiliation with Al-Qaeda -- nevertheless make the mysterious group the prime suspect in the ongoing investigations.