- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Two suicide bombings targeting Russian civilians just weeks from the opening of Winter Olympics have renewed fears that a Chechen terrorist known as the “Russian bin Laden” may be bent on committing or inspiring more attacks on so-called soft targets, and possibly major international sporting events.

Such concerns reared their head in April amid evidence that one of the two young Chechen immigrants who executed two deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon drew inspiration from Doku Umarov, the 49-year-old leader of the regional terrorist network known as the Caucasus Emirate whose stated goal is to establish an Islamic state inside Russia.

U.S. and Russian intelligence are attempting to discern how much more of an active role Umarov, whom the U.S. listed as a “specially designated global terrorist” in 2010, may have played in plotting and ordering the two suicide bombings in Volgograd that killed 29 people on a public bus Monday and at the train depot Sunday.

A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke with The Washington Times on Wednesday on the condition of anonymity, noted that Umarov circulated a video last summer in which he “was advocating taking action against the Olympics and disrupting the Olympics to bring visibility to the cause of the Chechen people.”

“Conventional thinking is that there is a relationship between what he said and the explosions in Volgograd,” the intelligence official said. “But what we have yet to see is any sort of evidence of a direction.”

Another U.S. official who requested anonymity told The Times this week that it is “not surprising that many would suspect Doku Umarov of involvement, particularly given Umarov’s previous public threats.”

The official added, however, that it is “premature to make any definitive statements about the people behind these tragic attacks.”

Regional analysts say the Volgograd bombings were markedly different from other bombings linked to Umarov in recent years.

The early attacks have mainly targeted Russian security, intelligence and military posts, while this week’s bombings directly targeted innocent civilians and appeared strategically focused on drawing the attention of the international media, which has begun focusing heavily on Russia ahead of the Olympics.

“Clearly the Olympics have a lot to do with the time and location of the attacks,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

But Mr. Mankoff stressed that major questions remained about Umarov’s suspected involvement and cautioned against too eagerly connecting the bombings to the Boston Marathon attack. Intelligence sources have described that attack as a “lone wolf” incident that was inspired — but not ordered or controlled — by any international terrorist leaders.

The U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Times said the task of characterizing the precise role played by Umarov in either incident was complicated.

In light of the video message that the Chechen Islamist leader circulated last summer, the official said, a comparison might be drawn between Umarov and Ayman al-Zawahri — widely believed to be hiding in Pakistan as the current leader of al Qaeda’s original core. His specific relationships with al Qaeda affiliates and sympathizers around the world is uncertain, but he often is given credit for their actions because of video messages he has circulated.

“Zawahri says, ‘I want people to do individual jihad, to engage in jihad where you are,’” said the intelligence official. “Well, if someone blows up a bus, or attacks a building, do you blame Zawahri? Do you say he’s responsible?”

“That’s the parallel,” said the official. “We don’t have any indication of a direction or a command and control from Umarov for this week’s attacks. We haven’t seen any evidence of that.”

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