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."
But like the Boston bombings, the attacks apparently were aimed at killing innocent civilians at soft targets, where the attackers knew they would have a solid chance of avoiding security and police.
That may explain why this week's bombings did not directly target the Russian city of Sochi, where the Winter Olympics are slated to begin Feb. 7 and where some of the tightest security in history is in place. Instead of trying to infiltrate that, the suicide bombers carried out their mission in Volgograd, a key transportation hub for reaching Sochi, but roughly 400 miles away.
It is not entirely clear, meanwhile, how closely aligned Umarov is with al Qaeda. The State Department said in 2011 that "Umarov has issued several public statements encouraging followers to commit violent acts against declared enemies, which include the United States, as well as Israel, Russia, and the United Kingdom."
At the time, the State Department authorized a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Umarov's location. The reward announcement described him as "the senior leader and military commander" of the Caucasus Emirates and said the group was "responsible for carrying out suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism."
"CE has employed violent acts under Umarov's command, involving improvised explosive devices (IED), vehicle-born IEDs, and suicide bombings," the 2011 announcement said.
The extent to which Umarov and other Chechen jihadists are linked to global al Qaeda-linked groups remains a subject of debate. For example, State Department announcements about the Chechen extremist have made no direct reference to al Qaeda. Specific attacks that he has directed and claimed responsibility for during recent years have resembled those of a locally focused terrorist.
"Umarov has claimed responsibility for various attacks including the 2010 Moscow subway bombings, which killed 40 people," according to the State Department's announcement in 2011. The document also noted that Umarov "claimed to have masterminded the 2009 Nevsky Express train bombing, which killed 28 people" in Russia.
On the other hand, the top terrorism monitoring arm of the United Nations associated Umarov with al Qaeda in 2011, saying he participated in financing, planning and facilitating, and recruiting for various al Qaeda-minded groups outside Russia.
News reports over the past year have suggested that as many as 200 Chechen Islamists have moved to Syria, where one — Omar Shishani — is reported to have been appointed to a key leadership position by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which U.S. officials say is the top al Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria.
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