Earlier today, I posted a series of tweets reflecting on a claim by the allegedly Al-Qaeda-linked “Katibat Imam Shamil,” posted to Ani.mr, claiming responsibility for the 3 April terrorist attack on the St Petersburg metro. I’ve compiled the text of tweets below for convenience, although obviously the issue requires more detailed reflection.
Some reflections on the claim of responsibility for the St Petersburg terrorist attack:
1. First, the general question: is an AQ-linked claim plausible?
2. Absolutely, given the long historical links between Central Asian militant groups and AQ.
3. For that, see my two recent co-authored pieces with Dr Cerwyn Moore https://rusi.org/commentary/after-st-petersburg-russia-and-threat-central-asian-terror-networks and https://theconversation.com/russias-domestic-terrorism-threat-is-serious-sophisticated-and-complex-75869
4. Second, is this particular claim plausible?
5. Two main facts raise doubts: the identity of the particular group and the lack of novel details in the claim.
6. On first, this appears to be a group name that hasn’t appeared anywhere before. At the very least, I’ve never heard of it.
7. However, every “bunch of guys” feels compelled to call themselves jama’at this and katibat that.
8. So new names emerge and disappear all the time.
9. Additionally, some analysts allow themselves to be played when it comes to names.
10. Even when a group uses an existing name, it doesn’t prove org or historical links.
11. E.g. Riyadus Salikhin claimed the 2011 Domododevo bombing. Riyadus Salikhin was also Basayev’s suicide attack group.
12. Yet it’s highly unlikely that there was any organizational or personnel continuity between the two manifestations of the group.
13. Umarov (or someone else in IK) chose the name because it had cachet and he knew it would play in the media. And the media obliged
14. Similarly, most groups in Dagestan name themselves after place.
15. But today’s Khasavyurtovskiy Jama’at may not have any links to yesterday’s Khasavyurtovskiy Jama’at.
16. Names can be useful, they can be interesting cultural markers,
17. But – like everything else – they shouldn’t just be taken at face value.
18. In this case, some people have commented on apparently ironic choice of 19th C Sufi sheikh. This, to my mind is irrelevant.
19. NC jihadists have long coopted legacy of Shamil into narrative of hundreds of years of jihad against Russian resistance.
20. Name is peripherally interesting for again tapping into this legacy, but not a disqualifier of authenticity.
21. The second point is the lack of novel details. This, too, is not unprecedented.
22. IS for example claimed Dec 16 Groznyy attack & not only failed to provide novel details, but got some details wrong.
23. However, it was carried out by people who had pledged allegiance to IS, as proven by later video of attackers.
24. This leads to broader point about treatment of claims of responsibility.
25. Some Twitterati doubt this claim and then ask why hasn’t IS spoken.
26. IS claims, however, are taken as statements of fact. IS has spoken, the truth has been revealed to us.
27. Bluntly, horseshit: In Russia, IS has claimed an attack that didn’t take place (Sep 15), one that noone knew anything about (Nov 16)
28. And one where far-right involvement seems more plausible, at least according to available info (Apr 17).
29. Media operations are always conducted by different people to those who carry out attacks.
30. And sometimes those media ops don’t have a clue about what’s going on
31. E.g. after Domodedovo, Kavkazcenter blamed FSB (it always is) and bla-bla’d about how Russia would try to pin it on NC.
32. Then later it posted video by Umarov claiming responsibility.
33. It was IK, but Kavkazcenter initially didn’t know that.
34. In this instance, I don’t know much about this particular outlet, so I can’t really comment on its choice or behaviour.
35. (but if group just calls itself Imam Shamil & they think it’s Shamil Basayev, they know shit all about the NC)
36. I also don’t speak Arabic & haven’t seen good translation of claim, so can’t comment on particulars.
37. But media ops are not as universally tightly coordinated as they are sometimes portrayed.
38. It’s perfectly reasonable to treat claim of responsibility with skepticism. But treat them all with skepticism. And everything else too.
39. More broadly, IS, IK, whoever, none of them are the coherent, unified bodies they’re treated as.
40. As with IS, group can be linked, pledge loyalty etc without centre knowing what’s going on.
41. In other words, an attack may be IS, AQ etc in more ways than just that group’s leader saying “I command thee to attack here.”
42. Thus, one reason why Russia is a target is because there are individuals linked to IS, AQ who view Russia as the enemy.
43. It’s not necessarily case that AQ’s leadership sits down and chooses Russia from a list of options as today’s preference.
44. The narrative of the “global jihadist” overlooks that they all come from somewhere and operate within their own frameworks.
45. Just like all people, they never fully escape their own experiences, cultures, etc.
46. And analysis of their behaviour should recognize that.
47. In sum, the reasons to doubt this claim are worth considering, but they don’t disqualify it as plausible in this instance.
48. Ultimately, however, it’s hard to independently verify any claims in absence of video evidence linked to attack/attackers.
49. Whether an AQ link to the attack is plausible is a separate question to whether this particular claim is plausible.
50. IMO, AQ involvement in attack is at least as plausible as IS involvement,
51. Especially considering most IS attacks in Russia have lacked sophistication.
52. Holding that view doesn’t, however, mean I feel compelled to put away my salt with regard to this claim just yet.