Russia: Petersburg Metro Blast Sets Off Hunt for Central Asian Terrorists
There is work under way to lay down new water pipes near the family home of Abror and Akram Azimov in Jalal-Abad, in southern Kyrgyzstan. A deep trench dug along the length of the street has turned the web of lanes in this largely ethnic Uzbek neighborhood into an obstacle course.
So when a man came visiting on April 11 claiming to be from the local waterworks company, nobody was surprised. His questions did seem strange, however.
“Are there any Russian citizens living here?” he asked. Pressing further and betraying evident detailed knowledge about members of the household, he asked, “Is Akram here?” Spooked by the line of questioning, the woman at the door cut the exchange short.
Six days later, the Federal Security Service in Russia, the FSB, announced triumphantly that they had detained Abror Azimov. The 26-year old, they alleged, was the organizer of the April 3 blast on St. Petersburg metro that, to date, has claimed 16 lives, including that of the suspected bomber. Abror’s capture was depicted in dramatic FSB-produced footage that showed agents pouncing on the young man as he approached a railway underpass in a town outside Moscow. The heavily edited sequence then shows a security agent finding a handgun tucked into the back of the young man’s loose-fitting jeans, and a plastic carrier bag holding two cellphones.
Investigators say that moments before explosion, the suspected perpetrator, 22-year old Akbarjon Jalilov, received a call on his mobile phone from Abror. The confiscation of Abror’s cellphones, then, provided confirmation of a link between the two men, they argued.
The circumstances leading to the FSB’s capture of Abror’s older brother, Akram, were altogether odd.
Again, the FSB released a dramatic video to illustrate their operational success. In a scene that officials say unfolded on April 19, FSB agents are seen emerging from a vehicle and grabbing Akram as he stands at a bus stop in Moskovsky, a town a few kilometers outside the Moscow ring road. Agents are then shown looking into Akram’s fanny pack and finding a Soviet-vintage RGD-5 hand grenade.
Akram is alleged by investigators to have fulfilled perhaps the most crucial task of all — supplying funds and forging documents for all the people involved in the attack. More than a dozen people have been arrested to date in connection with the blast, all of them originally hailing from Central Asia.
But the FSB story about Akram’s detention is full of holes.
Even in the days before Akram’s name was first floated in the media, some outlets were reporting that he was actually in Kyrgyzstan. EurasiaNet.org inquiries have confirmed that to be the case.
When the man posing as a waterworks company employee visited the Azimov family home in Jalal-Abad, what he failed to learn was that Akram was at that time in Osh, around 150 kilometers away.
Akram has lived in Russia since around the end of 2013, having moved there from the Ukrainian city of Khmelnitsky, where he and his brothers once ran a snack stand in a bustling market. In 2014, only a few months after moving to Russia, both Akram and his brother Abror sought and received Russian citizenship.
As a younger Azimov brother, Bilol, who still lives in Jalal-Abad, told EurasiaNet.org, Akram flew to Osh on March 28 to spend a few weeks with his family and undergo minor surgery to treat a stubborn case of sinusitis.
On April 3, the day of the attack in St. Petersburg, several members of the Azimov household — Akram, Bilol, their mother, the wives of the brothers and their children — went on a daylong outing. According to Bilol, as chance would have it, on that day, a traffic police officer confiscated Akram’s driver’s license for parking illegally. Keeping drivers’ documents is a typical method used in Kyrgyzstan to ensure people pay their fines. It was several days before he got his license back.
In the ensuing days, as Bilol tells it, Akram mostly hung around home. He spent much of his time playing with his small children — two sons and a daughter — relaxing in the house and repairing a broken old bicycle. Bilol said he noticed no particular newfound obsession with religion in Akram, or anything that would suggest a sudden a newfound deep piety.
“While he was here, he didn’t go to the mosque,” Bilol said.
The first sign that something was awry came on April 15. On that day, in the afternoon, the man who had previously posed as a waterworks employee visited the house again, this time identifying himself as a taxi driver. He told the family that Akram had asked to have his passport delivered to Osh.
Disbelieving the story, Akram’s mother, Vazira Mirzahmedova, tried to call her son, but was unable to make contact. Instead, the man himself made a call and then handed the phone to Mirzahmedova. On the other end, Akram explained that he was being detained by officers from the State Committee for National Security in the Osh clinic where he was being treated for sinusitis.
It was only at this point that it became clear that the waterworks employee-cum-taxi driver was connected to the Kyrgyz security services all along.
The privately run Hosiyat clinic confirmed in a signed and stamped letter provided to the Azimov family that Akram was in their care until April 15. Staff at the clinic confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that the letter was genuine.
How Akram ended up in Russia remains a mystery.
On the day Akram was detained, on April 19, four days after he was picked up from the clinic, a security source in Kyrgyzstan told Russian news agency RIA-Novosti that he had gone to Moscow of his own volition. “Akram Azimov was not deported from Kyrgyzstan. At the request of Russian law enforcement organs, he volunteered to leave for Moscow to provide testimony,” the source told RIA-Novosti.
But Bilol said it was completely unlike his brother not to call home to let his family know about plans to leave for Russia.
As far as is known publicly, the only piece of evidence linking the suspected bomber, Jalilov, to the Azimov brothers is the phone call allegedly made minutes before the metro blast. From there, Russian investigators have furnished a broad account, without many details, that hints at a complex, transnational criminal conspiracy.
The most incriminating circumstantial evidence against the brothers stems from their trips abroad. Akram is said to have been in touch with international terrorist groups and to have received money during a brief visit to Turkey.
Bilol confirmed Akram had been to Istanbul in 2016 for two days and supposedly at the advice of his doctors, who suggested he spend some time by the sea. While in Istanbul, Akram used his mobile phone to film himself standing on a beach for a snippet of footage he then sent to his relatives.
Abror also passed through Istanbul last year, on his way to South Korea, where he hoped to gain entry into the country posing as a short-term visitor and get a job there, Bilol said. The idea was purportedly floated to him by a relative already working in South Korea. But Bilol said his brother was rumbled by passport control officers and ordered to leave the country, which he did by flying to the Russian Pacific city of Vladivostok, and then onward to Moscow.
Istanbul is a far costlier transit point for flights from Moscow to Seoul than, for instance, the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, raising questions about the choice of travel plans.
The investigation into the St. Petersburg blast has taken in more people than just the Azimov brothers.
Possibly to avoid compromising the investigation, little concrete information is being provided, although the few scraps emerging from court hearings reveal largely circumstantial evidence.
Among the first suspected accomplices to be detained included at least half a dozen people said to have been Jalilov’s roommates. A search of their apartment allegedly revealed a trove of small arms.
Another recent court hearing involved Abror Azimov’s roommate in Moscow, Tajik national Sodik Ortikov. Investigators say they found a Makarov handgun in the bedroom they shared. Ortikov denies owning the weapon. The Moscow-based Kommersant newspaper said another part of the state’s case for Ortikov being somehow involved in the metro bombing hinges on evidence that he exchanged phone calls with Azimov, with whom he lived.
The General Prosecutor’s Office in Tajikistan at one stage denied reports that Ortikov was a Tajik citizen at all. But when the Interior Ministry was contacted by EurasiaNet.org, a spokesman confirmed Ortikov was indeed from Tajikistan’s Tursunzoda district, an area on the border with Uzbekistan. The spokesman asked, however, not to dwell on this information for fear of smearing the country’s reputation.
Incongruities seem to be cropping up at many points in the investigation.
What unites the dozens of people arrested in recent weeks — either in connection with the St. Petersburg blast, or on seemingly unrelated terrorism charges — is that they almost all originally come from Central Asia.
That point was made explicitly by Russian state television in an April 23 broadcast, which featured a lengthy report from Osh that cast the city and Central Asia as a hive of potential radical religious activity.
“They came especially to our country to carry out terrorist acts,” the First Channel newsreader said, teeing up the report.
A slew of similar reports has ignited concerns in the region about the specter of migrant-phobia in Russia. An online petition calling for a tamping down of rhetoric singles out the head of Russia’s FSB security services, Alexander Bortnikov, for what has been described as his irresponsible remarks.
“Collective responsibility for the [St. Petersburg] terrorist act has been heaped on migrant laborers from [the former Soviet Union],” reads the petition, which has been backed by dozens of activists, writers and journalists from across Central Asia. “The consequences have been quick in coming … Law enforcement agencies have embarked on a chaotic wave of indiscriminate and unjustified detentions and threats, and they are using violence and extortion against Central Asian labor migrants who had nothing to do with the blast in St. Petersburg.”