In July 2019, I co-wrote an article for Haaretz about the Russian legal case relating to the alleged suicide bombing of the St. Petersburg metro on 3 April 2017 as it then stood. To make a long story short: none of the “facts” derived from the Federal Security Service (FSB) investigation could be taken at face value—literally none. A key assertion from the Kremlin was that the Petersburg attack was directed from outside by an Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria, for which no evidence was provided, but the issues with the case went much deeper. As fundamental a fact as the identity of the alleged suicide bomber was in question. Indeed, it was worse than that: the Russian state refused, when questioned, to say whether this “suicide bomber” was dead, raising a question about whether the Petersburg atrocity was a suicide-attack at all. Last month, the Russian government in effect closed the book on this case by sentencing eleven people it claims were implicated in it; none of the questions raised during the trial have been answered, and nor are they ever likely to be now.
As we wrote explaining the Russian government’s claims:
By the testimony of the investigative committee, reporting the day after the atrocity, this was a suicide-attack by a 22-year-old ethnic Uzbek named Akbarzhon Dzhalilov …
The prosecution’s case is that one of the men initially arrested in Moscow, Abror Azimov, like Dzhalilov a naturalized Russian from Kyrgyzstan, led the attack cell, training Dzhalilov in terrorist techniques. This training was financed by the other suspect arrested in Moscow, Akram, Abror’s brother, who received money from an Al-Qaida group in Syria, which handed over the cash to Akram in Turkey. The Azimov-led cell is said to have been planning a follow-on attack somewhere in Russia.
The Al-Qaida group in question was named as Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ), an Uzbek jihadist unit within the Al-Qaida derivative Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The Petersburg attack is said to have been guided by the Syria-based KTJ emir, Sirozhidin Mukhtarov, better known as Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki.
Again, every single part of this collapses under scrutiny—as we explain in some detail in the piece—but that is not the issue here; this is simply necessary background.
THE ONE TELEPHONE CALL TO PROVE IT ALL
The prosecution, i.e. the Russian state, has significantly relied on two ostensible telephone calls between Abror Azimov, the accused leader of the attack cell, and Akbarzhon Dzhalilov (sometimes transliterated Akbarjon Jalilov), the purported suicide bomber. For the state, these calls, allegedly taking place on 1 and 2 April 2017, the two days before the attack, provide the crucial evidence to connect the man they name as the suicide-killer to the man they have now put before a court as the mastermind of the attack.
On 24 July 2019, the judge read a summary in court of the 1 April 2017 call, which ostensibly took place at 21:54 local time. According to the judge’s statement, during this call Dzhalilov spoke of his plans for the attack, of meetings with others to coordinate these plans, and of a decision being taken to carry out “violent actions … which will entail his death” and asked Abror to pray for him. Abror then allegedly expressed his support for Dzhalilov.
But there is a complication: Abror claims he does not know what the recording is and says he “never had any such conversation with anyone”. Someone accused of terrorism might be expected to say this; the problem for Moscow is that this accusation of fabrication is only too plausible, indeed it would be more in-keeping, rather than less, with the pattern so far of “evidence” in this trial, which has included everything from apparent terrorist cell members who do not seem to know one another and staged arrests of people who have in fact been taken into custody (and tortured) months earlier.
THE FOREIGN GUIDE
The prosecutor Nadezhda Tikhonova said in court on 25 July 2019 that Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) emir Sirozhidin Mukhtarov (Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki), the man accused of playing the role of “guide” for the Petersburg attack in the way we have seen with IS’s attacks in Europe and elsewhere, was based in Idlib city. Tikhonova went on to say that Mukhtarov was responsible for overseeing training for militants in Aleppo, presumably before the pro-Asad coalition crushed the city in late 2016 after Turkey withdrew its support to the rebels in that area (and with some help from the SDF/PKK). Tikhonova added that Mukhtarov remained engaged in terrorist propaganda over the Internet, through various social media networks.
Though Tikhonova offered no independent evidence for any of these assertions—on Mukhtarov’s location, his role in Aleppo, and his continuing role in jihadist propaganda and incitement—these assertions have some inherent plausibility to them, even in the Aleppo case where the clear effort is to buttress the Russian narrative, flirted with by the Obama administration, that razing Aleppo city to the ground was a necessary counter-terrorist operation. There were terrorists in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) in the rebel enclave in Aleppo city; they were not the controlling element of the insurgency by any means, but it is at least possible Mukhtarov was among them.
The real source of doubt related to Mukhtarov is the fundamental claim that he guided the Petersburg attack. The evidence for this has never been presented.
It is tangential to the Petersburg atrocity, but the publication a few days ago of the twenty-fifth report by the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team that tracks Al-Qaeda and IS confirms that Mukhtarov is no longer the head of KTJ: “The former head of KTJ, Sirajuddin Mukhtarov, left the group’s leadership to focus on recruitment and fundraising following an injury in a terrorist operation. Khikmatov, the new leader, is respected among Central Asian fighters” [italics added]. The U.N. goes on to document the flow of money from KTJ working with Al-Qaeda “Central” in Afghanistan to KTJ in the Levant. KTJ issued a statement on 12 April 2019 that Mukhtarov had resigned and been replaced by “Abdul Aziz”, presumably another kunya of the man the U.N. identifies as “Khikmatov”. Mukhtarov ran into some trouble with Al-Nusra/HTS in June 2019 as part of the intra-jihadi power-struggle in Idlib.
WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS
Abror Azimov recanted his entire confession on 17 October 2019, claiming that it had been extracted under torture and blackmail, after the FSB had beaten him threatened to plant a fire extinguisher filled with explosives in his father’s home. “I was forced to incriminate myself because I was threatened”, Abror told the military district court that is trying the case. (The Current Time report on Abror’s recantation describes inter alia the CCTV footage of his arrest, where it is clearly staged: he sits, morosely, at a bus stop with his hands in his pockets—a security precaution demanded of him by the FSB, whose custody he had been in for two weeks—and there is no reaction from Abror as the security agents close in and grab him.)
Undeterred, on 18 November 2019, Tikhonova, the prosecutor, asked for Abror, his brother Akram Azimov, Muhammadyusup Ermatov, and Ibragimjon Ermatov to be given life sentences, and for five other defendants be given prison terms of nearly thirty years—but was cut short when Shokhista Karimov, the only woman on trial, who claims a grenade was planted in her bag, was taken ill. The trial has been repeatedly interrupted due to mysterious illnesses among the detainees.
Russia effectively closed the case on 10 December 2019 by sentencing Abror to life in prison and the other ten defendants to jail terms of between nineteen and twenty-eight years. Karimova was sentenced to twenty years, for example. All eleven plan to appeal their convictions; given how it got to this, their chances seem slim.
Post has been updated