MOSCOW, Russia — The camera zooms in close on Doku Umarov’s face, an overhead light illuminating his tired eyes and heavy beard. He wears green camouflage, marking himself as one of dozens of rebels sheltering in the high mountains of Russia’s southern Caucasus region.
Umarov is the self-styled emir of the Caucasus Emirate. The video message is his calling card. This time he has come to claim responsibility for the Jan. 24 suicide bombing of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.
“This special operation was carried out on my orders, and by God’s grace, these special operations will be carried out in the future,” Umarov said.
Officials and analysts have long suspected Umarov — who has become the face of an umbrella movement seeking to expel Russia from the republics of the North Caucasus — was behind the attack, when a suicide bomber stormed the international arrivals hall at Domodedovo and detonated his charge. He killed 35 people immediately, and another person died last week in the hospital. Nearly 200 more were injured with 60 remaining in the hospital two weeks after the attack.
Umarov issued a similar video message last year claiming responsibility for the bombing of the Moscow metro in March, which killed 39 people.
According to Umarov, it is just the beginning. In the video, posted late Monday night on rebel website kavkazcenter.com but according to Umarov recorded on Jan. 24, he promises further attacks.
“I want to tell the chauvinistic people and chauvinistic Russian regime that we can carry out a special operation wherever and whenever we want,” Umarov warned.
In another video released on Kavkaz Center on Friday, Umarov warned that unless Russia withdrew from the Caucasus, he would make 2011 “a year of blood and tears.” In that video, recorded on the eve of an unidentified attack that now appears to be the suicide bombing at Domodedovo, Umarov is seated next to a man who he identifies as the suicide bomber.
The two videos, in which Umarov offers short phrases in Arabic alongside rambling diatribes in accented Russian, provide insight into the movement’s evolving thinking.
Umarov declared himself emir of the unrecognized Caucasus Emirate, spanning across the nearly dozen mostly Muslim republics in Russia’s south, in 2007, after the death of the rebel movement’s powerful leader, Shamil Basayev. The years that followed saw violence skyrocket in the Caucasus, with suicide bombings, assassinations and police shoot-outs becoming regular occurrences. But the Caucasus are far from Moscow, and the spiraling violence provoked little meaningful reaction, either from Russia’s leaders or the Russian public at large.
The bombing of two metro stations in the very heart of Moscow by two women from Dagestan in March last year brought the rebel movement into the spotlight again. The airport attack, coming just 10 months later, now has Russia’s leadership scrambling.
In the first video, recorded on the eve of the bombing, Umarov focuses his speech on the treatment of Caucasians in Russia. "This special operation will be carried out precisely against those people who today, on the order of [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and his pack of dogs, attack Caucasians, and everywhere try to show their hatred for their Muslim brothers," Umarov said.
"If this is too little for you, we will carry out further hits," he said, threatening monthly and weekly attacks. "With Allah's grace, we will make this year for you a year of blood and tears."
The second video situates his struggle within a greater global jihad. Umarov refers to conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and mentions Algeria, Sudan and the Palestinian territories.
“How come when our brothers and sisters are killed the whole world remains quiet, but when we are forced to answer, right away the whole world falls on us?” he said.
The internationalization of Umarov's rhetoric could mark a disturbing turn. The attack on Domodedovo appeared, by its choice of target, to be aimed at foreigners in addition to Russians — a first in the long history of the Caucasus Islamist movement. Eight foreigners were killed in the attack. In the past, Chechen rebels have used spectacular attacks and increasing Islamic rhetoric in a bid to attract support from networks like Al Qaeda.
Despite the claim and Umarov’s status as the voice of the rebel movement, it remains unclear how much operational control he has over its many branches’ day-to-day activities — much like Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Some attacks in the Caucasus have been carried out by splinter groups that fell out with Umarov.
Authorities on Tuesday indicated that they do not believe Umarov was behind the attack.
“A small group prepared the attack, up to 7 people,” Gennady Gudkov, head of the Russian Parliament's security committee, told Russian journalists following a meeting with federal security officials. “It’s not part of a big terrorist network. The group planned its actions autonomously.”
Authorities have said the suicide bombing was carried out by a 20-year-old from the Caucasus, and security sources have told Russian media that he is believed to be from Ingushetia.