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Paper No. 1098                         25/08/2004

by B.Raman

While it would be premature to make a definitive assessment of the aerial incidents in Russia involving the mysterious crashing of one plane and the disappearance of another after the reported despatch of a distress signal, there is a growing possibility of the incidents being acts of terrorism.

2. If they turn out to be terrorist acts, it should be disquieting for the counter-terrorism experts of the world for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the continuing high motivation  of terrorist groups despite international co-operation against them. Second,it shows the undamaged capability of terrorist groups to outsmart the physical security agencies despite stepped up physical security since 9/11.

3.The questions, which immediately arise, are: 

  • Was it a case of explosion in mid-air or a conventional hijacking or an attempted encore of 9/11?
  • Who could have been responsible?

4. The reported fact that the missing aircraft had sent a distress signal indicating a possible hijacking tends to rule out for the present a case of a mid-air explosion. It would be difficult to say without further details whether it was a case of a conventional hijacking or  an attempted encore of 9/11.

5. So far as it is known, Russian planes generally have sky marshals on board.  A strong possibility is that there was an exchange of fire between them and the terrorists, who had managed to get on board, resulting in a crash of the first plane, at least, and possibly of the second too, though the fate of the second plane is still unknown.

6. If the two incidents turn out out to be acts of terrorism, the needle of suspicion should initially point at Chechen groups allied to Al Qaeda. They had demonstrated in the past a capability for daring terrorist strikes in Moscow, from where both the planes started, either on their own initiative or with the help of Chechen residents of Moscow.

7. As I have been writing in the past, of all the jihadi terrorist groups in the world, the Chechens are the most highly-motivated, most innovative, most ruthless  and with easier access to weapons of mass destruction than any other terrorist group in the world. It has been my assessment that there are only two likelihoods of the use of WMDs by jihadi terrorists---by the Chechens in Russian territory or by Al Qaeda in US territory.

8. In this context, the weak physical security in Russia, including in Moscow, should be disquieting for counter-terrorism experts. 

(The writer Is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: )