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In Russia, Dagestan mourns and suspicions mount after deadly attacks

In this photo released by the Telegram channel of the administration of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia on Monday, the head of Dagestan Republic, Sergei Melikov (center), embraces and comforts a priest as he visits an Orthodox church in Derbent after a counterterrorism operation.
The Telegram channel of the administration of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia
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AP
In this photo released by the Telegram channel of the administration of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia on Monday, the head of Dagestan Republic, Sergei Melikov (center), embraces and comforts a priest as he visits an Orthodox church in Derbent after a counterterrorism operation.

MOSCOW — Russia’s southern republic of Dagestan continues to mourn loved ones and hold funerals for the dead, as questions and theories swirl over who was responsible for the weekend attack by gunmen that killed 20 people — most of them police — and injured dozens more.

Armed assailants launched near-simultaneous attacks Sunday on a Jewish synagogue, two Orthodox Christian churches and a police station, in Dagestan's capital Makhachkala and the costal city of Derbent. There was no direct claim of responsibility.

Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country's top criminal investigation agency, says it has opened a criminal probe into “acts of terror,” and the Kremlin has cautioned to await its findings.

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To government critics, though, the events in Dagestan appeared to be the latest security lapse by a Kremlin too distracted over its war in Ukraine to see emerging extremist threats at home. The attacks happened less than three months after gunmen from an Islamic State splinter group stormed a Moscow concert hall, killing 145 people and injuring hundreds.

Kremlin loyalists have embraced conspiracy theories alleging the attack was part of a wider Western plot to destroy the country from within.

Meanwhile, local officials argue the attackers intended to ignite violence in a majority-Muslim but ethnically and religiously diverse region that has struggled with extremism in its recent past.

In this photo taken from video released by the Telegram channel of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia on Monday, the head of Dagestan Republic, Sergei Melikov (center) visits the damaged Kele-Numaz synagogue in Derbent after an attack.
/ The Telegram channel of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia via AP
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The Telegram channel of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia via AP
In this photo taken from video released by the Telegram channel of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia on Monday, the head of Dagestan Republic, Sergei Melikov (center) visits the damaged Kele-Numaz synagogue in Derbent after an attack.

"This is an attempt to tear apart our unity,” Sergei Melikov, the Kremlin-appointed head of the Republic of Dagestan, said in a social media post after the incidents.

The attacks coincided with the Orthodox Christian holiday of Pentecost, with the gunmen setting fire to an icon in Makhachkala and killing an elderly priest in Derbent.

Dagestan’s small vibrant Jewish community goes back centuries. Its synagogue in Derbent was also set ablaze and gutted by flames. There were no worshippers there at the time.

The hunt and the hunted

In what appeared to be a related incident, gunmen also launched attacks against a police station in the capital of Makhachkala.

Authorities say officers bore the brunt of the casualties in subsequent firefights with the attackers in both cities — several of which were captured on video by terrified local residents and shared on social media.

A dramatic manhunt for the gunmen also went throughout the night. Federal security forces sealed off roads to prevent an escape.

By morning, a national counterterrorism task force provided few details other than to say the “active phase” of an antiterrorist operation in both cities had ended successfully.

Russia's Investigative Committee later said five attackers had been killed.

Left unanswered: How many gunmen were there — and did any manage to escape?

In this photo taken from video released by Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee on Monday, FSB officers conduct a counterterrorist operation in the Dagestan Republic. Gunmen killed multiple police officers and several civilians, including an Orthodox priest in the Russian republic on Sunday.
/ The National Antiterrorism Committee via AP
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The National Antiterrorism Committee via AP
In this photo taken from video released by Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee on Monday, FSB officers conduct a counterterrorist operation in the Dagestan Republic. Gunmen killed multiple police officers and several civilians, including an Orthodox priest in the Russian republic on Sunday.

The Islamic State faction praised the assault

Questions also linger over who could have participated in such an attack, and why?

Dagestan and, more generally, Russia’s south have been no stranger to extremist violence.

Russia fought two wars against separatist militants in the Russian republic of Chechnya, to Dagestan’s south, since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Earlier this month, a brief prison uprising in the city of Rostov by six Islamic State-linked inmates ended after Russian special forces stormed the premises and shot them dead.

And last October, as Israel’s war in Gaza heated up, an angry pro-Palestinian mob of locals overran Dagestan’s main airport in search of Jewish passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv.

Following the latest attack in Dagestan, the Russian branch of the Islamic State splinter group known as ISIS-K issued a statement cheering on the assault, saying the gunmen had responded to “the call.”

“Our brothers from the Caucasus let us know that they are still strong,” ISIS-K said in a post to social media. “They showed what they are capable of.”

While authorities have yet to identify the assailants publicly, several attackers’ faces were captured by witness videos. Local media later said they had identified some of them.

One of the felled gunmen purportedly attended a mixed martial arts fight academy in Dagestan funded by one of its wealthiest citizens.

Two others were identified as sons of a local politician affiliated with the Kremlin’s ruling United Russia party. The official was promptly taken into custody and dismissed from his post.

On Tuesday, Melikov, the head of Dagestan, ordered a review of all those in leadership positions throughout the republic.

“Maybe we have more district heads where sleeper cells operate?” Melikov said, according to state media.

Suspicions of Western involvement

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences to all those affected by the tragedy through his spokesman.

As the country awaited the Investigative Committee's findings, several Kremlin allies and avowed Russian nationalists have provided their own theories.

“NATO and the Ukrainian security forces are behind this,” Dagestan’s representative to the Duma, Abdulkhakim Gadzhiev, said in an interview to state TV channel Russia 24.

“It’s because we’re having so much success on all fronts on the battlefield, they had to try and undermine our country from within.”

“The authors — were the Western intelligence services,” wrote Alexander Sladkov, one of a group of nationalist war correspondents who have gained notoriety on social media amid the conflict in Ukraine.

“It’s a Western investment in an underground war,” he added.

None provided evidence of any Western involvement. The United States, Ukraine and NATO allies have not commented on the attacks.

Echoes of Crocus City

The Russian reactions recalled the government’s response to the deadly attack on the Crocus City concert hall in Moscow in March. ISIS-K immediately claimed responsibility for the carnage.

A bouquet of flowers inserted into the road fence in front of the burnt Crocus City Hall (center) on the western outskirts of Moscow, on March 27, after an attack by ISIS-K killed 145 people and inured hundreds more.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
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AP
A bouquet of flowers inserted into the road fence in front of the burnt Crocus City Hall (center) on the western outskirts of Moscow, on March 27, after an attack by ISIS-K killed 145 people and inured hundreds more.

In the weeks prior, the United States had shared intelligence warning of an impending attack by the group. President Putin had publicly rejected the information as “blackmail” and an attempt to “intimidate and destabilize our society.”

At the time, experts said the security failure reflected the Russian president’s unceasing focus on Ukraine — and jailing Russians opposed to his policies — rather than rooting out domestic threats.

It’s a system where “punishment is more important than protection of civilians,” Andrei Soldatov, a leading expert on the Russian security services, said in an interview with NPR following the Crocus City attack.

“To prevent a terrorist attack, you need a completely different set of skills and capabilities,” Soldatov added. “You need to know how to share intelligence within the Russian security and intelligence community, but also with your international partners. And for that, you need a lot of trust.”

But after this weekend's attack, even some Kremlin allies are warning there is danger in Russia’s apparent failure to address troubles of its own making.

“I think if we assign responsibility to NATO and Ukraine for every terrorist act that involves national or religious intolerance, this rose-colored fog will lead us to big problems,” Dmitry Rogozin, a noted hawk, wrote on social media on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected concerns that the latest events in Dagestan signaled a return to the waves of violence that plagued Russia through the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Islamist militants from the North Caucasus region routinely terrorized civilians.

"Russia is different now, society is absolutely consolidated,” Peskov said on Monday. “And such criminal terrorist manifestations as we saw in Dagestan yesterday are not supported by society, neither in Russia as a whole or in Dagestan.”

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