Just barely hours after we covered the second deadly explosion in the southern Russian city of Volgograd in as many months, this time in its packed train station, the city was rocked by yet another suicide bombing in what is clearly a terrorist campaign to spook Russia and its Sochi winter games visitors just over a month ahead of the olympics. This time, a bomb ripped apart a trolleybus killing all 14 people aboard, and wounding another 28 in the second deadly attack blamed on suicide bombers. According to Reuters, "Investigators said they believed a male suicide bomber set off the blast, a day after a similar attack killed at least 17 in the main rail station of a city that serves as a gateway to the southern wedge of Russian territory bounded by the Black and Caspian Seas and the Caucasus mountains." Even Putin, so far non-committal, is starting to take these daily escalations seriously: "President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his prestige on February's Sochi Games and dismissed threats from Chechen and other Islamist militants in the nearby North Caucasus, ordered tighter security nationwide after the morning rush-hour blast."
Sunday's attack was the deadliest to strike the ethnic Russian heartlands since January 2011, when a male suicide bomber from the North Caucasus killed 37 people in the arrivals hall of a busy Moscow airport.
There is practically no question that the two blasts were coordinated and arranged by the same group: the bomb used was packed with "identical" shrapnel to that in the rail station, indicating they may have been made in the same place and supporting suspicions the bombings were linked, said Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the investigators. Health Ministry spokesman Oleg Salagai said 14 people were killed and 28 wounded in the bombing on Monday.
And while this could merely be the retaliation by Saudi Arabia, as we reported yesterday, for Russia's foiling of its Syrian plans and thus merely chess in the grand scheme of thing, to the people on the ground the terrorist escalations are all too real.
A Reuters journalist saw the blue and white trolleybus - a bus powered by overhead electric cables - reduced to a twisted, gutted carcass, its roof blown off and bodies and debris strewn across the street. Windows in nearby apartments were blown out by the explosion, which investigators called a "terrorist act".
"For the second day, we are dying. It's a nightmare," a woman near the scene said, her voice trembling as she choked back tears. "What are we supposed to do, just walk now?"
"There was smoke and people were lying in the street," said Olga, who works nearby. "The driver was thrown a long way. She was alive and moaning ... Her hands and clothes were bloody,"
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Perhaps one should seek a comment from Prince Bandar, who during the summer of 2013 implicitly threatened Putin that "the terrorist threat is growing in light of the phenomena spawned by the Arab Spring. We have lost some regimes. And what we got in return were terrorist experiences, as evidenced by the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the extremist groups in Libya.... As an example, I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us..."
And sure enough, these same Chechen groups have made it quite clear that Saudi Arabia is displeased:
In an online video posted in July, the Chechen leader of insurgents who want to carve an Islamic state out of the swathe of mainly Muslim provinces south of Volgograd, urged militants to use "maximum force" to prevent the Games from going ahead. "Terrorists in Volgograd aim to terrorize others around the world, making them stay away from the Sochi Olympics," said Dmitry Trenin, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
So now the world looks to Putin:
In power since 2000, Putin secured the Games for Russia and has staked his reputation on a safe and successful Olympics, even freeing jailed opponents including oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot punk band to remove a cause for international criticism at the event.
Putin was first elected after winning popularity for a war against Chechen rebels, but attacks by Islamist militants whose insurgency is rooted in that war have clouded his 14 years in power and now confront him with his biggest security challenge.
Police said additional officers were being deployed to railway stations and airports nationwide after the bombing at the Volgograd rail station on Sunday, but the attacks raised questions about the effectiveness of security measures.
The police force in Volgograd, a city of a million people on the west bank of the river Volga, has been depleted as some 600 officers were redeployed to Sochi to tighten security around Olympic sites, a police officer told Reuters.
More attacks can be expected before the Olympics and cities in southern Russia where the Games are not being held are easier targets than Sochi, said Alexei Filatov, a prominent former member of Russia's elite anti-terrorism force, Alfa.
"The threat is greatest now because it is when terrorists can make the biggest impression," he said. "The security measures were beefed up long ago around Sochi, so terrorists will strike instead in these nearby cities like Volgograd."
Perhaps the bigger question is whether Russia will continue to focus on the pawns in the terrorist campaign, or finally shift its attention to the puppetmaster controlling, arming and funding the Islamist militants in the region: one of America's fondest (at least until recently) allies in the region.
Reuters' video coverage of the blast is below.