Russia has seen two major terror attacks in just three months. Here’s what we know

Damond Isiaka
9 Min Read


CNN
 — 

Russia is reeling from another major terror attack, with at least 19 people killed and 25 injured in what appeared to be coordinated shootings at various places of worship in Russia’s southernmost Dagestan republic.

The attack is the second in the last three months after more than 130 people were killed at a concert hall near Moscow in a terrorist attack claimed by ISIS-K in March, and challenges President Vladimir Putin’s self-declared reputation as a leader able to guarantee order across the vast, turbulent country.

The uptick in violence comes as long-simmering ethnic tensions resurface, compounded both by drives to fill Russia’s military ranks as Putin’s war against Ukraine grinds on – and by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Here’s what you need to know.

What happened in Dagestan?

Unidentified gunmen opened fire at multiple places of worship and a police traffic stop in two cities in Muslim majority Dagestan, killing at least 15 police officers and four civilians including a priest on Sunday.

Two synagogues – one in the city of Derbent and one in the city of Makhachkala – were attacked, according to a statement from the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC).

Attackers “set the building on fire using Molotov cocktails” at the synagogue in Derbent while police and security guards were killed outside during the attack, the RJC.

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Gunmen kill police, priest in attacks on places of worship in Russia’s Dagestan

In the provincial capital Makhachkala, Russian state-news agency TASS reported that a church security guard was killed in a shootout at Svyato-Uspenskiy Sobor, and 19 people had locked themselves inside the premises amid an attack.  An attack was also reported at a police traffic post in Makhachkala.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but law enforcement agencies told TASS that the attackers were “adherents of an international terrorist organization.”

The Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of Russia for the Republic of Dagestan said it had launched a terror investigation into the attacks under the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

Where is Dagestan?

Dagestan lies in Russia’s Caucasus region on the western shores of the Caspian Sea.

The republic is in many ways a microcosm of Russia’s diversity. The mountainous region is home to over 30 ethnic groups with distinct languages and it is a majority Muslim republic that has historically been home to a variety of Islamic religious practices.

It has a miniscule Jewish population – Judaism is one of Dagestan’s long-established religions, practiced by communities of the Mountain Jews, who speak a form of Persian – but after centuries of coexistence with Muslim neighbors, that population has dwindled through emigration.

The Caucasus were mostly subsumed into the Russian empire in the nineteenth century had a long history of resentment towards rule by Moscow, during Tsarist, Soviet and post-Soviet times.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, insurgents in neighboring Chechnya fought two separatist wars for independence – which Russia labeled terrorism and responded with tactics that left much of the capital Grozny in ruins. Putin then installed feared warlord Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya who has since ruled with an iron fist.

In Dagestan, Russian security forces fought an Islamist insurgency in the mountainous region in the 2000s that spilled over from neighboring Chechnya, though attacks have become rarer in recent years.

But contemporary events have put the historically restless region once more on edge.

Religious and ethnic tensions in Russia

Over 200 ethnic minority communities live in Russia, which spans eleven time zones and is home to some 144 million people.

Some of these communities have been hit especially hard by Putin’s war in Ukraine with ethnic minorities disproportionately mobilized to face the horror of Moscow’s human wave tactics.

Protests broke out in multiple ethnic minority regions in 2022 against Putin’s mobilization orders, including in Dagestan. In one video CNN geolocated from the time, women in the capital Makhachkala could be seen pleading with police outside a theater.

“Why are you taking our children? Who attacked who? It’s Russia that attacked Ukraine,” they could be heard saying in the video.

Israel’s war against Hamas following the brutal October 7 attacks has also sent tensions soaring across the world, fueled by daily images of the destruction in Gaza, including in the Caucasus.

Putin has played a delicate international balancing act, putting himself forward as a potential mediator and calling for restraint on both sides – a position that has won praise from Hamas.

But that confidence was shaken later that month when antisemitic rioters stormed Dagestan’s Makhachkala Uytash Airport where a flight from Israel arrived.

At least 20 people were injured and 60 people were detained in the chaotic clashes, according to local authorities. Multiple videos on social media showed a crowd of people inside the airport and on the runway, some waving the Palestinian flag, others forcing their way through closed doors in the international terminal.

Interreligious violence is something that Russian leader Putin is “very, very worried” about, said former CNN Moscow bureau chief Jill Dougherty in response to Sunday’s attacks in Dagestan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his election campaign confidants at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 20, 2024.

Russia has a complex web of relationships in the Middle East: Putin backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (an enemy of Israel); he relies on Iran (another enemy of Israel) for a stockpile of drones to attack Ukraine; and he’s a high-fiving friend of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, another power player in the region.

He has also maintained cordial working relationships with Israeli counterparts, although his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has cooled.

ISIS-K attack on music venue

The coordinated attacks in Dagestan come just weeks after Russia suffered its worst terror attack in decades.

In March, over 130 people were killed after assailants stormed a popular concert venue complex on the outskirts of Moscow.

ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the massacre and four gunmen from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan were charged with terrorism.

The shocking terror attack came just a week after Putin won a stage-managed election which tightened his grip on the country he has ruled since the turn of the century.

For a leader who has long promised security and stability to Russians, the major attack on Russian soil was another powerful blow.

The emotion unleashed by the rampage – combined with the disturbing videos – unleashed a wave of xenophobia from some towards Central Asian migrant workers in general.

Migrants from the former Soviet Union’s Central Asian states — Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan — have traditionally been a valuable source of cheap labor in Russia.

In the aftermath of the March attack, Putin called for Russia to remain united.

“We must never forget that we are a multinational, multi-religious country. We must always treat our brothers, representatives of other faiths with respect, as we always do — Muslims, Jews, everyone,” he said.

But Sunday’s attack in Dagestan shows deep fissures continue to pockmark Russia’s border regions.

CNN’s Darya Tarasova, Jen Deaton, Mariya Knight Nathan Hodge and Sebastian Shukla contributed reporting.

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