‘Terror attack’ on synagogue, churches in Russia’s Dagestan: What we know

Policemen and civilians were killed in a series of ‘terrorist attacks’ in Dagestan’s Makhachkala and Derbent.

At least 20 people were killed after armed men attacked a synagogue, churches and police post in Russia’s Dagestan region on Sunday.

The region has announced three days of mourning starting Monday.

Here’s what we know about the attacks in Dagestan and why they have caused concern in Russia.

What happened in Dagestan and when?

  • Shortly before 6pm local time (15:00 GMT) on Sunday, some attackers used automatic weapons to attack a synagogue and an Orthodox church in Derbent city, Dagestan’s interior ministry said.
  • Derbent is home to an ancient Jewish community in the mainly Muslim region.
  • The interior ministry said gunmen simultaneously attacked a traffic police post in Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala, about 125 km (75 miles) north of Derbent.
  • The attackers and law enforcement officials exchanged gunfire. Heavy shooting was reported at the Russian Orthodox Assumption Cathedral in Makhachkala.
  • Russia’s National Antiterrorism Committee said a counterterrorism operation was launched in Dagestan at 8:15am (05:15 GMT) on Monday. It was declared over soon after. During such operations, authorities can restrict people’s movement and communications.
  • The attacks come three months after at least 133 people were killed in an attack on a concert in Moscow’s Crocus City Hall. While the Afghanistan-based Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), claimed responsibility for the worst attack to hit Russia in years, Moscow claimed without evidence that Ukraine had a role.

Where is Dagestan on the map?

  • Dagestan, officially known as the Republic of Dagestan, is in southwestern Russia. It is located in the North Caucasus, along the Caspian Sea.
  • Its largest city and capital Makhachkala is 1,588km (986 miles) southeast of Moscow.

INTERACTIVE_Dozen killed in synagogue, church attacks_JUN24_2024-1719214286

What do we know about the victims of the synagogue attack?

  • Russian authorities said on Monday that 20 people, including 15 police officers and five civilians, were killed.
  • Sergei Melikov, the head of the Dagestan region, said the civilians killed included an Orthodox priest, Nikolai Kotelnikov, who had worked for more than 40 years at the church in Derbent.
  • More than a dozen people are in the hospital after sustaining injuries in the attack, Al Jazeera’s Daniel Hawkins reported from Moscow.

What’s the significance of Dagestan?

  • Dagestan, with a majority Muslim population, is home to more than 50 different ethnicities. It is also known as “the Mountain of Languages” or “Mountain of Nationalities”.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has long held the North Caucasus region up as a poster child of integration and loyalty to the Russian state.
  • This was evident when the Kremlin chose Dagestan for its first Putin photo op following former Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed coup attempt last year. In Dagestan, Putin was seen mingling with locals, taking photos, in an apparent show of confidence.
  • Dagestan also borders Chechnya, which has long been home to a simmering secessionist movement that Russia attempted to crush through two wars — between 1994 and 1996, and then between 1999 and 2009.
  • Those tensions in Chechnya have at times spilled over into Dagestan. In 1999, a Chechnya-based armed group entered Dagestan with more than 1,000 fighters, evoking a Russian military response. After more than a month of fighting, Russia recaptured all parts of the region.
  • More recently, Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested four people in Dagestan over Moscow’s Crocus City Hall attacks, pointing to Russian concerns over separatism in the region.
  • Amid Israel’s war on Gaza, Dagestan also made global headlines when on October 29, 2023, a crowd stormed Makhachkala airport to protest against the landing of a flight from Israel’s Tel Aviv. The crowd chanted anti-Israel slogans. This prompted the temporary closure of the airport. At least 60 people were arrested. Russia blamed Ukraine and the West for the airport unrest.

Who carried out the Dagestan attack?

  • No group has claimed responsibility for the attack yet.
  • But some experts believe that a link between the attackers and the ISIL/ISIS armed group cannot be ruled out.
  • “It is possible and probably highly likely that there is a connection with ISIS groups because as we know ISIS has a kind of a network. It isn’t a hierarchical structure. People who affiliate themselves with ISIS can carry out these kinds of attacks,” Domitilla Sagramoso, lecturer in Security and Development at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
  • “I think what makes it likely that there is an ISIS connection is the kinds of targets: Orthodox churches, synagogues,” Sagramoso added.
  • Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had received reports on Sunday’s attacks.
  • Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top state criminal investigation agency, said all five attackers had been killed.
  • “We understand who is behind the organisation of the terrorist attacks and what goal they pursued,” Melikov, the Dagestan leader, said, adding that foreign forces had been involved in preparing the attack, without sharing any details. “This is an attempt to cleave apart our unity.”

How has the Russian government responded?

  • Russia’s National Antiterrorism Committee described the attacks as terrorist acts.
  • Putin has not yet commented on the attacks.
  • The Dagestan region has declared three days of mourning in the region.
Source: Al Jazeera