A suicide attack on Chechnya's parliament may have been staged by a shadowy warlord who wants to establish himself as a leader of the Russian region's factionalized Islamist insurgency, officials and analysts said Wednesday.
Some observers said they believe there could be an escalation of violence as 40-year-old Khusein Gakayev moves to assert his supremacy over the divided rebels.
In the attack, "the goal here is to demonstrate Gakayev's authority," said Yulia Latynina, a Moscow-based columnist and Caucasus expert.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack by three suicide attackers, who got inside the tightly guarded parliament complex in the capital, Grozny, as legislators gathered for a session. The attackers opened fire and blew themselves up, killing two police officers and a parliamentary aide and wounded 17 other people.
Chechnya's Interior Ministry branch told the ITAR-Tass news agency that it believed the attack was planned by Gakayev to boost his credentials among other rebels and their supporters abroad. It did not offer evidence.
Islamic insurgents have taken root across Russia's predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region and are trying to turn it into an independent emirate that adheres to Shariah, or Islamic law. Since 2007, the movement has been led by the guerrilla leader Doku Umarov, who spread confusion through the rebel ranks in August by first announcing and then annulling his resignation in two videos released three days apart.
Analysts say that apparent indecision exacerbated a schism in the rebel leadership between those striving for a new Shariah state in the Caucasus and those focusing on Chechnya's independence.
Gakayev, who has never been known to promote pan-Caucasian Islamism, was a little-known lieutenant to more senior rebels who has recently emerged as a leading figure in the insurgency.
In a video posted on the Chechen rebel website Daymohk.org on Oct 7, Gakayev and two other Chechen rebel field commanders renounced their oath of allegiance to Umarov. In the video they also call Gakayev the Emir of Chechnya, and therefore their leader.
Gakayev also has won support of a prominent Chechen in exile, Akhmed Zakayev.
Some Caucasus watchers said Gakayev could be using this momentum to launch a fresh wave of attacks against the Moscow-backed Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov and try to demonstrate his ability to control the whole movement.
Gakayev's group stands accused by the authorities of masterminding an unprecedented attack on Kadyrov's home village that left 19 people dead, including five civilians.
"There is a new generation of fighters, a group of young wolves," says Pavel Baev, an expert on Chechnya and its neighbors at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Tuesday's raid on the parliament seems to bear the same unusual trademarks as that village raid: groups of well-trained gunmen, equipped with suicide vests, striking directly at Kadyrov's strongholds.
"They have managed to get fighters ready to act as canon fodder, and to form a structure of cells that can not only attract these fighters but prepare them for these complex attacks," says Alexander Cherkasov, a Chechnya expert and board member of Russia's leading human rights group, Memorial. "This tells us of a new level of organization."
The rebels' renewed vigor in striking Kadyrov's strongholds will likely spell trouble for his regime, said Caucasus expert Latynina.
In the past, Kadyrov managed to recruit many ex-militants into his feared security forces and sought to blunt the rebels' appeal with a massive construction boom and a campaign to impose strict Islamic values. He has repeatedly boasted that a few dozen remaining rebels were starving and ready to surrender.
The claims appear to have been shattered by the latest attacks but Kadyrov, a bullnecked 34-year old former militia chief, responded with his usual bravado.
"Allah has created me to kill those devils," he said in the Chechen parliament hours after the attack. "I will do it wherever they are."
Shuster reported from Moscow.