ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Investigators searched for possible accomplices of a 22-year-old native of the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan identified as the suicide bomber in the St. Petersburg subway, as residents came to grips Tuesday with the first major terrorist attack in Russia’s second-largest city since the Soviet collapse.
The bomber, Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, had lived in St. Petersburg for several years, working as a car repairman and later at a sushi bar. Pages on his social media networks reflected his interest in radical Islam and boxing, but those who met Dzhalilov described him as a calm and friendly man.
Russia’s health minister raised the death toll to 14, including the bomber. About 50 others remained hospitalized, some in grave condition. Many were students heading home Monday after classes on one of the city’s busy north-south lines.
No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, which came as President Vladimir Putin was visiting his hometown, raising speculation it could have been timed for his trip. The attack follows a long string of bombings of Russian planes, trains and transportation facilities. Many of the attacks were linked to radical Islamists.
Before Dzhalilov traveled to St. Petersburg where he eventually got Russian citizenship, his ethnic Uzbek family lived in Osh, the city in southern Kyrgyzstan that saw more than 400 people killed and thousands injured in clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in 2010.
St. Petersburg has a large diaspora of people from Kyrgyzstan and other mostly Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia. They have fled ethnic tension, poverty and unemployment for jobs in Russia. While most Central Asian migrants hold temporary work permits or work illegally, thousands have received Russian citizenship in recent decades.
Russian media said Dzhalilov worked with his father in a car repair shop and then became a cook at one of the city’s many sushi bars. He stayed in St. Petersburg when his parents moved back to Kyrgyzstan.
One former colleague at the sushi chain described Dzhalilov, who turned 22 on Saturday, as “a very kind person.”
“He was a non-conflict person. We didn’t expect to hear such news today,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared for her personal safety.
Neighbors in Osh also described him as a nice and friendly man.
Dzhalilov visited his home country about a month ago, and unlike past trips when he traveled directly back to St. Petersburg, he returned via Moscow. Investigators are looking into whether he met possible accomplices in Moscow, according to Russian media reports.
Security cameras caught the bespectacled Dzhalilov as he entered the subway, appearing calm and clad in a red parka with a fur collar and blue wool hat. He wore a backpack believed to hold the bomb that was loaded with metal balls and screws for maximum damage.
The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top investigative agency, said it also found Dzhalilov’s DNA on a bag with a similar bomb that was found and deactivated at another subway station shortly after the blast.
Security experts have described people from Central Asia as fertile recruits for radical Islamist preachers, who have become increasingly active on social networks. Dzhalilov followed some radical Islamist pages on Russian social network, and media reports quoted investigators alleging he was linked to the Islamic State group.
Putin has said that between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet republics were fighting alongside the Islamic State group and other militants in Syria. He has named the IS threat as one of the reasons behind Russia’s military campaign in Syria.
Chinara Esengul, an expert on radical Islam based in Kyrgyzstan, said on Dozhd TV that about 850 people from Kyrgyzstan have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, according to official figures.
Russian security agencies have been checking Dzhalilov’s contacts in St. Petersburg, while Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies have been talking to his parents in the impoverished nation.
The Russian business daily Kommersant said that security agencies had learned of a terror plot in St. Petersburg from a Russian man affiliated with IS who had come from Syria. However, the man knew little and they tried to learn more by tapping phones of his contacts, the newspaper said.
When Dzhalilov blew himself up, 10 other passengers were killed instantly. Three others died shortly after.
Train driver Alexander Kaverin continued to the next station after hearing the blast, a decision that aided evacuation efforts and helped save many lives. “I had no time to think about fear at that moment,” he said.
Viktor Khasiyev said he got a call from his father who was in the car hit by the explosion: “I heard screams, and then he said: ‘Son, we got blown up. Please come.'”
Khasiyev rushed across St. Petersburg to find his father covered in blood and soot. “When he saw me, he cried,” the son recalled, adding that his father is being treated for a concussion and burns, but that his life isn’t in danger.
“I still can’t believe that it happened in our city,” the younger Khasiyev said.
While Moscow and many other Russian cities have seen numerous attacks linked to Islamic militants, the city of imperial palaces and world-famous art museums largely had escaped such violence until Monday.
The entire subway was shut down and evacuated, paralyzing traffic in the city of 5 million before partial service resumed six hours later. Typically crowded during rush hour, the subway on Tuesday morning looked almost deserted as many residents opted for buses.
“First, I was really scared,” said Viktoria Prishchepova, who did ride the subway. “I didn’t want to go anywhere on the Metro because I was nervous. Everyone was calling their loved ones yesterday, checking if they were OK and how everyone was going to get home.”
On Tuesday morning, 53-year-old Oleg Alexeyev, who trains bomb-detecting police dogs, went to the station where the stricken train pulled in and victims were taken off. He laid flowers there in memory of those who died.
“I traveled on the same route this morning just to see how it felt and think about life. You begin to feel the thin line about life and death,” he said.