MAKHACHKALA, Russia – Russian police on Wednesday identified the female suicide bomber who killed an influential Muslim leader in a terrorist attack that could worsen a longstanding confrontation between radical Islamists and moderate Muslims in the volatile Caucasus region.
Said Afandi, 74, the powerful leader of a Sufi Muslim brotherhood in Russia's unstable province of Dagestan, was killed Tuesday along with six other people, including an 11-year-old boy, in the central village of Chirkei by the bomber, who approached his house disguised as a pilgrim. Afandi's tens of thousands of followers included influential officials, clerics and businessmen.
Police in Dagestan said Wednesday that the bomber was Aminat Kurbanova, a 30-year-old resident of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala. The Interfax news agency claimed she was an ethnic Russian woman who had converted to Islam after marrying an Islamist militant.
Afandi's killing follows a string of attacks on moderate Muslim leaders in the Caucasus who have publicly denounced the spread of radical Islamic groups known as Salafis whose followers advocate an independent state, or emirate, that would include Caucasus and parts of southern Russia that contain a significant Muslim population.
Afandi had recently initiated peace talks between Sufis and Salafis.
Dagestan, a multiethnic and predominantly Muslim province of nearly 3 million people on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, is a focal point of the Islamic insurgency in the Caucasus, and shootings, bombings and police operations against rebels occur there almost daily. Human rights groups accuse security forces and police of fueling the insurgency through extrajudicial killings, abductions and other abuses.
The mystical Muslim orders of Sufis have for centuries been popular in Dagestan and neighboring Caucasus provinces, and their leaders and adherents survived decades of Communist persecution. The Sufi brotherhoods are fiercely opposed to radical and militant Salafis that have mushroomed across the region. The Sufis often pray over the tombs of revered saints, and Salafi puritans condemn worshipping over graves as idolatry.
Tens of thousands of people attended Afandi's funeral Tuesday, and thousands more flocked to his grave Wednesday to pray as Dagestan's secular authorities declared a day of mourning.
The killing of the white-bearded cleric, who appeared in public wearing a traditional hat made of astrakhan lamb fur, could lead to more violence in Dagestan and the Caucasus, experts say.
"These are attempts to abort peacekeeping efforts in the region and to escalate the situation in southern Russia," Ruslan Gereyev of the Center of Islamic Studies in Dagestan's provincial capital, Makhachkala, told the Kavkazsky Uzel online publication.
If the killing goes unpunished, the authority of Afandi's influential followers will be questioned, said Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow center. "If the main figure is killed and his followers are silent, this will lead to a major reappraisal of values" in Dagestan, he told The Associated Press.
Female suicide bombers are often called "black widows" in Russia because many of them are the wives, or other relatives, of militants who have been killed by security forces. Some women are driven more by personal revenge for slain relatives than by promises of martyrdom and reward in the afterlife, while others are sent on such attacks against their will, experts say.
In April 2010, two women from Dagestan blew themselves up on Moscow's subway system, killing 40 people and wounding 121 during a morning rush hour.
At least two dozen female suicide bombers have carried out terrorist attacks on security officers and civilians in Russian cities and aboard trains and planes in the country since 2000.
Dagestan's provincial leader, Magomedsalam Magomedov, said Wednesday that civilian paramilitary squads should be created to prevent and repel attacks by radical Islamists.
Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this story from Moscow.