Russian authorities have arrested seven suspected Islamic State militants who were allegedly planning attacks on St. Petersburg and Moscow, a spokesperson for the Federal Security Service (FSB) told state news outlets on Monday.
The FSB said it conducted a series of raids on Sunday in the city of Yekaterinburg, located in the Ural Mountains about 900 miles east of Moscow, and uncovered a "laboratory for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), explosives, electronic detonators, firearms, grenades, IED components [and] extremist literature."
The detainees have not yet been identified by name, but the FSB told state news outlet Itar-Tass that all seven are citizens of Russia or Central Asian ex-Soviet republics. The law enforcement agency said the alleged militants planned to travel to Syria and fight alongside IS after they carried out the attacks on Russia's cities.
The FSB added that the group was led by an Islamic State fighter who had arrived on Russian soil from Turkey, but did not provide any more detail.
According to analysis from the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm, Russia had an estimated 2,400 citizens fighting alongside the ranks of IS or al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, in Iraq and Syria in December last year. Those estimates make Russia the third largest supplier of foreign fighters to the ranks of IS and other extremist groups, after Saudi Arabia with an estimated 2,500 and Tunisia, with approximately 6,000. Another 2,000 militants reportedly hail from the five Central Asian former Soviet states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The Soufan Group report notes that the majority of Russian fighters come from the North Caucasus – a region with a known history of Islamic extremism and disillusion with Russian authorities. The numbers of foreign fighters from Russia and Central Asia spiked dramatically between June 2014 and December 2015, according to the report, increasing by almost 300 percent.
"Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus," the report states, "and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative."
In October, Russian authorities claimed to have foiled a similar terrorist plot aimed at Moscow's busy public transport system. The FSB said in a statement that it had conducted a raid on an apartment where between six and 11 people lived, "some of whom have been through combat training in Islamic State camps in Syria." The FSB also said the men had returned to Russia long before Putin launched airstrikes in Syria, in response to fears that the military campaign could heighten the terror threat inside Russia.
Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict last September, and the added airpower has reportedly turned the military balance in the war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, which is battling both IS and an array of allied rebel groups. In December, Amnesty International released a report that said Russian airstrikes have indiscriminately killed hundreds of civilians and may constitute a war crime.
On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly condemned Russian-backed forces' advance on Aleppo. "We have been, in the past few days, not just appalled but horrified by what has been caused in the way of human suffering for tens of thousands of people by bombing - bombing primarily from the Russian side" Merkel said after a meeting with Turkey's prime minister. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights, Russian airstrikes have killed at least 1380 civilians, 332 of whom were children.
At the end of October, a Russian passenger plane crashed in the Egyptian Sinai on its way to St. Petersburg, after a bomb exploded in the aircraft's main cabin. All 224 onboard were killed, most of whom were Russian civilians. IS claimed responsibility for the attack. Moscow has not seen a major attack for nearly five years, since a suicide bomber killed 37 at Domodedovo airport.