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After Kremlin Admits Terrorists Brought Down Plane, Russians Collectively Shrug

The last time airplanes were bombed before last October was 11 years ago, and Russian flights were also hit.

by Rachel Nielsen
Nov 18 2015, 8:35pm

Vladimir Putin leads a moment of silence before a Kremlin meeting to discuss the Sinai bombing. Photo by Alexey Nikolsky / EPA / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool

It has taken two weeks for the Russian government to finally say out loud what Western intelligence services had been saying in the aftermath of the Metrojet plane crash in Egypt: It was the work of terrorists.

On Monday night, Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service or FSB, Russia's state security agency, told President Vladimir Putin that an examination of personal items, luggage and pieces of the airplane had ascertained that there was "residue of explosive material."

"We can unequivocally say this is a terrorist act," Bortnikov said at the televised meeting, which was broadcast only on Tuesday.

The Kremlin had been hedging its statements on the October 31 crash, which killed all 224 passengers and crew in Russia's worst-ever plane accident, saying a bomb onboard was only one of several possible causes. But now the FSB has officially said it has determined that a "homemade explosive device," with the equivalent of as much as 1 kilogram (2 lbs) of TNT, had ripped through the plane in midair.

Until then, the government had been urging Russians to let a potentially lengthy investigation run its course and not jump to conclusions, even after it took the step of suspending air connections with Egypt on Nov. 6. The Islamic State's Sinai affiliate had claimed responsibility shortly after the crash, saying it was payback for Russia's bombing campaign in Syria.

Many Russians are reacting with fatalism. The country has experienced several terrorist attacks in the past sixteen years, killing about 1,000 civilians. Those attacks were by militants linked to Chechnya, a Muslim region where Russia engaged in two brutal wars against separatists beginning in 1994.

"I don't understand how such people can exist," said Alexei Dorofeyev, 21, a university student, of the Airbus plotters. Yet, he added, "terrorist attacks have always taken place and will take place."

Related: US Officials Are Saying the Russian Airliner That Crashed in Egypt Was Likely Bombed

"It's not the first terrorist attack," said Timur, a 34-year-old financial services employee with an American company who, like many Russians, declined to give his last name to a journalist. In fact, the last terrorist bombing of airplanes before the Sinai attack happened here, in August 2004, when Chechen suicide bombers brought down two flights simultaneously, killing 87 people.

Nor did the official admission that it was a bomb take Russians by surprise. A large percentage already believed that a bomb was the cause of the Airbus A321's crash. In a survey conducted by the state's own pollster on Nov. 7 and 8, more than 40 percent of the 1,600 Russians surveyed across the country named terrorism as the likeliest explanation for the disaster. (The next largest group, at 35 percent, believed a mechanical problem with the aircraft was to blame.)

Fatalistic or not, some Russians are deciding to stay home rather than take one of the many charter flights to sunny Southern destinations like the one that was blown up.

Svetlana Veliyeva, 49, said she vacationed in Hurghada, Egypt, this summer, but is rethinking her travel plans for the spring. She probably will visit a former classmate in Israel rather than return to Egypt, said the economist-turned-housewife.

Foreign travel here is still the pursuit of a minority, with less than a third of Russians actually in possession of a passport valid for foreign travel, independent pollster Levada Center said last year. There's also the economic crisis and falling currency to take into account: More cosmopolitan Russians said that the low exchange rate of the ruble to the dollar and euro, not the crash, had curtailed their travel plans.

Security will be tightened at airports in Russia and around the world, many Russians predicted. "It's become scary to fly now," said Nina, 19, a university student sharing a fast-food dinner with a classmate.

Earlier Tuesday, the state-run Rossiya 24 television channel sought to draw a line between Russia and France, in an apparent attempt to placate fears of a Paris-style attack happening in Moscow.

"What was the French security services' mistake?" an anchor asked Andrei Lugovoi, a member of the Duma, or lower house of parliament, and deputy chairman of its committee on security.

It was "European tolerance that brought this type of result," he answered, saying Europeans needed to rethink their open-border approach.

Related: Downed Russian Jet Was Not Struck From the Outside, Say Investigators

Earlier Russian TV programs also have taken shots at the West. Dmitry Kiselyov, general director of giant government news agency Rossiya Segodnya, suggested on his show on state-run television that Americans might have known about the Sinai terrorists and turned a blind eye to them, in order to hurt Russia. "Parsing terrorists into good ones and bad ones is a common approach for the West," he said on the Nov. 8 broadcast. "If the terrorist is against Russia, then he's a good terrorist and even a democrat," Kiselyov told his viewers, in just the latest of many inflammatory comments he has thrown as the West on TV.

Veliyeva, the economist, has known the work of terrorists before: She lost an aunt in the September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow that killed hundreds as they slept, a set of attacks blamed on radical Islamists.

"That wasn't an airplane, it was far from being the center of the city, it was one of the suburban neighborhoods," she said. "And suddenly it happened."

Follow Rachel Nielsen on Twitter: @nielsenreporter