MOSCOW – Russian authorities arrested more than a dozen armed Islamists in Moscow who allegedly belong to a banned offshoot of the al-Qaeda terror network and were preparing suicide strikes.
Riot police raided an apartment building in the pre-dawn hours, detaining 15 radical Islamist suspects who were allegedly plotting violent attacks in Moscow. They were found with numerous weapons, extremist literature and suicide belts.
Those taken into custody were thought to belong to a banned al-Qaeda affiliate group At-Takfir wal-Hijra.
They had financed their operation by “conducting general crime” in and around Moscow, the interior ministry said.
Russian media reported the group’s activities were first detected about five years ago in former Soviet countries.
The group is thought to have several cells linked to al-Qaeda in European and other countries. Russia has been on high alert ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, beginning in February 2014.
Footage aired on Russian national news channels showed helmeted riot police burst into a high-rise apartment in the east of the Russian capital in a pre-dawn raid and throw several men face down on the floor.
Police were shown opening plastic bags holding grenades and pistols as well as a heavy black object identified by one unnamed officer as an explosive belt.
Officials said three homemade bombs, detonators and fuses for making more devices were also found.
At-Takfir Wal-Hijra was banned by Russia’s Supreme Court in 2010 for “inciting inter-ethnic and inter -religious enmity”, Russia’s Interfax news agency reports.
The group has been mentioned in local media reports several times in the recent years as being one of the most active extremist groups in the region.
It shares its name with a militant group founded in Egypt in the 1960s, although it is not clear whether the organisations are linked.
Russia remains on heightened security alert ahead of the February 7-23 Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi that lies near the volatile North Caucasus.
One militant leader who is fighting to establish an Islamist caliphate in Russia’s Caucasus region, Doku Umarov, has called on his followers to use “maximum force” to stop the Games.
Officials in 2011 claimed to have uncovered a complex terror plot against the Games by Islamist rebels who allegedly used little-policed mountain regions of Georgia as their base.
Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has said Russia is “very worried” about security at all its sporting events.
In recent years the conflict between Russian forces and separatists in Chechnya has fuelled attacks by Islamists.
The violence has spread across the North Caucasus, including to mainly-Muslim Ingushetia and Dagestan, killing hundreds of people, among them members of the government and security services.
The number of militant attacks in Moscow itself has dropped since the end of Russia’s second war in Chechnya, BBC reports.
However, the attacks that have taken place have been very serious, such as the suicide bombing at Domodedovo international airport, which killed 37 people in January 2011.
Last month a female suicide bomber from that region detonated a bomb aboard a city bus in Volgograd, not far from Sochi.
At the time, authorities said she was on her way to Moscow but, for unknown reasons, changed her route along the way. Her husband, to claimed to have built her suicide bomb, was later killed in a shootout with police.