As Russia congratulated its forces for foiling an alleged Islamist plot on Moscow, the discovery of the plan also pointed to the growing security threat before next year’s Winter Olympics.
Monday’s killing of two suspected militants and arrest of a third in a sleepy town near Moscow was quickly followed by the killing of one of the leaders of an Islamist insurgency being waged in Russia’s North Caucasus.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who built his reputation more than a decade ago in a war against rebels in the mainly Muslim region of Chechnya, such successes are an opportunity to promote the image of a strong state and rally personal support.
However, there is also concern at the Kremlin over suspicions that the alleged militants had trained abroad and had been linked to a group in Uzbekistan.
With Moscow already trying to quell the insurgency in the North Caucasus, the fear is of a widening threat from better-trained groups before Russia hosts the Winter Olympics next February in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
A pool of blood and broken glass beneath a shattered second-floor window in the flat which the suspected militants had rented in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, about 85km east of Moscow, were among the few signs of a gunbattle there.
Details were sketchy as to exactly what might have been plotted there or who was involved, with only the official version to go on.
State television kept the story at the top of news bulletins in a sign of the weight being put on the events there. Violence occurs almost daily in the North Caucasus, but trouble involving Islamists close to Moscow has been rare.
The Russian National Anti-Terror Committee raised the possibility that not only had the Russian suspects trained in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but that they could have been linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
“If that is confirmed, it’s a significant change,” said Murad Batal al-Shishani, an independent analyst on Islamist groups in Russia. “If the IMU is targeting Russia, it would mean the number of groups that have Russia in their sights is expanding and is no longer limited to the North Caucasus.”
The Uzbek group — which the US has designated a foreign terrorist organization and which supports establishing Islamic rule in Uzbekistan — is not known to have attempted an attack in Russia.
The three suspects had kept a low profile since renting a flat in March on the upper floor of a modest two-story building in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, neighbors said.
It was not clear why they might have chosen the town of 120,000, but it is beside a good, straight road to the capital.
“I used to say hello to one of them, who looked around 25. I’d see him going out to do the shopping, but I never saw the other two,” said Oleg Smirnov, an unemployed man of 49 who lived in a flat below the suspects. “If I’d have known what they were doing, I’d have shot them myself.”
The committee did not say what the suspects’ target had been or when they planned the attack, but the report of the strange noise, which neighbors suspected was an explosion, may have provided the security services with a break.
Many details of the suspected plot and raid are impossible to verify and one security analyst, who declined to be identified, said reports should always be taken “with a pinch of salt” as they could be exaggerated.
The last big attack in Moscow was a suicide bombing that killed 37 people at Domodedovo Airport in January 2011, but since then, Doku Umarov, the man who claimed responsibility for it, says he has ordered a halt to attacks on civilians in Russia.
Umarov is the leader of the outlawed Caucasus Emirate and Russia’s most-wanted insurgent.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had been kept informed as the security services surrounded the apartment bloc in Orekhovo-Zuyevo.
It was not immediately clear where the suspects came from.
Russia has voiced concerns Islamist violence could spread northward with the withdrawal of most NATO-led combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Russian media cited a name, provided by a source in the law enforcement agencies, which suggested the man in detention was from the North Caucasus.
State-run media have been giving increasing prominence to Moscow’s fight against insurgents as the Olympics approach.
Making the most of any successes against Islamists could help Putin rebuild support after 2011 saw the biggest demonstrations against him in more than a decade of power, although protests have dwindled since then.
In another apparent success for security forces, investigators on Tuesday said they had killed Umarov’s right-hand man, Dzhamaleil Mutaliyev, who the committee says masterminded a bombing in 2010 that killed 18 people.