Russia's Gas Poisoning Attack

4 MINS READDec 27, 2005 | 23:10 GMT
An unidentified gas filled a Maxidom home improvement store in St. Petersburg, Russia, at about 11:30 a.m. local time Dec. 26, leaving at least 78 people sick with what has been preliminarily diagnosed as gas poisoning, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said. Devices similar to the one releasing gas at that Maxidom store were found at three other Maxidom stores in St. Petersburg soon after. St. Petersburg Gov. Valentina Matviyenko said the government had ruled out terrorism as a cause for the attack. Matviyenko said it was more likely an act of hooliganism or a crime conducted by a business competitor. Several homemade devices made with small glass vials, wires and timing devices released the gas, police said. Though the government has not released the name of the substance that caused the alleged poisoning, Interfax news agency reports that the gaseous substance was mercaptan, an odiferous substance added to natural gas to make it easier to detect gas leaks. Mercaptan in its raw state is considered a toxin, though when diluted it is a harmless, non-toxic chemical. It contains some sulfur and thus gives off a smell that some say is similar to rotten eggs. In its more concentrated form, the odor is described as nearly unbearable. The gas attacks in St. Petersburg come at a time of heightened alert for Chechen militant attacks, given the recent one-year anniversary of the Beslan school massacre. Additionally, the incident comes shortly after more than 30 people were taken to the hospital with symptoms similar to nerve-gas exposure in the Chechen village of Shelkovskaya; the first symptoms were found Dec. 16 in 12 school children and two teachers, and the cause has not yet been identified. It would be reasonable to think that Chechen militants were behind the Dec. 26 attack. Chechen militants have been suspected of attempting to create weapons of mass destruction. Not only has al Qaeda experimented with sodium cyanide and ricin at camps in Afghanistan, but intelligence sources have said that at least one militant group had run a makeshift ricin lab in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, a haven for international jihadists. Thus, Chechen militants would have access to the training and technology — relatively simple as it is — to use those elements in attacks. Furthermore, St. Petersburg would be an attractive target for Chechen militants, as it is by far the most modern and secure Russian city. Given its sizeable population and the large number of multinational businesses that operate in the city, St. Petersburg should certainly be considered part of the militants' target set. Chechen militants have proven that they can operate beyond Chechnya's borders; though no attacks had been reported in St. Petersburg, militants have launched several attacks in Moscow. However, the Dec. 26 incidents in St. Petersburg probably are not the work of Chechen militants, but rather an extortion attempt by members of organized crime groups or commercial competitors. Throughout December, the Maxidom stores had received letters warning that their business would be disrupted at some time later in the month. The incidents provide an unpleasant reminder of the realities of doing business in Russia. Russian law enforcement now estimates that more than 100,000 members of Russia's more than 8,000 organized crime groups operate throughout the country and around the world. The members come from all socio-economic strata of Russian society, from impoverished youths to the executives of major banks. These groups pose a serious threat to business continuity and operations both inside Russia and abroad. Some businesses report that they spend up to 20 percent of their profits paying these groups to protect them from threatened punishments. Additionally, it is common to see some businesses hire organized crime groups to blackmail or intimidate their competitors. To further complicate matters, Russian law enforcement services have been infiltrated by some Russian organized crime groups, leading to lax enforcement or non-enforcement of laws already in place. In addition to the problem of organized crime, the practice of undermining competitors is engrained in the Russian system as part of the business process. Incidents of arson, vandalism, assault, drive-by shootings and hired thuggery meant to intimidate competitors are commonplace. That said, St. Petersburg is typically considered safer from such activity than other Russian urban centers. Though the Dec. 26 incidents do not indicate a significant shift in the security threat to businesses operating in Russia, they do provide a reminder that vigilance in such an uncertain environment is critical to business continuity.

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