The detentions, broadcast recently on one of Russia’s most-watched news programs, are designed to show law enforcement’s resolve. The arrests were of two men suspected in the terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg last month.
They give the public a name for a new enemy in Russia’s struggle against domestic terrorism: migrant workers from Central Asia.
The Azimovs are part of a group of about 20 suspects who have been rounded up in what Russian law enforcement authorities say is an aggressive pursuit of Islamist extremists involved in the bombing.
Last month, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, said agents had thwarted 16 terrorist attacks across Russia in 2016, most of which involved migrants from other former Soviet republics.
“They are treated like second-class humans in Russia,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch.
As the “Caliphate” crumbles and the Islamist militants return from the Middle East, the concern in Moscow is that they will travel to Russia to infiltrate the large population of Muslim economic migrants from Central Asia – between 2.7 million and 4.2 million people, according to a 2016 study published by the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Citizens of Kyrgyzstan – the home country of the Azimovs and Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, the suspected suicide bomber in the St. Petersburg attack – can travel to Russia without a visa, as can those from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Central Asian migrants, who come to fill the low-paying jobs that Russians often refuse, become vulnerable to Islamist militant propaganda because of their “Rather difficult social-economic position” in Russia, said Andrei Kazantsev, a specialist on Central Asia and a member of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow think tank.
They refer to Russia’s response to militancy in the North Caucasus region along the country’s southern border.
There, federal forces fought two civil wars in Russia’s semiautonomous republic of Chechnya.
Arkady Dubnov, an independent Central Asia analyst based in Moscow, said that authorities are clearly “Hurrying to prove the Central Asian connection” to the St. Petersburg attack, which is stoking “Fear of migrants among the Russian population.” He said authorities had provided little evidence of the suspects’ terrorist links, other than “Fake details of an investigation and staged arrests.”
In an interview in their home in Jalal-Abad, the Azimovs’ youngest brother, Bilal, said that “Everyone in Russia knows” that the arrests were “a setup, theater.”
Russia’s FSB did not respond to a request for comment.
One Kyrgyz news site has reported that Abu Salah ordered the St. Petersburg bombing, although the SITE Intelligence Group, a private company that monitors terrorist organizations, reported last month that a group called the Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility for the attack.
Until now, the economic rewards of working in Russia, even in lower-paying jobs, were worth enduring the second-class treatment faced by many migrants.
According to the 2016 study in Russia in Global Affairs, 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product came in the form of remittances from Russia.
The news of arrests after the St. Petersburg attack has changed some people’s minds, Karimova said.
“They seem lost, saying, ‘There is no point for us to go to Russia now,’ ” she said.