Ukraine-loving terrorists?

Karam Said, Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

Karam Said takes stock of the Moscow terrorist attack claimed by IS and its aftermath

Ukraine-loving terrorists


The terrorist attack against a crowded concert hall located in a shopping mall outside Moscow, killing more than 130 people and seriously wounding hundreds of others, raises the question as to what measures the Russian government can take to prevent the recurrence of such an atrocity. The Russian authorities acted swiftly and decisively, apprehending 11 people, including four suspected to have been directly involved in the carnage, according to the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB). However, an IS Telegram posting claiming responsibility for the attack and that its fighters had returned safely, raises concerns about the possibility of further such attacks.

The timing of the incident – the deadliest terrorist attack Russia has experienced in over a decade – has raised further questions. It occurred barely a week after President Vladimir Putin won a new term in office in the 2024 presidential elections, so perhaps IS meant to send a message of defiance, saying that it will continue to operate inside Russian territory despite the president’s pledges to tighten national security.

But the attack also comes at a time when Russian forces have scored some significant strategic breakthroughs in Ukraine, stirring panic in Western capitals which have ratcheted up their rhetoric in support of Kyiv and its military strategies for fending off the Russian military machine.

However, the IS threat is not new. On 5 March, the FSB announced that it had thwarted a planned attack against a synagogue in Moscow that was to be carried out by gunmen affiliated with IS-Khorasan. Two days before that, the National Antiterrorism Committee reported that six alleged IS members were killed in a shoot-out with police in the town of Karabulak in the Russian North Caucasus.

Russian security authorities have recently intensified counterterrorism efforts, especially in the Caucasus which has historically been plagued by various degrees of insurgency. Fighting terrorism both within Russia and in the Russian neighbourhood has long been a component of both foreign and domestic policy, to maintain security and social cohesion at home and economic and political stability in the regional environment. The Caucasus, which is home to six autonomous republics, is of strategic importance for both its energy resources and its location between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

Another significant connection to the concert hall attack may lay further afield, in Syria and Russia’s support for the Syrian regime. Perhaps IS aims to take revenge against Moscow inside Russian territory in retaliation for Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015.  Russia has collaborated with the Syrian army in its war against IS which established a “caliphate” in eastern Syria and set up a franchise, the Islamic State – Caucasus Province (IS-CP), on 23 June 2015. Also, during its heyday in the mid-2010s, IS in Syria recruited numerous Russian nationals, primarily from the Caucasus, into its ranks. According to some estimates, a third of the foreign fighters in IS had Russian citizenship.

In the aftermath of the attack in Moscow, US and the UK revealed that, in early March, their embassies in Moscow had alerted Russia to the possibility of an imminent terrorist attack in the Russian capital. According to the reports, the US and British sources, based on their intelligence, warned Russian authorities that extremists planned to attack large gatherings in Moscow, such as concert venues. This may suggest that IS is planning more attacks. Certainly, the target – the concert hall – is indicative of a considerable degree of skill in bypassing the detection of Russian security agencies and carrying out the terrorist operation. It appears that the attackers were well-trained and familiar enough with the Russian security system to identify and take advantage of its weaknesses. This was evidenced in the concert hall where the gunmen met little resistance before opening fire into the crowd.

There may also exist a specific motive for carrying out more attacks, if this one was staged by IS-CP which had just been dealt a stinging blow by Russian security forces in North Caucasus. More generally, IS may be seeking to strengthen its image and influence in the Caucasus and Russia as a whole, by staging dramatic attacks of this nature to undermine the image of Russian security agencies.

While IS and other terrorist organisations may seek to intensify their operations, taking advantage of Moscow’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine and Western pressures, their plans are unlikely to go smoothly. Russia has a large and formidable security apparatus that can act quickly and carry out strong and well-calibrated responses. President Putin suggested as much in his 23 March address to the Russian people in the aftermath of the attack, when he announced that all the perpetrators had been apprehended and that law enforcement agencies were currently working to identify the accomplices who provided the terrorists with transport, planned escape routes from the crime scene, and prepared caches with weapons and ammunition. He concluded: “No force will be able to sow the poisonous seeds of discord, panic, or disunity in our multi-ethnic society.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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