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Beyond the Carnage: Implications of the ISIL-Claimed Attack in Moscow

by Laura Scotto di Clemente & Onur Sultan

May 17, 2021 | 12 min read



On March 23, a devastating incident unfolded as ISIL launched an attack on the Crocus Show Center in Moscow, claiming the lives of over 133 individuals. After the attack, ISIL circulated a group photo of militants, posing in front of the ISIL flag and shared footage from on-body cameras, to claim responsibility. As is usual, the official ISIL claim made through Amaq media channel did not mention a specific branch name as perpetrator. Still, many analysts suggest ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) as the potential orchestrator.

Remarkably, this attack followed closely on the heels of a foiled plot just 15 days prior. On March 7, Russian authorities announced the elimination of two ISIL Khorasan militants who were allegedly planning an assault on a synagogue in Kaluga, near Moscow. Concurrently, the US Embassy issued a warning on its website, cautioning against potential attacks by extremists in Moscow, advising citizens to avoid crowded areas over the following 48 hours. This was a warning that President Putin dismissed as “open blackmail designed to frighten and destabilize our [Russian] people.” What adds further complexity is the revelation that US officials had privately alerted Russian authorities about the looming threat three days before the attack.

In a televised address after the attack, Putin said: “The perpetrators tried to hide and moved towards Ukraine, where, according to preliminary data, a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the state border.” This effort to pin the attack to Ukraine was accompanied by the release of interrogation videos of captured attackers, shedding light on the logistics of the attacks and the profiles of the perpetrators.  Putin has used and will continue to use the attack as an instrument to rally the Russian society behind himself in the war effort in Ukraine. But a few more questions around the attack need to be answered for greater insight. Against this backdrop, this commentary will try to decipher the implications of the attack from various perspectives, especially on the future of the war in Ukraine.

What is ISKP?

The faction commonly referred to as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) stands as one of the regional branches of ISIL. Originating from eastern Afghanistan in the latter part of 2014, ISKP comprises disaffected members of the Pakistani Taliban alongside local fighters who pledged allegiance to the leader of the Salafi-jihadist organization. Sharing the same ideology of building a transnational caliphate, the group is renowned for its ruthlessness. ISKP’s main rival and enemy is Taliban, which has been target of 75 pc of ISKP attacks since 2022. The main point of contention between Taliban and ISKP is about territorial and the way Taliban implements sharia.

Although initially operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the terrorist group has started to assume greater scope in conducting transnational terror operations. Those include attacks in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and most recently in Kerman, Iran (94 killed). The extremely rigid ideology of the group puts it on the crash course with most Western countries. In face of burning of Quran in the Netherlands and Sweden, ISKP has publicly designated these countries as possible targets in the future.

Why is ISKP targeting Russia?

Warnings of a shift in the ISIL and ISKP focus on Russian territory had been identified for months. Shortly after the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Islamic State’s central propaganda machinery launched a Ukraine-centric media campaign through its weekly al-Naba newsletter, titled “Crusader Against Crusader Wars.” In this campaign, the group celebrated the mutual destruction of its declared adversaries on the European continent, declaring that the conflict was the beginning and prayed  God to intensify the bloodshed and sow discord among the adversaries.

ISKP emerged as a prominent voice on the Russia-Ukraine war as early as during the summer of 2022, leveraging the ongoing conflict to amplify its propaganda message. ISKP sees Russia as a familiar adversary with a history of injustices against Muslims, notably in Afghanistan and the Caucasus region. The group frequently cites Russia’s involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War and its support for regimes like that of Bashar Assad in Syria as evidence of its hostility towards Islam. These historical precedents and Russia’s current actions in Ukraine, make it a compelling target for ISKP propaganda. It is arguable that the group’s propaganda efforts intensified following the onset of the Ukraine conflict, with publications such as Voice of Khurasan magazine glorifying the war as a divine sign. ISKP frames the conflict as a clash between the United States and Russia, both historical enemies of Islam, and celebrates the turmoil engulfing the “peaceful lands of Europe”. In addition to propaganda dissemination, ISKP’s media campaign has been accompanied by real-world actions, such as the suicide bombing targeting the Russian Embassy in Kabul in 2022 that killed at least six people. It seems that by instigating jihadists to attack Russia, the terrorist group seeks to generate momentum and expand its influence, especially amidst the broader challenges faced by the core Islamic State organization in Syria.

There are a few more reasons that might have played a role in selection of Moscow as the target of the attack, rather associated with the internal dynamics of primarily ISIL. Firstly, with the attack, the terrorist organization has certainly reinforced the perception of itself as an ongoing threat to the West. By orchestrating an attack of similar magnitude following its attacks in Kerman, Iran, earlier in January, it manifests its continued operational capabilities and global reach. Secondly, Moscow might have been chosen as a target by ISIL due to its perceived vulnerability compared to other Western nations, coupled with the potential for significant impact on Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine. With ISIL’s ability to carry out operations in the US and Europe severely restricted, targeting Russia could be seen as an opportunity to achieve a notable feat and enhance its own standing within extremist circles, in a propaganda effort to tell other cells  in the region, on the one hand, that the organization is there and supports them, and on the other hand, to remind the West that the ISKP is at its doorstep and can knock or expand more or less nimbly. The attack could be also a revenge against Russia for its support of the Assad regime in Syria and collaboration with Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Finally, the attack might also represent an asymmetric response to Russia’s involvement with armed paramilitary groups like Wagner in the Sahel Region. The Russian paramilitary group Wagner have engaged ISIL forces in conflict zones such as Libya, Mozambique, and Mali. Furthermore, ISIL militants in Syria, notably in Homs and Raqqa, have engaged in numerous battles against Russian regular and irregular forces across various fronts. One significant battleground was Palmyra, where clashes occurred repeatedly from 2015 to 2017.

As regards external factors, it is also highly probable that ISIL has been encouraged or provided possibilities for conducting the attack. Given the timing of the attack shortly after Putin’s contentious reelection, there’s speculation that the perpetrators aimed to undermine Putin’s credibility and disrupt Russia’s internal stability. This suggests a potential nexus between the attack and broader geopolitical agendas aimed at weakening Russia’s leadership and influence.

Does ISKP Constitute a Credible Threat for Europe?

The Moscow attack showed ISKP poses a serious threat for Europe. Security Services, well aware of this fact, have been following ISKP’s activities in and out of the region, especially in the last few years. For instance, in July 2022, Turkish police apprehended Shamil Hukumatov, a Tajik national, who was reportedly using a fake passport acquired in Kyrgyzstan. Hukumatov was identified as a high-ranking ISKP operative involved in fundraising, recruitment, and, per authorities, planning attacks against the Tajikistan government. Similarly, in July 2023, Turkish security forces dismantled an alleged ISKP-linked network led by a Tajik individual, aimed at orchestrating violence targeting churches and the Swedish and Dutch consulates. Additionally, in August 2022, Russian authorities made allegations implicating a Kyrgyz national and an Uzbek in a bombing plot targeting India.

ISKP has demonstrated its ability to mobilize and inspire individuals from Central Asia residing in Europe. In a notable incident, nine individuals were apprehended in Germany and the Netherlands in July, following the establishment of a domestic terrorist group. Among the arrested individuals, six were Tajik citizens, while the others originated from Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. This incident follows a similar case from 2020, where four Tajik nationals, believed to be in communication with ISIL operatives in Afghanistan and Syria, were detained for an alleged plot to target U.S. and NATO military bases in Germany. Additionally, Poland deported one alleged Tajik member of the Islamic State, who entered the country from Belarus, in June.

The indications that ISIL remains vigilant for opportunities to orchestrate new attacks are clear. A recent network apprehended by French and Belgian authorities, allegedly plotting an attack on a concert hall in Brussels, was reportedly connected to ISIL.

On December 23rd, Austrian and German authorities made significant arrests linked to Islamist terrorist cells. These cells were planning to carry out attacks using explosive devices during Christmas services in Cologne, Germany, Vienna, Austria, and Madrid, Spain. Following these arrests, security measures have been heightened at church services across all three countries. Moreover, the reports suggest that the arrested cells had connections to ISKP.

On 26 September, German police arrested suspects accused of planning firearms attack on the Swedish Parliament. According to the Office of the German Federal Prosecutor, the individuals received instructions for the planned attack from an ISIL branch during the summer of 2023. The intended target of this attack was purportedly a retaliatory measure against Quran burnings that occurred in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries around the same time. The two detainees had allegedly made concrete preparations for the terrorist attack, including attempting to procure weapons. Additionally, they extensively researched local conditions in Stockholm, where the attack was intended to take place.

In a statement in response to Moscow attacks, the Belgian Federal Minister of Justice Paul Van Tigchelt said ISKP was the most serious jihadist threat for Belgium. He further clarified ISKP itself was not so much trying to send out people to carry out attacks, but it was more aiming to inspire local sympathizers.

Implications of the Attack and Strategic Foresight

The ISIL attack on the Crocus Show Center in Moscow on March 23 will have far reaching implications. To start with, despite US warning of Russia of an imminent risk and ISIL’s claim of responsibility for the attack, Putin’s accusation of Ukraine and the West for involvement will likely push the war in Ukraine to a new level. Putin’s accusation serves well Putin’s agenda of rallying support within Russia and covering for the incompetence in foiling such attack. But more importantly, the attack has given Russia a pretext to take more ruthless methods in its war against Ukraine. Russia can escalate its military actions against Ukraine, potentially resorting to reckless tactics with little regard for civilian casualties. The erosion of humanitarian norms due to recent Israeli operations in Gaza and lack of leadership among world leaders to stop bloodshed further exacerbates this risk. The delays in receiving Western military aid and depleting arsenals further complicates the situation in Ukraine, hastening such finality. Depending on success, Russia may, expand its objectives beyond mere intensification of the conflict, potentially aiming to capture territories like Kharkiv and to advance towards the Dnieper River.

French President Macron -although rejected by all Allies except for few- suggested that deployment of Western troops to fight Russia on the ground in Ukraine should not be ruled out, since Ukraine simply does not have numbers to match Russian offensives. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s explanation of reasons for Ukraine’s ammunition shortage saying “Capacity and money is not the problem, but political will is” hints it is not only manpower that is problem. In case Russia increases the tempo and intensity of war in Ukraine, neither Europe nor the US will have freedom to put the war in Ukraine aside.

Finally, this attack, along with the additional events we have been witnessed in recent months, turns out to be nothing more than a reconfirmation that the ISKP is trying to reinforce its propaganda strength and fortify its grip on the various cells scattered across European territory. Especially the current war in Gaza and humanitarian drama lived in witness of the world lends power to the propaganda, radicalization, and recruitment of terrorist groups. It is imperative that security authorities across Europe cooperate and share timely information to counter these threats effectively.