Why did ISIS target Russia?

Observers believe that the attack on Russia could just be the first of many ISIS-K could be preparing, not just in Russia but across Europe.

Nobody seems to doubt anymore that Islamic terrorists were behind the brutal assault on the Crocus City Hall in Moscow on Friday, 22nd March, that killed 139 people and injured scores more. From the outset, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the massacre. The group behind the attack is widely reported to have been the so-called Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), established in Afghanistan in 2015.

In the past year alone, ISIS-K reportedly attempted several terrorist attacks in nine countries across Europe, at least 21 before the one in Russia, including Russia itself. It was also known to have planned attacks in eight counties the previous year.

ISIS-K has been under tremendous pressure from the Afghan Special Forces and American troops before the United States’ full withdrawal from the country in 2021. Although pressure continued under Taliban rule, ISIS-K still managed to grow in strength in recent years, and several thousand fighters are known to be operating in almost each one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Observers believe that the attack on Russia could just be the first of many ISIS-K could be preparing, not just in Russia but across Europe. On multiple occasions, following warnings that the Islamic State was rebuilding itself to resume an international terrorist campaign, several of its operatives have been arrested.

After the attack in Moscow, the United States, along with five other nations, said that, earlier in the month, they had warned that ISIS-K had been planning for attacks in Moscow. The warning on 7th March talked of reports that “extremists” had “imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow” and specifically mentioned concerts. It advised Americans in the city to avoid large gatherings over the coming 48 hours.

However, the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin rejected the warning as being part of an attempt to discredit Russia leading up to the election that gave Putin a further six years in power.

At first, Putin blamed the attack on Ukraine, and even when everything was pointing to the Islamic State as being behind the terrorist attack, he kept saying that Ukraine should shoulder much of the responsibility as it still had a hand in it.

Meanwhile, while charging the four suspects of carrying out the brutal attack on the Moscow concert hall – who are from the Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan but worked in Russia on temporary or expired visas – the Kremlin defended its security services, that have been criticised for failing to prevent the massacre. The Russian govrrnment insinuated, without evidence, that the perpetrators planned to flee to Ukraine. Kyiv vehemently denied involvement and has called the Kremlin’s claims “absurd”.

The four suspected gunmen in the Moscow terror attack have been arraigned in court, showing signs of severe beating and torture.

A renewed threat to the West

Such attacks are a reminder that the threat of terrorism by groups like the Islamic State is now on the rise again, and they pose a renewed threat to the West.

Most probably, to respond to the attack, Putin might try to use violence himself by cracking down on the Muslim minority communities in the country, particularly in the North Caucasus region and beyond.

Observers have been trying to find a reason for ISIS’ attack in Moscow. In particular, they have cited Russia’s long history of crackdowns on Muslim communities in the country and  its military occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. As such, the Islamic State proclaimed their intention of striking Russia. After carrying out several attacks in Russia between 2016 and 2019 – they also had other plots that were somehow disrupted, between 2021 and 2023 – the group seems to have found a selected soft target in the Crocus City Hall assault.

It is also worth noting that, over the past two years, many of the ISIS-K militants arrested across Europe, including in Russia, have been Russian nationals or people from Central Asia with links to Russia.

Most recently, and days before the attack in Moscow, the Russian state news agencies reported that its Federal Security Service (FSB) prevented a planned terrorist attack plotted by an Islamic State cell against one of the Jewish religious institutions in Moscow.

In February, a Russian national accused of having Islamic State links was arrested in Poland and charged with being part of armed groups in the Syrian Arab Republic aimed at committing crimes of a terrorist nature and that, before joining ISIS, the detainee had been a part of Jabhat Al-Nusra and al Qaeda.

Another Russian was detained in Turkey working at a nuclear power plant under construction on the southern coast. He was caught working under a fake identity at the Akkuyu nuclear plant being built by Russian conglomerate Rosatom at Mersin.

The vast majority of successful ISIS-K attacks in recent years have been in Afghanistan, with many targeting the minority Shia Muslim Hazara community. They included a massive suicide bombing outside Kabul Airport in August 2021 that killed around 170 civilians and 13 US military personnel. Also, in Kabul in 2022, ISIS-K bombed the Russian Embassy, killing at least six.

Such attacks are directed at ordinary people who have nothing to do with the politics of policies by the respective governments, who in turn tend to respond with equally brutal reprisals that are likely to lead to cycles of violence

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