Emergency workers clear rubble at the Crocus City Hall concert venue in Moscow after the deadly attack on March 22, 2024.

Moscow Attack Shows Troubling, Lethal Reach of ISIS

The mass casualty theater attack in Moscow was a reminder that affiliates of the Islamic State have reorganized and infiltrated even powerful states.

Is it plausible that ISIS has the capability to mount such an attack?

Absolutely. ISIS has staged over half-a-dozen attacks in Russia since 2016. The movement has long deemed Russia as much of an enemy of the Muslim people as the United States. In taking responsibility for the March 22 attack, ISIS credibly claimed “let crusader Russia and its allies know that the mujahideen do not forget to take revenge.”

In its founding-leader’s first speech following the declaration of the Islamic State’s caliphate in July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi singled out for attack “Jews, the crusaders, [and] their allies” and referred to them “being led by America and Russia and being mobilized by the Jews.” So, motive and intention are clear. In terms of capability, ISIS clearly already had an established presence in Russia given the arrests of twenty ISIS operatives there in the past year alone.

Russia had recently reported foiling an attack in Moscow by the ISIS Afghan affiliate. Does that group have ability to plan and mount attacks outside of Afghanistan?

Yes. In testimony before Congress a year ago, U.S. Army General Michael Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, warned that ISIS-Khorasan, the branch believed to have been responsible for the Moscow concert attack, could execute “external operations against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months with little or no warning.” In January 2023 the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Christine Abizaid, told congress that ISIS-K was the “threat actor I am most concerned about. We see concerning indications of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan and its ambition that might go beyond that immediate territory.”

The group’s ability to strike in even heavily secured environments was demonstrated this past January when dual suicide bombings killed 84 persons in Kerman, Iran, during ceremonies commemorating the fourth anniversary of the killing of Qassem Soleiman, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force commander. As with the latest incident in Moscow, the United States had warned Iran, as had Russia, of what was believed to be an impending terrorist attack.

How is ISIS organized these days?

A 2023 United Nations Monitoring Team report explained how ISIS-K had adopted a network-based system in place of its previous top-down structure. This is believed to have given the group additional flexibility as well as the capability to “fend off attack as part of a five-year plan with short-term and long-term objectives.” The number of ISIS-K fighters was estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 persons hailing not only from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also from Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey and, most importantly in the context of the Moscow concert attack, from Russia and several Central Asian countries. The presence of Russian fighters within its ranks since at least 2017, and the knowledge and operational access they bring, have likely enhanced ISIS-K’s ability for some of them to operate in their native country.
Why didn’t Russia heed the recent terrorism warning from U.S. officials?

The United States earlier this month had warned Russia that “extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow.” No more specific information as to the target, the timing, or the type of attack was provided—at least according to published reports. Accordingly, the warning was bereft of the “actionable intelligence” that might have enabled Russian authorities to implement effective security measures.

Nonetheless, this again underscores the advantage of shock and surprise that terrorists possess against their state opponents. Terrorists can conceivably attack anywhere, at any time of their choosing, using whatever tactics and weapons they possess. It is impossible for governments, even with suitable advance warning, to defend every target, everywhere across a city much less a country from every possible type of attack.

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