A Massacre in Moscow

ISIS-Khorasan racks up a butcher’s bill in the Russian capital

by Alexander Ziperovich

In an extraordinarily brutal assault, four gunmen armed with high-capacity assault rifles and a flamethrower stormed a packed concert venue, Crocus City Hall, on the outskirts of Moscow late Friday, slaughtering civilians attending a sold-out show, before setting the venue on fire, resulting in the worst mass casualty event in Russia in decades. Numerous searing videos of the carnage have been emerging showing the four attackers gunning people down at pointblank range in an atrium, before progressing into the concert hall itself. ISIS-Khorasan quickly claimed responsibility for the massacre.

During brutal attack.

As of Saturday afternoon, the death toll stood at 133, with many more injured or missing, and was expected to continue rising. The last terrorist attack in Russia to rival this one, in terms of sheer body count, was the bloody siege at the school in Beslan in 2004, which claimed 334 lives, and led to a major tightening of political freedom in Russia.

By mid Saturday, all four terrorists had apparently been apprehended, along with several accomplices, and videos were circulating of their snap interrogations, with one video showing what appeared to be a Russian security agent cutting off a suspect’s ear and feeding it to him. Strangely, the attackers didn’t fight to the death, and allowed themselves to be captured, in a significant departure from usual ISIS tactics. All four gunmen were said to be from Tajikistan, a former Soviet state that borders Afghanistan.

This attack came only days after Vladimir Putin’s stage-managed reelection victory, and seemed to demonstrate the instability and violence that has plagued Russia since he invaded Ukraine. Likewise, it showed a government so focused on repression at home, and a brutal ongoing invasion of Ukraine abroad, that it was unable to protect or secure its own capital city, a staggering failure for an authoritarian police state obsessed with security. It was a tragedy for the Russian victims, and a humiliation for Putin in the Kremlin, though he quickly spun the attack for maximum benefit, pointing the finger at his enemies in Kyiv.

Blame game
In a televised speech, an aging and weathered Putin spoke of the “barbaric terrorist attack,” comparing it to when the “Nazis once carried out massacres in the occupied territories.” He declared March 24 a day of mourning, and immediately blamed Kyiv for the attack, saying the terrorists had been heading for Ukraine where “according to preliminary data, a window for them to cross was prepared by the Ukrainian side.” He went on to promise fierce retribution, saying that “all perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of this crime will be fairly and unavoidably punished, whoever they are or whoever directs them.”

Kyiv forcefully denied any connection to the attack whatsoever, with Mikhail Podolyak, adviser to Ukraine’s president, writing that Ukraine “certainly has nothing to do with the shooting/explosions” and that “everything in this war will be decided only on the battlefield.” At this point, the U.S. assesses that there’s no evidence that Ukraine was involved, and it would seem to make little sense for Kyiv to author a bloody terrorist attack at a moment when they’re desperately trying to secure continued military assistance from Washington. 

In fact, Putin’s accusation sounds like nonsense. 

Doubly embarrassing is the fact that the U.S. warned the Kremlin, publicly and privately, of the risk of exactly such an attack weeks ago. On March 7, the U.S. Embassy in Russia issued a public advisory warning of a “planned terrorist attack in Moscow — potentially targeting large gatherings, to include concerts.” At the time, Putin swiftly dismissed that warning as mere “provocative statements,” calling it “outright blackmail and an intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.”

Obviously, the American intelligence was spot on, even if Putin appears to have ignored those warnings. Instead of actual terrorists, Putin’s powerful domestic security services have been busy pursuing journalists, political dissidents, and “the LGBT movement,” as announced by Russian state media only hours before the attack. Russia’s domestic security has predictably suffered the consequences of these priorities.

The group that appears to be responsible for the attack, ISIS-K or the Islamic State in Khorasan, claimed responsibility through their media arm, Amaq. The group is an affiliate of the notoriously murderous ISIS organization, based primarily in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran; in recent years, the group has produced plenty of propaganda targeting Putin and Russia, and they’ve clearly become active inside Russia recently. The FSB apparently disrupted an ISIS-K attack on a Moscow synagogue earlier in the month, though it’s unclear why they weren’t able to disrupt this attack, particularly after the American warning.

In any case, this bloody assault amounts to yet another searing indictment of Vladimir Putin’s regime, which has betrayed the security of the Russian people for aggressive war abroad and brutal crackdowns at home. On the morning of this attack, Russia was bombing Ukrainian energy infrastructure at Zaporizhzhia, threatening the functioning of the massive nuclear power plant there, and resulting in the death of at least five people. 

Ominously, Putin seems determined to pin this attack on his victims in Ukraine, despite all evidence to the contrary. The question now seems to be whether the Kremlin will use this episode to escalate its war in Ukraine, or perhaps reevaluate its twisted domestic security priorities. Already, hyper-nationalist Russians are routinely calling for nuclear strikes on Ukraine, even as Russia’s conventional military appears to to have retaken the initiative on the battlefield, albeit at a staggering cost in lives. The idea that Putin would blame Ukraine for this heinous attack suggests his willingness to intensify and perhaps expand what is already a catastrophic war there. 

Alexander Ziperovich is a Political analyst and Opinion columnist. He writes about politics, justice, foreign affairs, and culture, dissecting the larger historical and social context behind important events.