By Max Boot

March 23, 2024

The Washington Post

There is some cruel irony in the fact that Russia, which has been the perpetrator of so many terror attacks in recent years from Syria to Ukraine, was itself struck by terrorists on Friday night. Heavily armed marauders attacked Crocus City Hall, a concert venue in Moscow, killing at least 137 people and injuring more than 100.

The Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility, and it soon emerged that U.S. intelligence had warned the Kremlin that Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), the ISIS affiliate based in Afghanistan, was planning an attack in Moscow. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had even told Americans in the capital to avoid concert halls.

Yet Russian dictator Vladimir Putin — focused on imaginary threats from supposed Ukrainian Nazis rather than actual threats from Islamist terrorists — blithely dismissed the prescient U.S. messages. Providing insight into his twisted psyche, Putin earlier this week described the American notification as a “provocative” statement that resembled “outright blackmail and an intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.”

That Putin ignored the U.S. attempt to help — only to have his own security forces fail to prevent the Moscow attack — tells you all you need to know about the nature of his regime. Putin is not interested in serving the Russian people or protecting them from actual threats, and his regime is more adept at repressing peaceful dissidents than violent terrorists.

The Kremlin’s failure to stop an ISIS-K attack comes only a few months after the U.S. intelligence community had provided a similar warning of an ISIS-K attack to Iran — only to have the mullahs also turn a deaf ear to the words of the “Great Satan.” The Islamic State was able to carry out two bombings in Iran on Jan. 3, killing more than 95 people in the town of Kerman, who had gathered to commemorate the death in a U.S. airstrike of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, himself one of the chief organizers of terrorism in the Middle East.

The Iranian regime, like the Russian one, has undoubtedly overdosed on its own propaganda about America as its enemy — and thus refused to lend credence to what this supposed enemy was telling them. It does not require a psychology degree to detect the projection. Neither Vladimir Putin nor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could imagine informing Washington of a terrorist plot in the United States to save the lives of ordinary Americans, so these tyrants cannot imagine Washington trying to save Russian or Iranian lives. They must have imagined that the U.S. warnings were some kind of trap, because they could not conceive of Americans (whom they routinely accuse of convoluted plots against their regimes) being so guileless as to help their enemies.

After the earlier U.S. warning to Iran became public, some Americans, too, were critical of the Biden administration for notifying Tehran. After all, Iranian proxies have been attacking U.S. forces in the Middle East for years. Why not give them a taste of their own medicine? But that is not the way the U.S. intelligence community operates, and we should be glad of that, because Washington draws a distinction between combatants and non-combatants; U.S. enemies ignore such distinctions.

The U.S. intelligence community has a “duty to warn” the victims of impending terrorist attacks, and while such warnings have normally gone out to U.S. citizens and U.S. allies, it makes sense that the Biden administration also warned Moscow and Tehran. Terrorists should be considered under international law as “enemies of mankind,” and all states should have an obligation to hunt them down. Just because Russia and Iran are complicit in terrorism of their own doesn’t mean that America should be complicit in terrorism against Russian or Iranian civilians.

I have to admit that my initial concern, when I first heard about the terror attack in Moscow, was that Ukrainians might have been responsible. I am very glad they were not, because nothing would delegitimize the Ukrainian cause faster than complicity in terrorism. That had previously happened with Chechen militants who lost international support after staging mass-murder attacks in Russia in the early 2000s. (The Russian security services were also accused of carrying out their own bombings of Russian apartment buildings in 1999 and blaming the Chechens.)

But then it was always improbable that Ukrainians would be involved because Ukraine, like America, is a rule-of-law democracy that does its best to minimize the civilian toll from its military actions. The Ukrainians have targeted Russian infrastructure (such as oil refineries) that is being used to support the invasion of Ukraine, but they are not engaging in terror bombing of Russian cities. By contrast, that is precisely what Russia is doing to Ukrainian cities — as Russia has previously terror-bombed civilians in Chechnya and Syria.

Those earlier war crimes are now catching up with Russia, because they helped to convince Islamic State that Russia is its enemy every bit as much as America. As reported in Foreign Policy, in 2022, ISIS-K’s English language magazine proclaimed, “America has been a furious enemy of Islam throughout the last century, and Russia has proven no different.”

That the Islamic State still has the capacity to carry out such attacks — despite an anti-ISIS campaign launched a decade ago by an international coalition including the United States — carries a grim reminder about how hard it is to stamp out any terrorist organization. The United States and its partners, particularly the Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, did manage to destroy the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, but Islamic State’s noxious ideology continues to inspire the fanatics of ISIS-K.

That is a warning that Israel should heed in its current campaign against Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces can break Hamas’s grip over the Gaza Strip, but they can’t eradicate Hamas’s ideology. Indeed, by inflicting so much suffering among Palestinians, the Israeli campaign may only inspire a new generation of militants.

The question now is whether it will be possible to assemble an effective international coalition to address the growing threat from ISIS-K. It would have to include some pretty strange bedfellows: the United States, Russia, Iran and the Taliban. The United States has actually undertaken limited cooperation with the Taliban against ISIS-K; some U.S. Special Operations troops in Afghanistan used to jokingly refer to themselves as the “Taliban Air Force” because they were employing U.S. airpower to support Taliban ground assaults on ISIS-K strongholds.

Based on recent history, however, it seems doubtful that there will be much cooperation between the United States and Russia or Iran, however helpful it would be to those countries. Both regimes are so focused on making America into an enemy to justify their own repressive rule that they cannot afford to be seen working with Washington. They would rather fight imaginary foes than actual terrorists.

The United States, for its part, would have to be careful about exposing intelligence “sources and methods” to such hostile governments. Because the “infidel” regimes are so divided, ISIS-K may find room to expand its international operations — including the chilling possibility that it could target the United States or its allies in the Middle East or Europe.


Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography, he is the author of the forthcoming “Reagan: His Life and Legend.