The Kremlin dismissed warnings earlier this month about the terror group. Mark Galeotti, an expert in Russian security affairs, examines the fallout

Mark Galeotti

March 23 2024

The Sunday Times


The shocking terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall music venue outside Moscow, which has already claimed more than 130 lives, looks like the Kremlin’s worst nightmare: a jihadist attack originating from central Asia at the very time that it is focused on Ukraine.

With Vladimir Putin having staked his legitimacy on his role as the tough defender of the Motherland, he needs to respond, but there are no easy options for him.

What happened in Moscow?

As almost 7,000 people gathered on Friday night at Crocus City Hall, a massive venue in Krasnogorsk, a commuter-belt town northwest of Moscow, for a concert by the rock band Picnic, a group of men in camouflage burst into the foyer, indiscriminately firing with assault rifles.

They fanned out across the hall, shooting at fleeing civilians, before using explosives or flammable materials to set the building on fire and escaping into a waiting car. Within 20 minutes they had fled, as security forces and emergency services rushed to the scene.

At least 133 people have died and many of the wounded remain in critical condition. The attack seems to have been carefully planned, with guns and explosives secretly hidden within the venue so that the killers could pass through the metal detectors at the entrances.

Eleven people have been arrested so far: four alleged gunmen and seven others believed to be their associates. The four people arrested are reportedly not Russian citizens. Some of the eleven, if not all, are Tajiks. The accomplices may have worked in cleaning or maintenance at Crocus City, allowing them to stash the weapons in advance.

Who are Isis-K and why would they attack Russia?

The Russian security forces appear to be accepting the claim of responsibility from Islamic State Khorasan (Isis-K), a regional affiliate of the Islamic State (Isis) wider movement. Jihadist terrorist movements have long posed a serious threat to Russia, and Isis-K has taken over from Chechen rebels as the perpetrators of the most serious attacks there, including the bombing of the St Petersburg metro in 2017, which left 15 dead.

Largely based in Afghanistan and central Asia, Isis-K has become increasingly focused on Russia, which it sees as equivalent to the US in its “hatred” for Islam. It cites Russia’s 2015

intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime against, among others, Isis fighters, as well as its support for central Asian governments opposed to Isis.

Although these incidents rarely get much coverage in the West, Isis-K has been behind a series of smaller-scale plots, including an attempt earlier this month to attack a synagogue in the Kaluga region southwest of Moscow. This was foiled by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Why is central Asia a problem?

More than 10 per cent of the Russian population is Muslim, and jihadist movements have come to dominate local insurgencies, especially in the North Caucasus, where unstable republics including Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are squeezed between the Azov and Caspian seas. Al-Qaeda was first to assert its presence, followed by Islamic State. However, the Russians have considerable experience in dealing with the threat from the North Caucasus, from networks of local informants to seasoned analysts. They have much less capacity for addressing threats from central Asia.

Millions work in Russia as permanent residents or temporary labour and while most shun extremism, some have been radicalised, for example the ethnic Uzbek born in Kyrgyzstan who carried out the 2017 St Petersburg bombing.

Many live in closed camps and communities where most people may come from the same village or neighbourhood back home, making it hard for the FSB to place or recruit informants. As a result, the Russians have often had to rely on intelligence from their central Asian counterparts, which is frequently inaccurate or politicised.

A former FSB officer once told me that some dossiers supplied by the MXX, Uzbekistan’s security police, were so garbled that a 53-year-old visiting university professor was nearly arrested in the belief that he was a 20-year-old Isis militant returning from fighting in Afghanistan.

What does the Moscow terror attack mean for Putin?

This is bad news for Putin. Russia is no stranger to terrorism, which has claimed more than 1,300 victims in Putin’s 24 years in power.

The president has sought to legitimise himself in the past by offering Russians an improving standard of living in return for political quiescence and by demonstrating that he was their tough defender.

With the country sliding into stagnation under the pressure of its bloody war in Ukraine, he has had to stake everything on the latter.

Yet while Ukrainian drones now strike at Russian oil refineries, he is also having to deal with the country’s worst terrorist attack in years.

He is likely to feel an impulse to make a dramatic gesture in response — but against whom? There were early comments from some Moscow sources hinting at a direct Ukrainian connection.

Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who has become one of the most toxic and outspoken of Russian commentators, warned that “if it is established that these are terrorists affiliated with the Kyiv regime” then they must be “ruthlessly exterminated”. Conversely, a spokesman for Ukrainian military intelligence called the attack a “deliberate provocation by Putin’s special services”.

Even though the FSB is claiming that terrorists were planning to try to flee the country over the Ukrainian border, the current emphasis in official Russian accounts is very much on the Isis-K dimension.

What could Putin do next?

The likely first response will be a crackdown on suspected central Asian militants and their sympathisers. If past experience is anything to go by, this will be heavy-handed and indiscriminate.

However, this option is fraught with peril. Russia is facing a labour crisis because of the needs of the war economy. Unemployment is at a record low and wages are being forced up by competition for workers. The country needs those central Asians who do many of the jobs Russians do not want for salaries Russians will not accept, and thuggish repression might well persuade many to leave.

It may also anger central Asian governments that are feeling less intimidated by Moscow these days, and whose tolerance is vital for the sanctions-busting “grey market” import of vital goods, from spare parts to microchips.

The attack also forces Putin to take a hard look at his security forces. Time and again, they have failed him and the Russian people, yet Putin has been unwilling to hold them to account. They are crucial for his power base, and figures such as Alexander Bortnikov, the ailing and ageing director of the FSB, are loyal to him in a way their successors may not be.

No security apparatus can prevent all terrorism, but the FSB and other security agencies have undoubtedly been distracted by their focus on Ukraine and may have failed to take full advantage of actionable intelligence.

Did the US warn of a terror attack?

There is much confusion and speculation about quite what the US knew and told the Kremlin. Much has been made on both sides of a terrorism warning issued to US citizens by their embassy in Moscow, but this happened on March 7 — the day when the Kaluga attack was prevented — and only told people to avoid large gatherings for the next 48 hours. At the time, an obviously irritated Putin called this a “provocation”, meant “to intimidate and destabilise our society” on the eve of the elections.

However, American sources have claimed that “since November there has been ‘fairly specific’ intelligence that Isis-K wanted to carry out attacks in Russia”, which had been passed on to Moscow.

The Kremlin has said that the warnings were quite generic, but there is a defensive note to some of the FSB statements that may suggest an internal inquest is already under way.

The ultimate threat

The threat from the North Caucasus remains at a simmering level, with periodic insurgent attacks.  Back in 2022, a Russian security official admitted there was a credible fear that Isis-K may start to work with the remnants of the Isis affiliate there. With 97 per cent of Russia’s operational ground troops committed to the Ukraine war, what happens if it erupts into open rebellion again? Putin may face the tough decision of scaling back his invasion or risk losing the North Caucasus.

As usual when faced with especially intractable dilemmas, Putin at first dropped from view.

Russian TV channels were reportedly told three times to prepare for him to address the nation, only for him to change his mind until mid-afternoon when he finally made a brief appearance.

He again raised the unsubstantiated claim that the terrorists planned to escape the country through the Ukraine border, but there was none of the macho bluster and gangster language of past addresses. Instead, as one Russian watching lamented on social media, “we just got an old man who didn’t know what to say”.


Professor Mark Galeotti is the author of more than 20 books on Russia, most recently Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, published by Bloomsbury