The View From India | Why did the Islamic State attack Russia?

March 25, 2024 12:20 pm | Updated 03:20 pm IST

Smoke from fire rises above the burning Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident, outside Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2024.

Smoke from fire rises above the burning Crocus City Hall concert venue following a shooting incident, outside Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2024. | Photo Credit:

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The Crocus City Hall is a popular concert hall in the outskirts of Moscow which has the capacity to host thousands of people. On the evening of March 22, a group of masked gunmen entered the hall and opened fire on the unarmed crowd. A fire swept parts of the building after the attackers threw a grenade or other explosives. A day later, authorities confirmed that at least 133 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the attack. The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the Afghanistan-based arm of the Sunni terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Russian officials claimed that the gunmen were natives of Tajikistan, the poorest Central Asian republic. After the physical caliphate of the Islamic State that was spread across the borders of Syria and Iraq was destroyed in 2015-18, several trained IS jihadists, including many from Central Asia, moved to Afghanistan, where they set up an operational base in the eastern Nangarhar province. Ever since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the IS-K has carried out a number of attacks, mainly targeting Afghanistan’s Shia minority. In the Islamic State’s parlance, the IS-Khorasan is a wilayat, a province that covers the geographical area of Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics that were part of the erstwhile Soviet Union. In recent years, the IS-K had released propaganda videos aimed at recruiting Muslim youth from Central Asia.

After Friday’s attack, the IS-K claimed that it was part of “a wider war between the Islamic State and countries fighting Islam”. In January, the jihadist group had carried out a massive suicide attack in Kerman, Iran, targeting a memorial event of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian al-Quds commander who was assassinated by the U.S. in January 2020. Soleimani was in the forefront of the war against the IS in Syria. The IS also sees Russia as a main enemy because the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 was one of the pivotal factors that turned the tides of the Syrian civil war in favour of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In 2017, when the IS seized the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, Wagner, the Russian private military company, fought alongside Syrian troops to liberate the city. Russia has continued to back the Assad regime, whom the IS sees as one of its immediate enemies. The IS was founded in the midst of the Syrian civil war in 2014, and some of the early cities it captured were Raaqa and Deir Ezzour in eastern Syria. It wanted to topple President Assad and capture Damascus, the seat of power of the Umayyad Caliphate that was established in the seventh century. That never materialised.

Today, Russia also supports regimes in West Africa such as Mali, which are fighting different jihadist groups, including an affiliate of the Islamic State. The Kerman attack and the Moscow concert hall shooting suggest that the group is targeting the countries that were/are directly involved in fighting its wilayats—Iran and Russia. The IS also carries out suicide attacks in Syria frequently targeting regime troops. They are using the chaos and resentment in West Asia and Afghanistan to find new recruits and training centres as part of a revival strategy.

The Moscow attack poses a major challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who got elected for a new term just days earlier. One of Mr. Putin’s original promises as he wrote to power in the late 1990s was security. Russia had seen a number of terrorist attacks, mostly by Chechens in the 1990s and early 2000s, and Mr. Putin claimed to have suppressed those terror networks and restored order. But by carrying out the worst attack in years in Russia, the IS challenges Mr. Putin’s security contract with the Russian public at a time when a war is going on in Ukraine. Mr. Putin would like to plug the security loopholes quickly, while the Islamic State would try to use the geopolitical situation in Eurasia to its favour.

Starvation crisis in Gaza

As Israel’s war on Gaza is reaching its sixth month, the Palestinian enclave has become the world’s “largest open-air graveyard”, as the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell put it. The UN has warned that a famine in the tiny strip of land with 2.3 million people is “imminent”. The war has already destroyed much of Gaza and pushed most of the enclave’s population to the southern town of Rafah. According to Gaza’s health authorities, the over five months of Israeli attacks has killed at least 32,000 Palestinians, a vast majority of them women and children. More than 74,000 people have been injured. Gaza lacks enough hospitals, medical professionals, medicines, clean water and other healthcare facilities to treat the wounded. Diseases associated with poor sanitation such as hepatitis A, diarrhoea and other infections are rampant. According to UN agencies, Gaza is now experiencing the most severe hunger crisis anywhere in the world. But the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows that it would continue its military operation until “Hamas is dismantled”.

For a detailed analysis of Gaza’s hunger crisis, see this explainer: How bad is the humanitarian crisis in Gaza?

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