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Terror in Moscow: An Ominous Warning to the West

Updated: Apr 23

Vladimir Putin’s first major political crisis, as Russian president, occurred only three months after he was first elected in May 2000. It came when the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk, set out on an exercise for the first time in 10 years. It never came back. It had exploded, as the submariners were loading up a torpedo, leaving all 118 sailors on board dead.

Faced with the imminent fallout of the disaster, Putin spoke to a crowd of bereaved family members who had been left in the dark about the true fate of their loved ones for 10 days, blaming the corrupt elites in Moscow, who he claimed hoarded all the money and controlled the media, were responsible for destroying the army and the navy. These were of course, the same oligarchs that had propelled Putin to power just a few months ago.

This was Putin clearly taking a page out of the populist playbook, taking the blame and anger that the country had and using it to turn against the greed and corruption that had plagued the newly democratic Russia. Any skilled and competent politician is more than adept at spinning his way out of a crisis like Putin did.

Fast forward more than 20 years, on 22 March 2024, the attacks on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall have left over 130 people dead, with over 100 others injured. The Russian government has hinted that the attacks involved some Ukrainian elements, with some commentators going so far as to say that the attacks were fully organised by Ukraine. These accusations were strongly denied by Kyiv, whose military intelligence have sought to shift the blame to Russia, claiming that the attacks were a ‘false flag’ operation organised by the Kremlin, to attach blame to the Ukrainians.

Behind this diplomatic tit-for-tat blame game, a group called ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the barbaric atrocities committed, even going so far as to release an extended video of their gunmen, corroborating their claim that they carried out the attacks. With mounting evidence that suggests these attacks were the work of ISIS-K, it represents the biggest threat to Putin’s regime since Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in August 2023. It also represents an equally strong threat to the west and especially the prevailing discourse over the past few years, around the idea that ISIS has been ‘defeated’.

ISIS-K, or ISIS Khorasan Province, are an offshoot group of the group known as ‘Islamic State’. They were formed in 2014, comprising of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban who now pledged allegiance to the then leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They have been responsible for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks across South and Central Asia, including the attacks outside Kabul airport in 2021, leaving around 175 civilians 13 US soldiers killed. ISIS-K also claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman, leaving nearly 100 people killed in January of this year.

Russia is no stranger to the activities of ISIS-K. In September 2022, the group took responsibility for a suicide attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul. In March of this year, Russia’s Federal Security Service, FSB, announced that it had thwarted a planned attack on a synagogue by the affiliated group.

Moscow’s security apparatus is well aware of the threat that ISIS-K posed to the Russia and the wider Central Asia region before the attacks on Moscow took place. Given their support of both Assad’s regime in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan, it makes them prime targets for ISIS-K, who vehemently oppose both governments. But these attacks also symbolise the naivety of the Putin administration, to have all of their attention, manpower and focus on the war in Ukraine. The FSB did not foresee such an attack from such a group coming, even if US officials in Moscow shared intelligence, warning that Crocus Hall could be targeted some two weeks prior.

Unfortunately for Putin, he cannot rely on laying the blame upon the ‘corrupt elites’ like he did in Kursk, or Ukraine for the security failures that will continue to plague Russia if they do not shift their focus towards combatting ISIS-K. Given that he has eliminated what was his biggest threat to his regime in Yevgeny Prigozhin and got rid of Alexei Navalny too whilst simultaneously making gains in the war on Ukraine, ISIS-K’s brutal assault on the Russian people highlight that there are still cracks to be exploited in Putin’s iron grip on power.

For the west, it is a stark reminder and ominous warning that large scale terror attacks like the events in Moscow, are not far away and pose a significant challenge to the security of our daily lives. Time and time again, we have witnessed our leaders proclaim that they have ‘defeated’ these fanatical organisations, for them to re-emerge as a repackaged and mutated splinter group from what they once were.

Whether it be Al-Qaeda after Osama Bin-Laden was killed in May 2011, or ISIS following Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death, declaring that either group is ‘defeated’ as both President Obama and President Trump did is not helpful and doesn’t tackle the root cause of extremism. There needs to be a huge re-think of western foreign policy towards the Middle East that is less interventionist, whilst maintaining strong relations towards our allies, in order to foster hope and prosperity to the region.

Image: Пресс-служба Губернатора Московской области

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