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How the Moscow concert hall terror attack may impact Ukraine war

Amid a probe into the terrorist attack, Russia has hinted at a Ukraine connection

How the Moscow concert hall terror attack may impact Ukraine war
[Source photo: BAZA]

Armed assailants stormed the Crocus City Hall on the outskirts of Moscow on Friday, 22 March, unleashing gunfire indiscriminately. 

Of the 137 dead in the attack, some died after smoke inhalation as the terrorists used inflammable liquid to burn the premises down. Such was the intensity of the fire that helicopters poured 160 tonnes of water to douse the flames.

The death toll is likely to go up as there were more than 6,000 music lovers in the hall at the time of the attack.

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSS) announced 14 hours after the attack that 11 people had been arrested, including the four “directly involved.”

It is pertinent to analyze the events leading up to the attack:

7 March

The US embassy in Moscow sends an advisory alerting US citizen to the possibility of terrorist attacks at crowded places. They are specifically advised to avoid concert halls over the coming 48 hours.

18 March 

Russian President Vladimir Putin gets re-elected for a 5th term lasting till 2030.

19 March 

Three days before the attack, in an address to the board of the FSS, Putin dismissed the “provocative statements” from the West about potential attacks in Russia, saying that such warnings “resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.”

22 March

Armed attackers opened fire at the Crocus concert hall and set it on fire, killing at least 137 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for the massacre.

Russia’s response to attack

Putin addressed the nation after the attack and declared a day of national mourning on 24 March. He did not say it in so many words, but he did hint at Ukrainian involvement by mentioning that the arrested suspects were trying to flee to Ukraine.

Influential Russians, meanwhile, have more than hinted that Ukraine was behind the attack. Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s press secretary, in an article in the widely read Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, has argued that Washington was deliberately creating “a bogeyman” to give cover to its “wards” in Kyiv. 

After the attack, the US government said it had shared information with Russian authorities “in accordance with its long standing ‘duty to warn’ policy.” 

The key questions to ponder are: 

  • Who carried out the attacks? 
  • Why did the Russian security system fail? 
  • Why did the advisory from the US Embassy give the impression that the threat was likely to last only for 48 hours? 
  • Who wanted and got the attacks carried out? 
  • What is the attack’s impact on the Ukraine war and Russia-West relations?

The US and the rest of the West have categorically concluded that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carried out the attacks. The Western media had initially said that the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), based and active in Afghanistan and the region, may have carried out the attack. 

The motive is linked to Russia’s previous strikes against Islamic State positions in Syria. A reference was made to earlier ISIS attacks, including the September 2022 suicide bombing of the Russian embassy in Kabul.

In January, the ISKP had claimed responsibility for an attack in Kerman, Iran, where 100 people were killed. The US claimed it had intercepted communications about the impending attack but did not share the intelligence with Tehran.

On the day of the Moscow attack, Amaq, an ISIL affiliated news agency, put out a brief statement on Telegram stating that ISIL was behind the attack. For our purposes at this stage, there is no need to distinguish between ISKP and ISIL.

The latest news is that the four men, originally from Tajikistan, have confessed in court. Moscow’s Basmanny district court identified the four suspects as Dalerdzhon Mirzoyev, 32; Saidakrami Rachabalizoda, 30; Shamsidin Fariduni, 25; and Mukhammadsobir Faizov, 19.

The Islamic State has recruited heavily from Tajikistan, where Muslims account for 90% of the population.

The Tajikistani men charged with the terrorist attack face life imprisonment. They are being held in pre-trial custody until 22 May and reportedly showed signs of severe beatings.

Addressing the issue of security lapse, it is a major failure by the FSS, which previously foiled ISIL terrorist plots. The Western media have drawn attention to Putin’s disregard for the West’s warning, issued on 7 March about an imminent attack within two days, to which Putin responded 12 days later. 

It raises the  question whether ISIL or anyone else spread rumors of an imminent attack to execute it later, exploiting a potential decrease in security vigilance.

It is also possible that ISIL, knowing that the US was intercepting its communications, wanted to deceive by indicating a wrong timing. If the US had reason to suspect that the timing indicated was meant to deceive, was it shared with Russia?

It is also important to bear in mind that those who planned and carried out the attacks might have acted to oblige a third party. To put it bluntly, did Ukraine ask or prompt the ISIL to carry out the attack?

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has denied responsibility,  pointing out that Putin should have used his military to secure Russia rather than attack Ukraine.

Notably, in October 2022, an attack severely damaged the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Russia to Crimea, for which Ukraine claimed responsibility eight months later, in July 2023.    

Whatever be the facts, we might soon see confessions by the four men showing a Ukrainian link. 

Russia, meanwhile, has already intensified raids on Ukraine. Following a formal declaration blaming Ukraineit is rather likely that they will do thispublic support for the war could increase.

The unsettling reality is that security agencies cannot always prevent terrorist attacks. If the terrorists persist, they might occasionally succeed. 

France has raised its security alert level against terrorist attacks. We might see others follow.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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