Will Russia Escalate War Efforts On The Eastern Front?

With more than 139 Russians killed and over 100 more injured in the attack (combination of an explosives-led strike) that took place at a popular theatre on the outskirts of Moscow on March 22, experts termed it one of the deadliest terror incidents in Russia since the Beslan school siege of 2004, and the deadliest attack in the capital city since the Nord Ost theatre siege of 2002. According to a former Russian security service official, the four gunmen entered into the Crocus City Hall, almost 20 km from the main Moscow’s city centre, after suppressing the building’s non-armed security staff. The attackers dressed in military camouflage (many termed it as Russian uniforms but it remains unconfirmed) opened fire and reportedly threw explosives inside the concert venue, which was engulfed in flames, resulting in the collapse of the roof. 

As smoke and gun-fire echoed in the theatre, teams of fire brigades reportedly arrived even before police special forces could confirm the whereabouts of the attackers. In the initial hours, police reported presence of all four attackers in the concert hall, but later some unconfirmed reports pointed towards a vehicle chase, with news outlets speculating their escape, resulting in a potential hot pursuit by authorities, culminating in their arrest days later. The Crocus City Hall attack is not only the deadliest terror incident in Russia but also exposes serious vulnerability in Russia’s federal intelligence and security service, and it may have been accredited by the handiwork of Islamist extremist groups (ISKP), or perhaps Islamist factions in the North Caucasian region. Moscow alleging the perpetrators’ potential dash towards Ukrainian front paints an image of a probable cause for the latter to renew its offensives against Ukraine.

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Planned By The Islamic State In Khorasan Province (ISKP)?

By March 23 Russian local time, news outlets reported Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) had taken responsibility for the attack, taking credit via social media. That said, on March 25, the ISKP released a 30-page statement not only glorifying the attack on the concert hall in Moscow but also potentially slamming the Afghan Taliban for maintaining ties with the United States, and Russia, among other Central Asian economies. The statement (which reads more like a confession) was posted on all major social media platforms and was also sent to a few journalists (one of who discussed the matter with us on the promise of anonymity) but did not explicitly take responsibility or reiterated claim over their handiwork, or even described their act with words of exaggeration. Instead, they acutely criticised the Taliban engaged in a contest to prove as a legitimate stakeholder for Afghanistan. From the outset, the sheer claim by ISKP may benefit their propaganda, even grant them some legitimacy as an entity to take on a global power, but pinning ISKP for orchestrating the attack that claimed over 139 lives, needs more evidence.

It is without a doubt that the group has potentially expanded recruitment to all major central Asian economies, and holds Russia accountable for its involvement in Central Asia, blaming Moscow for its counter-IS operations in Syria and Iraq, among other nations. Interestingly, two weeks before the concert hall attack, the US Embassy in Moscow released a security alert on March 7, reporting ‘possible attack by extremists on potential gatherings in the next 48 hours. The alert was issued hours after Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) neutralised perpetrators (affiliated to ISKP), plotting to attack a synagogue. The embassy warning appeared pointed towards another threat emanating from the arrest or perhaps a separate incident unrelated to the synagogue or possibly escalated from the FSB’s operation. Taking note of the aforementioned statement, ethnic based terror factions such as Chechens, and many other North Caucasian Islamists or successionist groups may have orchestrated the attack and simply cannot be ruled out as potential perpetrators, due to continued presence in the region and carrying necessary expertise to conduct a mass casualty incident with sheer barbarism. 

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Escalation On The Eastern Front?

In the critical hours after the incident, many pro-government media outlets such as NTV, pro-government media feeds website such as Meduza or Rybar along with nationalist commentators and bloggers reiterated Moscow’s commitment towards the war efforts in Ukraine, irrespective of who the perpetrators were, in the interest of people of Ukraine, calling upon the Russian government to escalate war efforts as a response to the attack. According to one expert who is monitoring the war, the escalation is visible in terms of rapid mobilisation measures taken by the Kremlin to reinforce different ranks with fresh recruits, prioritising the army and then among other security institutions, including the National Guard.

Will the incident shake up Russian security and intelligence institutions, in the context of bringing a new leadership? Will the attack result in greater devotion of resources to monitor or curb Islamic threats domestically? It is too soon to tell, but the attack certainly reflects security institutions’ inability to monitor threats emanating from the North Caucasus or radicalised youths, who can enter Russia from any central Asian economy with great ease. But with limited resources to potentially conduct a one-time large-scale intelligence-based operation, Moscow could potentially go for effective long-term measure which may not fulfil the ordinary Russians’ call for immediate response, but demonstrative in a way, that results in intelligence-based arrests in the Caucasus, greater engagement with the Taliban (even intelligence sharing) to counter Islamist threat, irrespective of one particular group (in this case ISKP).

It is without a doubt that Moscow will use the flow of emotions and anger gushing in the hearts of ordinary Russians to garner much needed support to the war effort in Ukraine, while targeting islamist factions posing a direct threat to its national security, renewing engagements with potential allies, old and new.

Anant Mishra is a Visiting Fellow at the International Centre for Policing Security at the University of South Wales. Prof (Dr) Christian Kaunert is a Professor of International Security at Dublin City University, Ireland. 

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