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Deciphering Russia’s Response to the Jihadi Threat

Apr 2, 2024 | Studies & Reports

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI

Beyond Blame Games: Deciphering Russia’s Response to the Evolving Jihadi Threat

icct -Jihadi terrorism has posed a significant threat to Russia for decades, claiming countless lives and destabilising the Caucasus region. At the same time, the Russian government has a worrying record of instrumentalising the threat so that it fits its pre-existing narrative of a tough response to terrorism. This policy ought to be set against the backdrop of the genuine threat jihadists pose to Russia, especially in the light of the 22nd March attack at the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk outside Moscow. This analysis explores the evolution of jihadi movements in Russia, their motivations for attacking Russia, and the government’s evolving response.

Russia’s history with jihadism 

The first iteration of Russia’s problems with jihadi terrorism concerned the breakaway Chechen Republic. The latter fought two wars to win the independence of Moscow and was eventually subdued in the early 2000s. During the previous decade, however, some of the Chechen militants embraced militant jihad in their fight against Moscow and declared a Caucasus Emirate in 2007. This entity continued a campaign of guerrilla warfare in the North Caucasus and staged a string of spectacular terrorist attacks in the Russian heartland, such as the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis and the 2004 Beslan school massacre. The group later broke apart as many of its members switched allegiance to ISIS and scores of its militants left for Syria. This process was facilitated by the Russian security sector, which was keen to look the other way as “its” jihadists were making their way to ISIS territory.

As it later turned out, the process backfired for Russia as ISIS has actively sought to establish a foothold in the North Caucasus region by trying to establish a wilayat (province) called Kavkaz. Jihadis were further antagonised, firstly, when Russia intervened in support of the Syrian al-Assad regime in 2015, and secondly, through Russia’s growing presence in Sub-Saharan Africa – mainly via the Wagner Group.

Consequently, since 2015, ISIS has been targeting Russia in attacks such as the 2015 Metrojet Flight 9268 bombing, the 2017 Saint Petersburg Metro bombing, and most recently, the Crocus City Hall attack in March 2024. So far in 2024, senior Russian officials have repeated warnings of ISIS militants mustering on the border with Tajikistan. On 9 March 2024, the FSB killed two alleged ISIS militants who were planning a synagogue attack in Kaluga, then detained one man on 20th March for undergoing training for ISIS then during a raid that killed six on 22nd March, and detained over 30 people for being alleged ISIS accomplices.

The Crocus City Hall attack 

ISIS claimed responsibility for the Crocus City Hall attack, bolstering its claim with footage purportedly captured on the attackers’ Go-Pro cameras. While Russian authorities apprehended the alleged perpetrators, official narratives diverged from ISIS’ claim. Russian Telegram channels disseminated videos depicting torture of the captured individuals which, according to some sources in Russia, allegedly yielded confessions pointing to ISIS-Khorasan (IS-KP) as the attack’s culprit. Despite all this, Russia attributed the attack to Ukraine (“Zelensky and his cronies,” in the words of Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia Today). Supposedly, the capture of the perpetrators near Bryansk, a western Russian town, on their way to Ukraine supported this narrative.

The initial Russian response to the Crocus City Hall attack appeared hasty and aimed at assigning blame to Ukraine. This narrative lacked immediate coherence, as President Putin’s address on the matter was delayed for several hours. Furthermore, Russian propaganda promoting the Ukrainian connection only emerged the following day. This delay suggests an internal struggle within Russia regarding the attack’s narrative. Moscow’s reluctance to acknowledge an ISIS operation likely stems from the security lapses such an admission would expose, particularly with the US seemingly warning them in advance. Moreover, it would also validate the earlier warning Russia received from the US about a threat of such an attack which was publicly ridiculed by Vladimir Putin. Conversely, framing the attack within the context of the Ukraine war allows Russia to potentially exploit the tragedy for further  militarisation and potential conscription efforts.

Responding to the terrorist attack  

Interestingly, some Russians diverge from the official narrative. While these embassies avoided mentioning Ukrainian involvement – a claim emphatically denied by Kyiv – they attempted to foster sympathy from Western audiences in countries such as the UK, USA, and Norway. This communication strategy deploys visuals of flower-laying ceremonies at embassies to honour victims, implicitly positioning Russia as a recent target of terrorism and potentially seeking renewed international counter-terrorism cooperation with the EU, UK, and US.

In response, Western countries should not fall for this Russian ruse and limit themselves to expression of sympathy for the victims of the attack and not for Russia itself. Despite the fact that the West is one of the targets, alongside Russia, of ISIS in general and IS-KP in particular, no enhanced counter-terrorism  cooperation with Moscow should be possible in the foreseeable future. As for ISIS, this latest attack, which relied on non-technological means (firearms and arson) to kill as many as possible in closed spaces, indicates their reliance on past but effective attack practices, while their international and national networks indicate its remerging capacity. The organisation also seems to possess a viable network inside Russia, which is capable of staging complex and gory terrorist attacks.

European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI


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