The barbarism of the Moscow terror attack

The brutal killing spree at Crocus City Hall has rocked a fragile Russia.

Mary Dejevsky

Topics Politics World

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More than 130 killed, more than 140 injured – that is the grim toll of an attack by gunmen on the Crocus City Hall in the north-western suburbs of Moscow on Friday evening. Responsibility was quickly claimed by an Islamic State affiliate, with the United States endorsing that attribution as credible. The US also made it known that it had warned Russia, via some of the few channels still open between the two countries, of a pending terror attack, although Russia appeared not to have acted on the tip.

For many in Europe, what happened on Friday evening will recall the mass shootings at the Bataclan theatre in Paris in 2015, which left 130 dead and several hundred wounded. In Russia, though, it is more likely to revive memories of the siege at Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre in 2002, when 132 people were killed and more than 700 injured in an attack by Chechen terrorists. The casualty numbers were compounded by the authorities’ botched response, as special forces pumped sleeping gas into the theatre.

This time, President Putin, in a video address the next day, praised the response of the emergency services and of concert-goers who did their best to help. Although, just as with the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, there have since been complaints about the lack of security at the venue, and the absence of bag checks and the like.

The initial explanation – that the attack on the crowded Crocus City Hall was committed by Islamic State, or an offshoot – has raised a whole host of questions. The most obvious being on the precise motive. Early suggestions have ranged from Russia’s continued (small) military presence in Syria to the activities of the Wagner mercenaries (or their post-Wagner successors) in central Africa. Some have even blamed the veto cast by Russia alongside China in the UN Security Council last week against a US ceasefire resolution on the Israel-Hamas war. This was not, although some might perceive it as, a vote against an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Russia’s stance on Israel and Gaza since 7 October has in fact been entirely in sympathy with the Palestinians, so it is hard to see any Islamist attack being motivated by this.

The ISIS division that has since claimed responsibility is ISIS-K (Islamic State – Khorasan Province), which is mostly active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Four suspects were arrested on Saturday, while trying to escape Russia, and have since been charged. All are from Tajikistan – a Central Asian state that was part of the former Soviet Union and is now a big source of migrant labour to Russia. According to Russian reports (which have to be treated with extreme caution, given public pressure to find the culprits and the unsavoury interrogation methods likely to have been applied), all four have confessed. According to Russian media, one admitted to launching the attack for money, although why he might have been paid remained a mystery.

This mystery has led many to look for other explanations and possible perpetrators. Many in Russia have alleged a Ukraine connection. Indeed, Ukraine quickly became the favoured culprit for much of the Russian media. But while Ukrainian agents and special forces have admitted to attacks inside Russia in the past, the evidence for Kyiv’s involvement here does not seem to stack up.

Indiscriminate attacks on civilians have not been Ukraine’s way. Agents have targeted individuals, including pro-war bloggers and the nationalist ideologue, Alexander Dugin, whose daughter, Daria, was killed while driving his car. There have also been acts of sabotage against railway routes and utilities. But nothing like what took place in Crocus City Hall. Any attack like that would undoubtedly precipitate a brutal reprisal. Appreciation of this risk was clearly behind the immediate and categorical denials from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

One possible explanation could tie two different angles. The Moscow theatre attack of 2002 was typical of the ruthless terror attacks mounted by Chechen separatists. These were reverberations of the war being waged at the time in Chechnya itself. Chechen fighters have played a prominent part in the war against Ukraine, and there have been claims that Chechens and members of other ethnic-minority groups in Russia have been disproportionately drafted to fight. Against that, you could argue that Chechens have recent combat experience and suffer from high unemployment levels, making a relatively well-paid military-service contract an attractive proposition. There has also been no word – from Chechen groups or anyone else – that the Crocus City Hall shootings were by way of a protest against, say, Chechen deaths in Ukraine.

The least plausible explanation, it seems to me, is that the attack was a ‘false flag’ operation, set up by the Russian authorities themselves, as a pretext for escalating the war in Ukraine. Those taking this view cite the thwarted apartment bombings of 1999 in Ryazan in central Russia, which they see as a Russian security-services operation designed to be blamed on Chechen separatists and used as a pretext for the Second Chechen War. Whatever the truth of the 1999 events, the tenor of Putin’s address after the shootings at Crocus City Hall does not seem – to me – to bear this out.

Amid all the questions, however, one point can be made with some confidence. Putin may be riding high following his re-election, but his fifth term as president is opening with an attack that calls into question his ability to keep ordinary citizens safe. In a sense, a new war front – a terrorist front – has been opened. Why it has been opened may be less important in the short-term than the effect this could have. Will it, as some argue, encourage people to volunteer to fight for their country? Or might it instead sap national morale? The answer will be of as much interest to the Kremlin as to Ukraine and the outside world.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.

Picture by: Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service.

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Topics Politics World


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