We are still haunted by ISIS

The atrocity in Moscow is an all too brutal reminder of the Islamist savagery in our midst.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics World

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It was hardly a surprise when ISIS claimed responsibility for Friday evening’s terror attack in Russia. From the indiscriminate slaughter of nearly 140 people to the target itself – a rock concert – it bore all the grisly hallmarks of the Islamist network. It immediately brought to mind the ISIS attack on the Bataclan theatre in Paris in November 2015, and the suicide bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May 2017.

Although Russian authorities are yet to officially assign responsibility to ISIS, preferring instead to cynically hint at some Ukrainian involvement, it seems pretty clear that ISIS affiliate Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) was behind the atrocity. The four suspects arrested by Russian security forces are all from Tajikistan, which borders the ISIS-K stronghold of Afghanistan. ISIS media channels have since even released body-worn camera footage of the massacre, in an attempt to remove all doubt as to the attack’s provenance.

This horrific attack on people attending a rock concert, just outside one of the most populous cities in Europe, ought to remind us that the Islamist barbarians are still among us. That the threat of ISIS, in particular, persists.

For a while now, it has been tempting to think otherwise, to hope that the threat from ISIS had ebbed. Having emerged from the West-led destruction of Iraq in the late 2000s, ISIS reached the height of its powers in the mid-2010s, when it controlled about a third of war-torn Syria and nearly half of Iraq. It was during this period that ISIS-backed terrorists carried out the terrorist attacks in Paris. But by the end of 2017, a combination of US and Russian firepower, as well as Kurdish fortitude, had seemingly laid much of ISIS to waste. It was successfully expelled from 95 per cent of the territory it had once held. In December 2018, then US president Donald Trump declared ISIS defeated. Three months later, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces appeared to have rooted out the last remnants of ISIS in Baghouz, near the Syria-Iraq border.

It is now brutally clear that this talk of ISIS’s defeat was premature. While it might have been driven from its territorial strongholds in the Middle East, it has lived on and flourished elsewhere. It has continued to serve as a dark inspiration for disaffected Westerners, and as a networked-terror franchise in west Africa and parts of Asia.

Indeed, it is in central Asia that ISIS-K was formed in 2015 by disenchanted members of the Pakistani Taliban. Operating principally in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it has frequently been in conflict with the Taliban, ISIS-K dreams of forming a caliphate in Khorasan, a region that takes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran.

For much of its existence, few outside of Afghanistan paid it too much attention. But that changed in August 2021, after the Taliban toppled the Afghan government. As Western forces rushed to get out of the nation they had occupied for two decades, ISIS-K carried out a suicide bombing at the international airport in Kabul. It killed 13 American soldiers and nearly 170 civilians.

Like many jihadist groups, ISIS-K sets itself against the ‘crusader’ enemies of the West. But it also positions itself against the ‘crusader’ enemy of Russia. It derives this enmity from the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Kremlin’s brutal crushing of the Chechnyan independence movement in the 2000s and Russia’s military interventions against Islamists in Syria and west Africa in the 2010s and 2020s. Moscow’s increasingly friendly relations with the Afghan Taliban, ISIS-K’s arch enemies, have only inflamed the jihadists’ loathing. Furthermore, Russia’s reliance on migrant labour from the central Asian region has given ISIS-K plenty of opportunity to embed operatives within Russia.

Over the past couple of years, it has made its terrorist intentions all too clear. In September 2022, it carried out a suicide attack against the Russian embassy in Kabul, killing two staff members and injuring four others. Earlier this month, it attempted a gun attack on a synagogue in Kaluga, south west of Moscow, which was thwarted by Russian security forces. Yet up until last week, it had failed to deal a significant blow to the Kremlin, certainly on Russian soil.

In fact, after the attack on Kabul airport in 2021, ISIS-K’s most significant terrorist act occurred in Iran. On 4 January this year, it carried out a twin-bombing of a memorial service for Iran’s infamous general, Qassim Soleimani, who had been assassinated by a US drone in 2020. Nearly a hundred people were killed at a service in the city of Kerman, and hundreds more were injured.

Now, however, ISIS-K has a new atrocity to its name, right in the heart of one of its main adversaries. That it managed to wreak such awful devastation, despite the surveillance capabilities of the Russian state, has started to stoke Western fears of ISIS-K’s ability to strike elsewhere in Europe.

ISIS-K has certainly been trying to operate further afield. Last July, security forces in Germany and the Netherlands carried out coordinated arrests targeting seven Tajik, Turkmen and Kyrgyz individuals involved in an ISIS-K network. They were accused of plotting attacks in Germany. There were several other arrests of suspected ISIS-K operatives elsewhere in Germany and Austria towards the end of last year. A senior Western intelligence official told the New York Times this weekend that there could be further dormant cells in Europe.

Western security forces are right to be concerned by the threat posed by ISIS. But while a focus on an imported threat from Pakistan and Afghanistan might make sense in Russia, it is misleading in the context of western Europe. ISIS threatens us principally as a home-grown problem, not as an import from far away. Those most eager to spill blood in European cities have tended to be Western-born, filled with a loathing for their own societies, not jihadists from eastern Afghanistan. It is a barbarism whose source lies as much in the West as in the East.

Still, whether it is home grown or imported, the Islamist threat is as lethal as ever, as the atrocity in Moscow all too brutally attests. We cannot afford to lose sight of this again.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Politics World


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