Analysis | Putin sees Kyiv in Moscow terrorist attack. But ISIS is its own story.

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After a hideous slaughter in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin is still intent on pointing the finger at Kyiv. It’s been five days since Russia experienced its worst terrorist attack in two decades, when a clutch of Islamist gunmen burst into a crowded concert venue in the capital, opened fire and set the hall ablaze, killing at least 139 people. The extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the assault, but Kremlin officials continue to gesture to their more immediate enemy — a Ukrainian government that has resisted Russia’s costly and bloody full-scale invasion for more than two years.

“We know that the crime was committed by radical Islamists,” Putin acknowledged in a televised government meeting Monday evening, before taking an angrier, conspiratorial turn. “We also know that the U.S. via various channels tries to persuade their satellites and other countries that, according to their intel, there is allegedly no Kyiv trace in the Moscow terrorist attack and that it was carried out by members of ISIS.”

Never mind the prevalence of extremist Islamist plots in Russia, nor Putin’s own long history in helping battle and ruthlessly quash Islamist insurgencies at home and abroad. For a regime that has staked much of its credibility and political future on the war in Ukraine, Putin and his Kremlin allies need to keep the domestic focus on the perfidy of the foes next door.

“The question that arises is who benefits from this?” Putin went on to say. “This atrocity may be just a link in a whole series of attempts by those who have been at war with our country since 2014 by the hands of the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime.”

Ukrainian officials angrily dismissed Putin’s casting of blame. “Those hundreds of thousands of Russians who are now killing on Ukrainian land would surely be enough to stop any terrorists,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said over the weekend, suggesting Putin was desperate to gloss over his regime’s security failures. “And if the Russians are ready to silently die in ‘Crocus Halls’” — a reference to the site of the attack — “and not ask any questions to their security and intelligence agencies, then Putin will try to turn such a situation to his personal advantage again.”

U.S. officials extended a warning to Russian authorities two weeks before the attacks, revealing that their intelligence assets suspected a militant strike could be imminent. But Putin publicly scoffed at the advice as “an attempt to frighten and destabilize our society.” The irony, veteran Russia analyst Anatol Lieven noted, is that for all its antipathy for the Kremlin, “Washington never killed a single Russian citizen” over the past three decades. But “over this period,” he added, “Islamist terrorists have killed hundreds of Russian citizens, at Vladikavkaz in 1999, 2008, and 2010; the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in 2002, the Beslan school in 2004, and now again in Moscow.”

The Post’s Joby Warrick explains Islamic State-Khorasan, the hyperviolent ISIS offshoot linked to the recent attack in Moscow. (Video: The Washington Post)

The current moment is unlikely to provoke much soul-searching in the Kremlin. “It’s clear that we will search for Ukrainian fingerprints and possibly those of Western security services,” a Russian academic connected to the Russian security establishment told my colleagues, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Putin’s regime often retaliates against critics. “But probably any investigation will find failures by our security services.”

Russian authorities have seized four suspects implicated in the attack. All are nationals from Tajikistan who were in the country as migrant workers.

The Islamic State is a shadow of what it was a bit less than a decade ago, when its extremist adherents exploited Syria’s civil war to carve out their own rump state in the middle of Iraq and Syria. But though it may have lost its putative “caliphate,” Islamic State offshoots have spread across the world. The faction believed to be behind the Moscow attack is the Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K — the Pakistan and Afghanistan-based branch of the terrorist group. ISIS-K has drawn heavily from migrants and fighters from Central Asia and has long trained its sights on Russia, which is reviled by Islamists for its brutal counterinsurgency in Chechnya and defense of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“ISIS-K appears to have assumed the mantle as chief avenger,” my colleagues Joby Warrick, Robyn Dixon and Souad Mekhennet reported. “In September 2022, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a bomb attack outside the Russian Embassy in Kabul, which killed two employees and three other people. Last year, ISIS-K set up a Tajik-language propaganda network, ramping up efforts to recruit members in autocratic Central Asian states, which the group portrays as Moscow’s puppets. Multiple Telegram channels in Tajik, Uzbek and Russian transmit Islamic State propaganda and glorify Tajik militants who have taken part in attacks in Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.”

Further afield, outfits linked to the Islamic State have claimed responsibility for more than 1,100 attacks that killed or wounded nearly 5,000 people globally in just the past 12 months. It’s a glaring reminder of the reach and continued menace of terrorist group that former president Donald Trump claimed had been wholly defeated in 2019.

The Islamic State “has continued to thrive in other parts of the world, regions that perhaps most people don’t care about too much,” noted Kabir Taneja of the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Indian think tank. That may have made “the threat seem less, lax, or impotent,” he added, but the group’s offshoots “in Afghanistan, the African Sahel, Mozambique, and even continuing in Syria, have been slowly gnawing their way into prominence in these parts of the world.”

Back in Putin’s Russia, the mood seems dark. Many Central Asian migrants have for months been facing police intimidation and the risk of being gang-pressed into joining the war in Ukraine. Their position is all the more precarious after the terrorist attack. “Over the past year, the situation in Russia has been difficult,” a Tajik migrant in Moscow identified as Atovullo told the Eurasianet news website. “Constant [police raids on migrants], they treat you like you’re a criminal. Now it’s impossible to walk down the street, everyone is wary of you, avoiding you. They can just simply evict you, like you’re a dog.”

Kremlin officials have vowed sweeping punishments. Former president Dmitry Medvedev, who is now deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said the detained suspects will probably be executed. “But it is much more important to kill everyone involved. Everyone,” he said. “who paid them, who sympathized with them, who helped them. Kill them all.”

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