The Kremlin continues to talk about Ukraine's involvement, even though ISIS claimed responsibility immediately after the attack. What do experts on jihadism say?

A wooden cross and flowers lie on the ground in front of a building

Flowers in mourning in front of the Crocus Town Hall after the attack in the Moscow suburb of Krasnogorsk Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Even three weeks after the attack on the Crocus Town Hall near Moscow, the background is still unclear. The headquarters of the Islamic State (IS) assumed responsibility on March 22, the day of the attack. But a second statement from its Amaq media department the next day was so lacking in detail that many experts doubted its authorship.

Between 2017 and 2019, IS headquarters lost the territory it controlled in Syria and Iraq and has been operating clandestinely ever since. Danish jihadism expert Tore Hamming suspects it is somewhere in the border area between Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey. Suspicions for the March 22 attack are directed at one of the group's so-called provinces, which operate relatively autonomously in their respective regions.

Until then, a separate Caucasus province was “responsible” for Russia in IS, but this time it is the IS Khorasan Province (ISKP), which is active mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khorasan is the name of the Iranian-speaking areas of Central Asia.

Three days after the attack, ISKP distributed a 30-page online pamphlet through its own al-Azaim media wing. It also does not contain any details about the Moscow attack. This is “celebrated” in detail, Afghan IS expert Abdul Sayed, who works in Sweden, tells Taz, but avoids a direct confession.

Writing is close to confession.

However, that doesn't mean the group wasn't involved, Sayed said. The pamphlet describes the attack as revenge for the deaths of IS fighters in Russian attacks in Syria. Russia supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran. The regimes in Iran and Syria are dominated by Shiites, whom ISIS considers renegade Muslims.

The letter also criticizes the Taliban who rule Afghanistan for their close ties to Russia and mocks them for failing to fulfill their commitment to the United States to prevent terrorist attacks abroad from their country. This comes very close to acknowledging the Moscow attack. The American secret services also see the ISKP behind the crime.

The four alleged perpetrators, who were brought to court by the Russian authorities with evidence of serious ill-treatment, and other detained accomplices, are citizens of Tajikistan who were guest workers in Russia. So far no one in the expert community doubts that the four are identical to the perpetrators.

Furthermore, IS has now admitted that the real attackers were captured “after being surrounded in a forest.” This corresponds to Russian information. A Tajik contact who watched video footage of the attack distributed by terrorists via body camera confirmed to taz that they were speaking in the dialect of the country's capital, Dushanbe.

Residual doubts remain

However, residual doubts remain. Washington-based Central Asia expert Bakhti Nishanov posted one on the X short message service. Announcement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan the day after the attack, according to which two of those accused by Russia had been in Tajikistan since November.

However, Dushanbe has since remained silent on this matter. The authorities of the country, which is largely dependent on Russia, cooperate with Moscow. Nine more suspects said to be linked to the Moscow attack were arrested in late March, according to an official Russian news agency.

51 percent of Tajikistan's gross national product comes from remittances from migrant workers; It is estimated that at least 1.5 million Tajiks live in Russia. Many have now adopted Russian citizenship, but often face discrimination there. Therefore, some may be vulnerable to online jihadist recruitment.

Tajik attack suspects also lead to ISKP trail. The group, founded in 2015, was initially joined by Afghan Taliban commanders who had become radicalized, especially in Guantánamo. After their release, they rejected their leaders' negotiations with the United States. Almost all of them have been killed in NATO airstrikes. What was left was the ISKP in eastern Afghanistan, near Pakistan.

There was an influx of Pakistani Taliban and members of other anti-Shiite terrorist groups. Many of them are believed to have been infiltrated, although not controlled, by the Pakistani secret service. ISKP also attacks in Pakistan. In July 2023, 44 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the Badschaur district in one of the largest attacks there in recent times.

Since 2020, the group is led by 29-year-old Afghan Tajik Sanaullah Ghafari. It is said to be located in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Several separatist and terrorist groups operate there, including the Iranian Jaish ul-Adl (Justice Army). Iran blames it for two attacks earlier this year. However, it is unclear whether Jaish ul-Adl and the ISKP are cooperating.

The Taliban have weakened the ISKP

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have been repressing ISKP and the Salafist milieu from which they recruit since coming to power in August 2021 and have significantly weakened the terrorist group. This is why many experts suspect that ISKP evades attacks abroad and specifically recruits Central Asians for this purpose. Recently, it has increasingly distributed jihadist material online in Tajik.

Already in Syria, according to Central Asia expert Edward Lemon, of the Oxus Society research network, Tajiks constitute the third largest group of IS, measured in terms of population of the countries of origin.

The 2015 terrorist attacks at the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France in Paris demonstrated that IS carries out attacks abroad with the help of radicalized locals. Tajiks influenced by IS also appear to have participated in the preparation of attacks in Germany: in July this year and in December corresponding arrests were made on suspicion of plots to attack the Cologne Cathedral.

Following the dismantling of IS's territorial state in Syria and Iraq, its headquarters is now interested in being seen as the mastermind of attacks like the one in Moscow and as a powerful jihadist actor.

To this end, it created the “General Directorate of Provinces” in 2015, which is now responsible worldwide for all planning and execution of “foreign operations” and for raising money for the regional branches of IS and lone fighters. according to jihadism expert Hamming. This could explain the reluctance of ISKP media to directly claim responsibility for the Moscow attack.

ISKP claimed responsibility for two attacks in January

BBC jihadism expert Mina al-Lami noted that ISKP had not claimed responsibility for two attacks in January: on the funeral of a Revolutionary Guard general in Kerman, Iran, which left 95 dead, and on a church. In Estambul. , where a man was shot. According to IS expert Abdul Sayed, the attacks in Moscow and Kerman are not attributed to ISKP even in an IS statement on the occasion of the upcoming 10th anniversary of the proclamation of the caliphate in June.

However, says Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Center on Armed Groups research group with many years of experience in Afghanistan, it is still necessary to differentiate between ISKP's actions abroad and in the region of origin. Attacks abroad are not planned or carried out by members in Afghanistan: they are “busy with the Taliban.” This is also demonstrated by an attack in Kandahar that took place a day before the attack in Moscow, in which an IS suicide bomber killed 21 people and injured more than 50.

“We will see more Central Asian jihadists abroad,” Jackson said. “We have a solid analysis of ISKP in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” she adds. But, Jackson asks, “what do we really know beyond its footprint” and about how ISKP and Central Asians interact.

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