Terrorist Attack on Concert Hall Threatens to Stoke Tensions in North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 47

(Source: RBC)

Executive Summary:

  • The Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s claim of responsibility for the attack on Crocus City Hall outside of Moscow, has led the Kremlin to stoke Islamophobic sentiments throughout Russia.
  • Representatives of Russia’s Muslim minority warn fellow Muslims that the attack may lead to increased societal violence against religious minorities in the country.
  • Should Moscow’s repressive efforts disproportionately target Muslims within Russia, those actions may trigger violence in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. 

On March 22, gunmen stormed a concert venue in the city of Krasnogorsk near Moscow, killing scores of civilians. As of March 25, Russian authorities confirmed that 139 people had died and that 182 were injured. Most victims appear to have died in the fire that was started by explosive charges set before and during the attack (Argumenty i Fakty, March 25). A regional branch of the Islamic State—the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP)—has claimed responsibility for the assault (RBC, March 23). Russian authorities quickly detained the four suspected perpetrators from Tajikistan and publicized their violent interrogations (Lenta, March 26). WarGonzo, a Telegram-based news agency with ties to the Russian government, alleged that all four men had been trained in Istanbul, Türkiye (Telegram/WarGonzo, March 25). The Kremlin’s reaction to the attack has heightened fears among Russia’s Muslim minority, particularly in the North Caucasus, that its members may become victims of societal violence stoked by Moscow’s bombastic propaganda.  

The suspected perpetrators of the attack were viciously tortured, and the Russian security services made images of their injuries publicly available (Fontanka, March 24). Their appearance in court left little doubt that the suspects had undergone extremely harsh treatment. These methods hearken back to Stalinist practices and question the legitimacy of the suspects’ confessions. Observers also point out that the presumed reward for the attackers was only about 500,000 rubles ($5,400), a suspiciously low amount for such a sophisticated attack. Additionally, the gunmen changed neither their appearance nor their car after they fled the crime scene, reportedly headed toward Belarus, which also casts suspicion on the attackers’ true intentions (Telegram/Mozhem Obyasnit, March 25).

The creation of ISKP, the presumed group behind the attack, dates back to 2014 and 2015. Since then, the group has become more well-known in Russia, Central Asia, and beyond (see Terrorism Monitor, May 6, 2022, April 14, 2023). In 2022, the counterterrorist arm of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) published a report portraying ISKP as a potent extremist organization with a significant media presence and expanded recruitment activities. The organization exceedingly strengthened in 2021 after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal. Subsequently, ISKP criticized the Taliban for cooperation with Iran, Pakistan, Russia, the United States, and China, as well as international organizations and other neighboring states (Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of SCO, August 30, 2022). ISKP has labeled Russia as a state that “oppresses Muslims” and has claimed that its expanded activity in Central Asia seeks to free the “puppets of the Russian Empire” (Meduza, March 25).

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted reports that radical Islamists carried out the attack on Crocus City Hall while implying that Ukraine and the West played a part (see EDM, March 26). He alleged that “those who have been at war with our country since 2014 with the hands of the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime” provided a “window” for the attack. Putin also expressed doubts that radical Islamists would attack his country in this way, given Moscow’s policies in the Middle East and the ongoing holy month of Ramadan (Kremlin, March 25). Aleksandr Bortnikov, director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), reiterated the Ukrainian connection, saying he saw “the Ukrainian trace” in the attack but providing no other details (RIA Novosti, March 26). Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev also expressed his conviction that Ukraine was complicit in the attack (TASS, March 26). In response to these accusations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied Ukrainian involvement and reminded the global community about the history of terrorist attacks in Russia and Moscow’s ongoing invasion (UNIAN, March 23).

Backlash against those Russians seen as “celebrating” the attack started almost immediately. For example, an investigation has been launched against Nikolai Konashenk of St. Petersburg for his inflammatory social media posts about the terrorist attack. He reportedly asked, “Why ‘Crocus’ and not the Kremlin?” Konashenk faces up to seven years in prison for “justification of terrorism” under Russian law (Mediazona, March 26).

Representatives of the Muslim minority in North Caucasus and elsewhere within the Russian Federation responded warily to the attack. Grand Mufti of Crimea Ayder Rustemov stated that the terrorist attack has increased Islamophobic sentiments among Russians and that Muslims in the country should be afraid (UNIAN, March 26). Rustemov’s words echo those of Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. In the wake of the attack, he warned that under no circumstances should persecution of individuals on an ethnic or religious basis be allowed. Such a development, Kadyrov warned, would play right into the hands of Russia’s foreign enemies. He pointed out that there are already some people in Russia “who play on people’s feelings and call for fascist methods.” The Chechen leader vowed to combat Russian nationalism using harsh methods if necessary (Telegram/Kadyrov_95, March 23).

Regarding Central Asia, some commentators observe that Moscow cannot afford to sever relations with Tajikistan or other countries of the region despite the rise of xenophobia in Russia. The Kremlin’s economic and political isolation as a result of Western sanctions precludes it from making any rushed moves against regional partners that Russia now disproportionately depends on (YouTube.com, March 26).

The North Caucasus has traditionally been the hotbed of insurgency in Russia. However, the last terrorist attack against civilians in the region dates back to 2018. For now, experts estimate the likelihood of resurgent Islamist forces in the region to be low, though they do not rule it out. (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 25). Despite such pronouncements, the region still has explosive potential. For example, on March 3, the Russian security services killed six alleged rebels in Karabulak, Ingushetia (see EDM, March 7). The authorities quickly followed up with arrests of individuals related to the group (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 26). If such operations proliferate following the Crocus City Hall attack, the chance for a renewal of violent Islamist activity in the North Caucasus will only grow.

The terrorist attack in Krasnogorsk is likely to increase social conflict in Russia, especially regarding violence against religious minority groups. Signals from the Kremlin indicate that Moscow will use the attack to restrict civil liberties and mobilize the population, and the economy against Ukraine. Should these efforts disproportionately target Russia’s Muslim minority, those actions may precipitate an explosion of violence in the North Caucasus and elsewhere.