What We Know About ISIS-K, Alleged Perpetrators of Moscow Concert Hall Massacre
What We Know About ISIS-K, Alleged Perpetrators of Moscow Concert Hall Massacre

By Bill Pan

At least 133 people died in a massacre at a concert hall in Moscow on Friday night in what was the deadliest terror attack on Russian soil in over a decade. Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), a terrorist group based in Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for the carnage.

The ISIS branch claimed responsibility for the massacre in a statement posted on affiliated social media channels, although neither the Kremlin nor Russian security services have officially assigned blame for the attack.

A U.S. intelligence official, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that U.S. intelligence agencies had confirmed that ISIS was responsible for the attack.

Hinting at a potential Ukrainian involvement, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed on Saturday that the attackers have co-conspirators on the Ukrainian side of the border. “They were traveling towards Ukraine where, according to preliminary information, they had a window to cross the border,” he said on Saturday.

While questions remain concerning what the group’s motivations were or whether at all the group was behind the attack, here is what is known about ISIS-K.

Who Is ISIS-K?

Emerging in eastern Afghanistan in late 2014, ISIS-K remains one of the most active terrorist groups that fight under the ISIS banner. It has said it aims to create an Islamic caliphate spanning across West and Central Asia.

Over the past decade, ISIS-K has established a reputation for brutality, sometimes fighting against the Taliban, who now run the country after the United States and its allies withdrew their forces in August 2021. The group’s targets also include Iran, the Islamic Republic dominated by a clerical hierarchy following the Shia school they consider heretics.

In January, nearly 100 people were killed in two explosions at a ceremony in Iran to commemorate commander Qassem Soleimani, who died in a U.S. drone strike four years ago. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack, which was confirmed by U.S. intelligence.

In September 2022, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Russia is one of the few countries to have maintained a diplomatic mission in Kabul after the Taliban takeover. While the Kremlin does not officially recognize the Taliban regime, there have been talks over a potential deal to import Russian oil products in exchange for Afghan minerals.

ISIS-K’s active opposition against Taliban rule also extends to Beijing, which is seeking to forge a closer tie with the new regime in an effort to secure trade routes and access to raw materials critical to its military buildup. In December 2022, ISIS-K bombed a Chinese-owned Kabul hotel that served mostly Chinese nationals.

Amid the chaotic 2021 evacuation, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at Kabul International Airport, claiming the lives of 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghans seeking to flee the country. Last April, the White House told families of the 11 Marines, the sailor, and the soldier killed in the blast that the ISIS-K leader who organized the airport attack was “killed in a Taliban operation.”

On March 7, the top general overseeing the U.S. military operations in the Middle East warned that ISIS-K appears to be gaining momentum toward launching attacks on the soil of Western countries.

“I assess ISIS-Khorasan retains the capability and will to attack U.S. and Western interests abroad in as little as six months and with little to no warning,” said Army Gen. Michael Kurilla, commander of the U.S. Central Command.

At the same time, The U.S. Embassy in Russia issued a warning that an “imminent” terrorist attack would occur in Moscow, telling Americans in the city to avoid crowds, monitor local media, and be aware of their surroundings.

This warning came hours after Russian officials said they successfully prevented an ISIS-K attack targeting a synagogue in the city. The Russian Federal Security Service, the country’s counterintelligence agency, said the terrorists were “preparing to attack the congregants of a synagogue using firearms” and were “neutralized” during a gunfight.

Russia Pursues a Potential Ukrainian Link

In a televised address, Mr. Putin hinted at a potential connection between Friday’s massacre and Ukraine, which has entered its third year in fending off a full-scale Russian invasion.

“I am speaking to you today in connection with the bloody, barbaric terrorist act, the victims of which were dozens of innocent, peaceful people,” Mr. Putin, who recently won a landslide reelection victory, said in his first public remarks since the attack.

“All four perpetrators of the terrorist attack who shot and killed people have been detained. They were traveling towards Ukraine where, according to preliminary information, they had a window to cross the border,” he said.

Ukraine has denied any involvement and has accused the Kremlin of exploiting the attack to whip up domestic support for its war effort.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has denied any involvement.

“Ukraine has never resorted to the use of terrorist methods,” he said in a post on X. “Everything in this war will be decided only on the battlefield.

“There is not the slightest doubt that the events in the Moscow suburbs will contribute to a sharp increase in military propaganda, accelerated militarization, expanded mobilization, and, ultimately, the scaling up of the war,” he said in the post. “And also to justify manifest genocidal strikes against the civilian population of Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s foreign ministry also denied that the country had any involvement and accused Moscow of using the attack to try to build support for its war effort.

“We consider such accusations to be a planned provocation by the Kremlin to further fuel anti-Ukrainian hysteria in Russian society, create conditions for increased mobilization of Russian citizens to participate in the criminal aggression against our country and discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the international community,” the ministry said in a statement.

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