Islamic State Escalates Anti-Russian Militant Campaign

Recent Features

Features | Security | Central Asia

Islamic State Escalates Anti-Russian Militant Campaign

The Islamic State organization and its violent progeny, ISKP, have viewed Moscow as their enemy since the group’s inception. 

Islamic State Escalates Anti-Russian Militant Campaign

A Russian Rosguardia (National Guard) servicemen secures an area as a massive blaze is seen over the Crocus City Hall on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 22, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov

After four extremists stormed the Crocus City Hall, a music venue in Krasnogorsk on the outskirts of Moscow, with assault rifles and incendiary devices, the world was shocked as footage emerged of crowds fleeing the scene amid a hail of bullets and bodies. Confirming the carnage as its handiwork, Islamic State media outlets claimed the attack, and shortly after began to release gruesome body camera footage from the event. The video showed the perpetrators slaughtering civilians and, in some cases, mutilating the bodies as they made their way through the building.

For many, the March 22 attack against the concert hall was their first introduction to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). The most deadly terrorist attack against Russia in decades,  the Islamic State organization and its violent progeny, ISKP, have viewed Moscow as their enemy since the group’s inception. Russia has been an official enemy, and was mentioned during Abubakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the Caliphate in 2014 among the “camp of the Jews, the crusaders, their allies” that are “all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews.” Since that time, the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria, its expanded private military company (PMC) operations across large swaths of Africa, strengthening relations with the Taliban, and a litany of other grievances that reach as far back as Russia’s role in shaping the borders of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire have come under its increasing focus. 

Islamic State Declarations Against Russia Before and During the Caliphate

The Islamic State’s grievances with Moscow are built into the foundational doctrine of the organization. The group’s ideological godfather, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, traveled to Afghanistan in 1989 to join the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union. Al-Zarqawi arrived too late to fight but established his first connections with jihadist militants. His legacy of bellicosity lives on to haunt Russia, particularly through the Khorasan branch which has wedded it with former Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s internationalism in violent incitement and external operations.

In 2006, the Islamic State precursor, Mujahidin Shura Council — a front group for Al-Qaida in Iraq — demanded that Russia pull out of Chechnya and claimed the killing of an embassy employee and the abduction of four other Russian nationals. A video released later claimed to show the diplomat’s execution as “revenge for the torture, killing, and expulsion of our brothers and sisters by the infidel Russian government.”

After the formation of the caliphate in 2014, and the consummation of a “rash decision of arrogance” with Russian military activities in Syria in 2015, the Islamic State deemed the Kremlin the leader of the “Crusader East,” which was “blinded by hubris” in its choice to intervene. The group also claimed the bombing of a Russian passenger flight in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and cited the Russian air force’s involvement in Syria as inciting the incident. A total of 224 people were killed in the explosion and subsequent crash. 

The same year also saw the official creation of ISKP, which accused the Taliban in Afghanistan of being a puppet of Iran, China, the United States, and, of course, Russia, in an attempt to delegitimize its standing as the true mujahidin force. Russian nationals once made up a comparatively significant portion of the Islamic State during the Caliphate. The director of the  Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov claimed that by the end of 2015, 2,900 Russian citizens had traveled to join the group. An investigation by Reuters claimed that Russian authorities may have aided some of these departures, as they turned a blind eye to — or directly assisted — radicals looking to leave the country ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.   

In 2015, authorities reported detaining an unspecified number of men trained by the Islamic State in Syria and plotting to attack Moscow’s public transportation system. The FSB said that an improvised explosive device was found in the property they raided, along with 11 pounds of explosives. Likewise, in 2016, the FSB claimed to have arrested seven people for plotting explosive attacks in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Ekaterinburg. Reports claimed that the authorities had uncovered a bomb-making laboratory, as well as an unspecified amount of firearms and grenades

Subsequently, an Islamic State suicide bomber from Kyrgyzstan blew himself up on a subway car in St. Petersburg in April 2017. In 2019, IS militants attacked FSB officers with guns and grenades in Stavropol, detonated explosives in Kolomna, and stabbed a cop in Achkhoi-Martanovsky.

ISKP Turns Sights on Russia

The Islamic State’s Afghanistan-Pakistan branch has framed Taliban and Russian interests as intertwined, which has markedly accelerated significantly after the fall of Kabul in 2021. Despite the resilience of ISKP and frequent local operations, Taliban forces have had a measure of success in combating the Afghanistan-Pakistan-based insurgency. However, during this period, ISKP has greatly expanded its media reach. Publishing in more languages than any other branch since the end of the Caliphate, it uses an expanding network of supporting publications and translation services to disseminate its message to an international audience. ISKP has rolled out Russian, Tajik, and Uzbek media wings to extend its reach and influence throughout the region and within Central Asian diaspora communities. These efforts have aided ISKP’s ability to attract recruits from Central Asia, and — much like it would in Moscow — utilize them in local and international operations.

Both ISKP and the Taliban had already been exchanging blows before the latter’s return to governance, and the Islamic State did not hesitate to quickly condemn the “apostates” in an editorial, stating that “Islam does not pass through the hotels of Qatar nor the embassies of Russia, China, and Iran.”

In 2022, an ISKP suicide bomber rocked the Russian embassy in Kabul. The explosion took the lives of two embassy staff and at least six other people. Using its Amaq News Agency, the Islamic State claimed the attacker as one of their own, gloating in the face of recent reassurances from the Taliban that foreign diplomatic missions were safe in Afghanistan. That same year a fighter allegedly connected to the Islamic State killed a police officer and injured another in Chechnya. Islamic State publications showed images allegedly taken before the attack, showing the perpetrator holding a knife and the Islamic State flag. 

Both ISKP and Islamic State media aimed to dash the Taliban’s ambitions of securing international relations with major global powers, especially Russia, which continued to remain a fixture in the organizations’ propaganda due to its interventions within the Middle East. ISKP had progressively ramped up its criticisms and calls for supporters to conduct attacks against Russia. In a 2022 Eid message, the group directed followers to “cast fear into the hearts of the sons of Putin and Russia” and to “kill them with cars and knives.” In February 2023, ISKP criticized the Taliban’s pursuit of cordial relations with Russia, reminding readers of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the wars in Chechnya, and its ongoing intervention in Syria. ISKP uses this to draw a distinction between themselves, who have “declared war against all the Kufar including Russia and are currently fighting them,” and the Taliban, who are “making secret agreements with the western kuffar and Russia, the murderers of millions of Muslims.”

Within Russia’s borders, threats and reported disruptions of Islamic State plots by law enforcement have been more commonplace in the year leading up to the recent attack outside Moscow. In April 2023, a Tajik citizen with ties to the Islamic State and alleged plans to attack the Russian railway company and large gatherings of people with an improvised explosive device in the Moscow region and Novosibirsk was arrested and found guilty of 21 charges. Purported to be a leader of an Islamic State cell, he recruited other Tajiks to organize the “illegal manufacture, acquisition and storage of explosive devices, firearms and ammunition.” 

Six alleged Islamic State militants were killed after a 15-hour standoff in the Republic of Ingushetia, located within the Northern Caucasus on March 3, 2023. Three members of the security forces were injured and one passerby was killed during the fighting, according to RTVI. Less than a week later, on March 7, two Kazaks allegedly connected to ISKP were killed during a raid by the FSB in the city of Kaluga. The authorities claimed they were preparing to attack a synagogue in Moscow. 

The same day, the U.S. Embassy in Russia issued a warning that “extremists” were planning to “target large gatherings in Moscow” and specifically named concerts. Weeks later this proved prescient, as on March 22, at least 140 people were killed after four militants entered Crocus City Hall shortly before a Russian band was scheduled to play a sold-out show.

Future ISKP Threat to Russia
Many were shocked by the ISKP attack in Russia, asking “why would the Islamic State want to target Russia?” Yet, for some of us, it came as little surprise, as Russia has become a more frequent target of Islamic State propaganda over the past several years. The recent attack was the logical culmination of much of the group’s building ire.

ISKP was quick to capitalize on the momentum from the attack to promise follow-up action, asserting that “broadcasting videos of prisoners being tortured by you has increased the thirst of thousands of brothers for your blood,” adding how “this time we will give such blows that your future generations will remember … you will be massacred together with your children and women.” ISKP’s Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production published another image tying “the Battle for Moscow” to the Islamic State’s global campaign, stating that it is “one battle, one enemy, from the far south in Mozambique to the far north in Russia.” ISKP also jointly republished a threat to the West with pro-Islamic State outlet Al-Battar teasing “after Moscow … who is next?” listing Paris, Rome, London, and Madrid as possible targets. The Islamic State spokesman’s new speech praised ISKP for attacking the “Crusader Americans, the Russians, and the Communist Chinese.”

ISKP has intensified its rhetorical focus on Russia while also perceiving opportunity in Moscow’s intelligence and security resources being spread thin as a consequence of its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, its intervention in Syria, and its PMC operations across Africa. The group has overtly said so, celebrating Russia as bogged down in a bloody war of attrition in what it calls “the Black Hole in Ukraine.” Its Farsi language wing instructed followers to take advantage of the turmoil.

All indications point to a continued and perhaps heightened ISKP threat to Russian interests in South and Central Asia as well as domestically. The branch will continue its efforts to incite supporters to violence and likely direct further external operations. Moscow’s response to the attack and stigmatization of Central Asians will only fuel the sentiments that the Islamic State and ISKP seek to exploit, exacerbating the threat.