March 25, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Russian authorities had specific warning of ISIS attack, opposition media report

Institute for the Study of War

The March 22 Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall is a notable Russian intelligence and law enforcement failure, and explaining currently available open-source evidence does not require any wider and more complicated conspiracy theory either within or against the Russian state. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed during an address on March 25 that “radical Islamists” committed the attack, but immediately and basely accused the United States of trying to cover the “Ukrainian trace” of the attack, directly accusing Ukraine of being the “customer” of the attack. ISW continues to assess that the attack itself, as well as the claim pattern following the attack, is highly consistent with the way IS conducts and claims such incidents and has observed no evidence that Ukraine was involved in the attack. Available open-source evidence indicates that the Crocus City Hall attack was the result of a significant Russian intelligence failure, not a conspiracy initiated by, or targeting, the Russian intelligence apparatus. Russian investigative opposition outlet Dossier Center reported on March 24 that Russian intelligence services were closely monitoring IS-K activities before the March 22 attack and alleged that the Russian Security Council received a warning that IS-K might use Tajik citizens for an attack in Russia a few days before IS-K carried out the attack on Crocus City Hall. Dossier Center and other Russian insider and opposition outlets also noted that Russian law enforcement was very slow in responding to the incident and reported that security officers first arrived at Crocus City Hall an hour after the attack began, despite the fact that the Moscow Special Purpose Mobile Unit (OMON) headquarters is less than three kilometers away from the hall.

Sources familiar with the US intelligence community previously noted that the United States warned Russia about “fairly specific” indicators that IS-K wanted to carry out attacks in Russia, and the US Embassy in Russia issued a warning on March 7 that it was monitoring reports of extremist plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, including concerts, over the proceeding 24 hour period. Putin dismissed the warnings as “provocative statements” on March 19, three days before the attack. The Kremlin’s acknowledgement of the US intelligence warnings prior to the attack shows that the Russian government was aware of US warnings, but likely discounted them. The United States also notably warned Iran about an IS-K attack against Iran ahead of the IS-K attack against Kerman on January 4, 2024, a warning that Iran also apparently disregarded.

Key Takeaways:

  • The March 22 Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall is a notable Russian intelligence and law enforcement failure, and explaining currently available open-source evidence does not require any wider and more complicated conspiracy theory either within or against the Russian state.
  • Kremlin officials’ and Russian ultranationalists’ continued insistence on blaming Ukraine for an attack that IS-K very likely committed may come at the expense of Russian internal security and civilian lives.
  • The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) confirmed that Lieutenant General Esedulla Abachev became the Leningrad Military District (LMD) Deputy Commander as the Russian military continues the formal disbandment of the Western Military District (WMD) and recreation of the LMD and Moscow Military District (MMD).
  • Ukrainian officials stated that the Ukrainian strike on occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on the night of March 23 targeted more Black Sea Fleet (BSF) ships and caused more damage than initially reported.
  • The Kremlin continues to lean on long debunked narratives as part of its wider information operations aimed at discrediting and undermining Western support for Ukraine.
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