Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Who will Putin blame for the terror attack?

The burnt out Crocus City Hall concert hall targeted in a terrorist attack last night (Credit: Getty images)

A branch of the Islamic State terror group, Isis-K, has claimed responsibility for last night’s stadium terror attack in Moscow. US officials, who had warned of such an attack two weeks ago have said this sounded credible. But the Kremlin has not accepted the Isis-K claim and says it’s looking at all explanations – even (as some Russian journalists are advocating) that the attack was organised by the Ukrainians. Putin himself has hinted at this, saying the FSB had apprehended men on their way to the Ukrainian border.

As I reported last night, western intelligence warned the Kremlin of a likely terrorist attack on Russian soil earlier this month. The West is, by now, adept at keeping an eye on Isis and its globetrotting jihadists which is why the US, Latvia, Canada, Sweden and Germany all issued public warnings to their citizens in Russia that such an attack might be likely. Only on Tuesday, Putin dismissed these warnings as ‘outright blackmail’ whose aim was not to protect Russian civilians but ‘to intimidate and destabilise our society’.

We can now expect the Kremlin to deflect; Ukraine has already been dragged into the fallout

For any leader to fail to act on a credible terror-related intelligence tip is bad. To angrily reject what turns out to be an accurate tip would be career-ending in a democracy. In Russia, the freshly ‘re-elected’ Putin has no challenge to his position but is still stuck for who to criticise. So what has the debate been like so far?

The Russian intelligence service has at least acknowledged that their American counterparts passed along warnings of an attack, the information was ‘of a general nature, without specifics’, according to the Russia state media agency TASS. The US has said that an attack was likely, and singled out music concerts as a likely target. There was no date or location but Putin’s critics (most of whom now exist in exile and are active on social media) can ask why security was not increased. And indeed, given that the Kremlin has angrily decreed that these Western tip offs were fake news, whether security was likely to be increased. 

For his part, the newly-elected MP for Rochdale George Galloway has been promoting the idea that “the Biden regime”, not Isis, was behind the attack. He’s not alone with such conspiracy theories. In the Russian-language social media posts – which is the closest there is in Russia to national discussion – Pro-Kremlin talking heads have already started to disparage the US version of events.

The journalist and former Putin advisor Sergei Markov has been fuelling the conspiracy theorists by declaring that ‘the CIA lies all the time’. Margarita Simonyan, the sulphurous editor-in -chief of the state-controlled broadcaster RT, has gone a step further, saying on Telegram:

‘This was not Isis. This was the Ukrainians. And the fact that, even before any arrests, before faces or names were known, the western intelligence services took it upon themselves to convince everyone that it was Isis. It just exposes their guilty consciences.’

We can now expect the Kremlin to deflect; Ukraine has already been dragged into the fallout. Overnight, the Russian authorities detained two suspects in a car a few miles from the border with Belarus and Ukraine. The FSB, Russia’s security service and successor to the KGB, is claiming that the suspects ‘had relevant contacts on the Ukrainian side’.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has angrily rejected US assurances that Kyiv had no hand in the attack. Unless Washington had proof they were willing to share with Russia, they didn’t have the right to ‘indulge’ Kyiv in that way. 

The branch of Isis that has claimed responsibility for last night’s horror is based in Afghanistan and has long targeted Russia, claiming responsibility for a bomb that killed six at the Russian Embassy in Kabul in 2022. Counterterrorism analysts have asserted that the branch has repeatedly accused the Kremlin of ‘having Muslim blood in its hands’. In their tirades they have referenced Moscow’s decade-long occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, the two wars waged against Chechnya between 1994 and 2009 aimed at squashing any idea of separatism in the Muslim republic, and helping Bashar Assad repress the Islamist uprising in Syria sinec 2015. Isis have claimed responsibility for other attacks in Russia such as the 2017 bombing on the St Petersburg metro which claimed the lives of 14 victims, as well as several other smaller incidents in 2019, in which just one victim lost their life.

Some 115 people are now feared dead in the attack with many more still in hospital receiving treatment. One of the members of the rock band Picnic, who were due to perform at Crocus City Hall last night, is reportedly amongst the missing. The enormous blaze that engulfed the music venue took the whole night to extinguish and has reduced the building to a burnt-out shell. Russian social media is full of eyewitness accounts circulating on Telegram, groups of bodies have been found in some of the venue’s toilets and emergency stairwells. Queues of Muscovites have rushed to donate blood forming outside donation centres across the capital today.

Over 20 hours on from the attack, Putin finally addressed the tragedy. He offered condolences to the victims and their families and vowed that those responsible would be punished accordingly. Crucially, when talking about the perpetrators, he failed to mention Isis even once, instead linking Ukraine to the attack. ‘They tried to hide and moved towards Ukraine,’ Putin said, ‘where, according to preliminary information, a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the state border.’

It’s possible that Putin kept quiet for as long as he did in hope that an alternative explanation would emerge, and that he would not stand exposed for having rejected an American warning about a stadium terrorist attack. It took him three days to speak after the Kursk submarine sinking in 2000 and a day to speak after the Prigozhin rebellion last summer. The harder the explanation, the longer the pause. His brief address to the Russian nation, making no mention of Isis, suggests he plans to plough on with this strategy and has yet to work out a narrative. We’ll bring you updates as they arrive.

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