In Moscow concert massacre, blowback and negligence all around

Russian claims of direct Ukrainian-US complicity lack evidence. Yet the role of Washington's proxy wars in Ukraine and Syria cannot be overlooked.

The ISIS-K massacre of more than 140 concertgoers at a concert hall near Moscow has triggered a war of words between Russia and the United States.

While blaming “radical Islamists” for the attack, the Kremlin has suggested that the Ukrainian government and its NATO allies had a hidden hand. By contrast, the Biden administration has pointed to US warnings, both public and in private, of a terror threat in Russia prior to the shootings. It was the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, the US argues, that led its security services to become derelict at home.

On Thursday, Russia’s Investigative Committee said that it has obtained “verifiable information” that the shooters, all whom are from T majikistan, “received significant amounts of money… from Ukraine,” and have an unspecified “connection with Ukrainian nationalists.” As of this writing, the top Russian investigative body has not disclosed any evidence for these allegations.

Russian officials also claim that the gunmen were attempting to flee to Ukraine. Even if true, this assertion does not necessarily prove a direct tie to Kyiv. For the gunmen, it would make sense to attempt to escape to a country that is at war with the state that they attacked.

Voices who suspect a Western hand in the killings have also noted that ISIS-K has a conspicuous pattern of attacking designated US enemies – not just Russia, but also the Taliban and Iran. Yet this argument overlooks that in August 2021, ISIS-K took responsibility for the suicide attack that killed 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghans during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

While I have no doubt that Ukrainian ultranationalists are capable of terror attacks – see, for example, the May 2014 fire in Odessa that burned dozens of anti-Maidan coup protesters alive, or the August 2022 car bombing that killed Daria Dugina in Moscow – I would be surprised if it turns out that the Ukrainian government and its NATO allies were directly complicit. Instead, the attack at the Crocus City Hall and Concert Center strikes me as a combination of Russian negligence, the adverse relationship between Washington and Moscow, and the blowback of US proxy warfare in Syria and Ukraine, where the two superpowers have fought on opposing sides.

No matter Russia’s legitimate grievances against Washington going back decades, the US did issue an explicit warning in the weeks before the attack. On March 7th, the US Embassy in Moscow cautioned that “extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, to include concerts over the next 48 hours.” According to US officials, the CIA also privately informed the Kremlin that the threat came from ISIS-K.

In public comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin did urge his security forces to take the threat seriously and step up efforts to thwart it. Yet he also described the US warning as a “provocative” statement that could amount to “outright blackmail and an intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.”

While that remark now looks embarrassing for Putin, it is nonetheless clear that the US did not share everything it knew. According to an account in the New York Times, “[t]he adversarial relationship between Washington and Moscow prevented U.S. officials from sharing any information about the plot beyond what was necessary, out of fear Russian authorities might learn their intelligence sources or methods.” In other words, despite a “duty to warn” even its adversaries of terror plots, Washington’s antagonism toward Moscow constrained its willingness to offer details.

In public remarks since the attack, Putin erred on another front. On Monday, Putin suggested that ISIS would have little motive to attack Russia given Moscow’s current opposition to the US-backed Israeli rampage in Gaza. “Are radical and even terrorist Islamic organizations really interested in striking Russia, which today stands for a fair solution to the escalating Middle East conflict?”

But as Putin well knows, Russia is indeed an ISIS target. As the New York Times notes, “Russia is one of the chief military backers of the Islamic State’s opponents in the Middle East, including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, making Russian interests a key target of the Islamist extremist group.” The Times’ characterization is noteworthy, as it points to a fact rarely disclosed in establishment media spaces: whereas Russia helped prevent a takeover by ISIS and other sectarian militias in Syria, the US sided with them in their regime change war against Assad’s government. As Jake Sullivan put it in a February 2012 email: “AQ [Al Qaeda] is on our side in Syria.” That meant ISIS as well, given that ISIS grew out of a split within Al Qaeda in Iraq.

When ISIS declared its caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq in June 2014, the U.S. launched an air campaign against the group’s strongholds. But the Obama administration’s anti-ISIS offensive contained a significant exception. In key areas where ISIS’s advance could threaten the Assad regime, the U.S. watched it happen.

In the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, the U.S. allowed an outright ISIS takeover. “[A]s Islamic State closed in on Palmyra, the U.S.-led aerial coalition that has been pummeling Islamic State in Syria for the past 18 months took no action to prevent the extremists’ advance toward the historic town – which, until then, had remained in the hands of the sorely overstretched Syrian security forces,” the Los Angeles Times reported in March 2016.

In a leaked conversation with Syrian opposition activists months later, then-Secretary of State John Kerry explained the U.S. rationale for letting ISIS advance.

“Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth,” Kerry explained. “And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad would then negotiate” his way out of power.

In short, the U.S. was leveraging ISIS’s growth to impose regime change on Assad.

The U.S. strategy of “watching” ISIS’s advance in Syria, Kerry also admitted, directly caused Russia’s 2015 entry into the conflict. The threat of an ISIS takeover, Kerry said, is “why Russia went in. Because they didn’t want a Daesh government.”

The Russian government was not alone in opposing the Obama administration’s decision to risk an ISIS takeover in Damascus. In a September 2014 Congressional hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the-then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if any US allies support ISIS. “I know major Arab allies who fund them,” Dempsey tersely replied.

Echoing Dempsey, Hillary Clinton wrote privately that same year that “the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia… are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” And speaking before a Harvard audience, then-Vice President Joe Biden blurted out the United States’ Gulf Allies “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad,” namely “al-Nusra, and Al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

In disclosing this Gulf state support for ISIS and other sectarian militias, these Obama administration principals – Dempsey, Clinton, and Biden — only erred in omitting that it all occurred at Washington’s behest. Rather than spearheading the US proxy war in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were in fact acting under the direction of the CIA to covertly fund it. And given that another Obama-Biden principal, Kerry, admitted that Russia was instrumental to defeating ISIS in Syria, it is perfectly consistent for the militant group to want to exact revenge.

Whether not Russian authorities are able to establish a direct tie between the Moscow attack and Ukraine, there is no doubt that US-driven proxy war there has also fueled ISIS’s growth. Since the US-backed Maidan coup triggered an all-out civil war in April 2014, ISIS leaders have been caught taking refuge in Ukraine – as they have in Idlib, Syria’s last “rebel” controlled province. Radical Islamists have even fought on the front lines of the Donbas war. As the New York Times reported in July 2015, Ukraine’s shock troops included not only the “openly neo-Nazi” Azov battalion, but also “an assortment of right-wing and Islamic militias” summoned from Chechnya.

Top Ukrainian officials have also openly flaunted their determination to attack Russians worldwide. “We’ve been killing Russians, and we will keep killing Russians anywhere on the face of this world until the complete victory of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, vowed last year. “We will find the enemy everywhere… We stab the enemy with a needle right in the heart,” Vasyl Malyuk, the head of Ukraine’s SBU, also said.

US officials have joined in on the blood lust. “There should be no Russian who goes to sleep without wondering if they’re going to get their throat slit in the middle of the night,” General Mark Milley, then-chair of the Joint Chiefs, reportedly counseled Ukraine in early 2023, referring to targeting Russian generals. And shortly before her recent exit from the State Department, veteran State Department official Victoria Nuland vowed “nasty surprises” for Russia on the Ukrainian battlefield this year.

In this bellicose climate, it is understandable that Russia and critics of US policy would adopt the most cynical interpretation possible of the forces behind the Crocus City Hall attack. Yet in light of the available facts and potential consequences – namely an even more dangerous escalation of the ongoing Ukraine war – it is prudent for all sides to practice caution and self-reflection. Sometimes, the reality in front of us is grim enough.