Moscow terror: ISIS, Ukraine or 'false flag'?

A group of armed men opened fire at a concert hall in a Moscow suburb on the night of March 22, killing at least 133 people and injuring scores more. Video footage posted online showed at least two masked men in camo entering the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk, repeatedly firing assault rifles as they advance. Another graphic video appears to show four men firing into the crowd in the seating area before a fire breaks out. The crowd was waiting for the popular Russian rock band Piknik to take the stage. After a few minutes of shooting, a grenade or an incendiary bomb was apparently thrown, and the venue was engulfed in flame. Footage published by the official TASS news agency showed a column of smoke billowing from the roof of the venue. 

Later that day, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, Afghanistan affiliate of the ultra-fundamentalist movement, claimed responsibility for the attack in a post on the Telegram channel of the ISIS media arm, Amaq News Agency. The statement said ISIS-K attacked "a large gathering of Christians in the city of Krasnogorsk on the outskirts of the Russian capital of Moscow, killing and wounding hundreds. " (The Moscow Times, NYTCBS NewsCNN

Undeterred, Russian authorities are of course blaming the attack on Ukraine. The Federal Security Service (FSB) announced the next day that four suspects had been detained in Bryansk, near the Ukrainian border, and said that they had been attempting to flee to Ukraine. (Jurist, Azerbaycan24, AKI) Russian pro-war social media channels have been (approvingly) posting images of the suspects being tortured and even mutilated by the FSB, including grisly shots of one with his ear cut off. (Trigger warning: The Insider

Russian Security Council deputy chair and former president Dmitry Medvedev (seemingly the regime's mouthpiece for the most bellicose verbiage) immediately took to Telegram, saying: "If it is established that these are terrorists of the Kyiv regime, all of them must be found and ruthlessly destroyed as terrorists."

President Vladimir Putin himself shortly echoed this, saying the "perpetrators of the act of terror, all those who shot and killed people, were found and detained. They tried to hide and were moving in the direction of Ukraine, where according to preliminary information, the Ukrainian side prepared a window for them to cross the border." (DW, The Guardian)

Putin also pledged revenge: "We will identify and punish everyone who was behind the terrorist attack." (Al Jazeera)

And Russian far-right oligarch Konstantin Malofeev called for a nuclear strike. "Let's give the civilian population of Ukraine 48 hours to leave the cities and finally end this war with the victorious defeat of the enemy. Using all forces and means," Malofeev wrote on Telegram. (WaPo)

Kyiv's Foreign Ministry responded in a statement, saying: "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."

But the intelligence directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry just as quickly and just as predictably accused the Russian secret services of carrying out the attack. "The terrorist attack in Moscow was a planned and deliberate provocation by the Russian special services on Putin's orders," the intelligence directorate said in an official statement, adding that the aim was to "further escalate and expand the war" with Ukraine. (TRT World, Politico)

The mysterious Freedom of Russia Legion, which the previous week had carried out cross-border raids from Ukrainian territory on Russia's Belgorod and Kursk oblasts, also wasted no time in blaming the Kremlin, saying in a social-media statement hours after the attack: "We accuse Putin's terrorist regime of today's tragedy. We have faced similar manifestations of the Kremlin's dictatorship since the very first days of Putin's rule and are not surprised by yet another bloody provocation." (Kyiv Independent, Ukrainska Pravda)

Washington is backing up the notion of ISIS responsibility, and denying a Ukrainian role in the attack. Interestingly, the US had apparently warned Moscow of an impending attack just days earlier. US National Security Council representative Adrienne Watson told CBS News after the attack: "Earlier this month, the US government had information about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow—potentially targeting large gatherings, to include concerts—which prompted the State Department to issue a public advisory to Americans in Russia. The US government also shared this information with Russian authorities in accordance with its longstanding 'duty to warn' policy." 

The Security Alert, dated March 7, remains on the website of the US Embassy in Russia. It reads: "The Embassy is monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, to include concerts, and U.S. citizens should be advised to avoid large gatherings over the next 48 hours."

Yet security at the Crocus City Hall was so lax that masked and camo-clad militants bearing assault rifles could approach and enter the venue with no opposition. This inevitably raises the possibility of a LIHOP thesis. Followers of 9-11 conspiracy theory will be familiar with this acronym for "Let It Happen On Purpose"—as opposed to its more ambitious counterpart Make It Happen On Purpose (MIHOP).

But Putin's response to the warnings at the time was to dismiss them as "provocative statements" that "resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society." (BBC News) This constitutes an insinuation, at least, that Washington was behind, or at least complicit in, the attack. 

Let's review the factors in support of or against these three theses—an ISIS attack, a Ukrainian covert operation, or a Russian "false flag" operation. Or four, if we include the insinuated theory of a US hand in the attack.

Is there anything that might make Piknik a special target for either side? In 2016, the band was barred from performing in Ukraine due to their having played a gig in annexed Crimea. However, the band does not seem to be particularly pro-war or pro-Putin. (RIA Novosti, MSNBC) But then, ISIS presumably had no special beef with Ariana Grande in the Manchester concert bombing in 2017. Killing some 20 English youth seemed to have been sufficient motivation. Russia's military devastation of Afghanistan in the 1980s doubtless provides an extra incentive for ISIS-K. 

Plausible video footage of the attack released by ISIS March 24 appears to further substantiate the group's culpability. (NDTV)

It's important to recall that Putin's rise to power, including his recent rise to outright autocratic power, as well as his various military adventures, have been lubricated every step of the way by terror attacks. The 1999 apartment block bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities did for Putin what 9-11 did for Bush, igniting a new war with Chechnya, propelling the hardline Putin into the Kremlin—and similarly sparking a frenzy of conspiracy theories. These have been recalled in subsequent terror attacks in the Russian Federation. Certainly, a vicious cycle is at work: blowback for the brutal Chechnya war was seen in the October 2002 deadly siege of a Moscow theater by Chechen militants, in which some 130 hostages were killed.

September 2004 saw the deadly schoolhouse siege in Beslan, in the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia, which resulted in the deaths of more than 330 people, the majority of them children. This attack was proudly claimed by Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev. But it certainly well served Putin's quest for total power. Encyclopedia Britannica recalls:

In the wake of these attacks, Putin introduced new and sweeping counterterrorism measures. He also proposed that regional governors—such as those in North Ossetia and Chechnya—no longer be popularly elected but instead be appointed by the president, subject to endorsement by regional legislatures, which the president would be empowered to dissolve if they rejected his nominations on two occasions. The legislation, which was approved by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the national legislature, returned Russia to the unitary system of government that had existed prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Elections for regional governors were restored in response to pressure from below in 2012—by Medvedev, during the period when he was rotated into the presidency as Putin's proxy to get around constitutional term limits. (Al Jazeera) Putin, restored to the presidency that same year, has recently been taking steps to rein in or remove recalcitrant governors, and has pushed through a constitutional reform allowing him to stay in office indefinitely—both moves part of his consolidating dictatorship.

Which is why who was actually behind the Crocus City Center attack does not really matter overmuch. Just as 9-11—whoever was behind it—served the hyper-interventionist aims of Dubya Bush and his administration, we may be reasonably certain that the carnage in Krasnogorsk will serve the war aims and totalitarian domestic agenda of Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, on March 24, Russia launched massive air-strikes on Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine, clear to the western city of Lviv. (BBC News)

Perhaps the still more apt analogy may prove be to Germany's February 1933 Reichstag Fire. The lone communist who was executed for the arson, Marinus van der Lubbe, was postumously pardoned by the German state in 2008. But given everything that came next, does the question of his guilt or innocence make that much difference?

We may be at another such historical tipping point now.

Moscow music hall terror attack suspects appear in court

Two suspects in the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack appeared before Moscow's district court on March 24. Authorities had detained them the previous day among 11 suspects who were apparently trying to flee the country through the Ukrainian border. Four of the 11 are said to be the actual gunmen. One arrested in the early hours of March 25 is said to have been the cameraman who filmed the massacre.

The court accused the suspects of committing an act of terror under Article 205 of the Russian Criminal Code, and ordered them al held in detention until May, with no further details as to the date of the trial. The offense carries a sentence of life imprisonment. Three of the charged gunmen pleaded guilty.

The physical condition of the suspects raised concerns that they were tortured during interrogation. All appeared to be suffering from bruises and swollen faces; one was brought to court in a wheelchair, barely conscious, and another had a bandaged ear.

Unofficial media accounts have identified the suspects as foreign nationals, from Tajikistan. (Jurist)

Russia demands extradition of 'terrorists' from Ukraine

Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 31 demanded the extradition from Ukraine of all individuals connected with terrorist acts in the Russian —without actually naming or enumerating them. (Jurist)

Moscow arrests another suspect in Crocus City Hall attack

The Basmanny District Court of Moscow announced April 1 that a tenth person, a Tajik citizen named Yakubjoni Yusufzoda, was arrested for the Crocus City Hall terror attack that killed 134 people.

Yusufzoda is accused of transferring money to an accomplice to provide accommodation for the gunmen as well as an additional transfer after the attack was committed. He is charged with violating Part 3 of Article 205 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which penalizes conspiracy to commit organized terrorism or terrorism resulting in death. (Jurist)