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A soldier is in the foreground of the photo while a burning builds in the background.
A Russian National Guard servicemen secures an area as a massive blaze seen over the Crocus City Hall in Moscow. An Islamic State affiliate has claimed responsibility for the attack on the concert hall that killed over 130 people. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

ISIS-K’s attack in Moscow risks escalating the Russia-Ukraine war

A music concert in suburban Moscow became the scene of a bloody terrorist attack on March 22 as gunmen with automatic weapons and Molotov cocktails killed more than 130 people and injured dozens more.

Immediately after the attack, speculation emerged about who was responsible.

Although Ukraine was quick to deny any involvement, Russian President Vladimir Putin used a short televised statement to his nation to suggest, without evidence, that Ukraine was prepared to help the terrorists escape.

However, ISIS — and specifically its Afghanistan subsidiary ISIS-K — later claimed credit.

Read more: Why would Islamic State attack Russia and what does this mean for the terrorism threat globally?

Russia has yet to acknowledge ISIS was responsible. But regardless of who the terrorists were representing, the Moscow attack demonstrates two key concerns.

First, terrorist organizations — meaning those who use violence for political purposes without the specific backing of a government — can use pre-existing conflicts and the resulting media attention to advance their interests. Second, the actions of these organizations have the potential to further exacerbate ongoing conflicts.

The use of sub-state paramilitaries

Many countries find it useful to employ sub-state entities and paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. Both Russia and Ukraine have used and continue to employ such groups to conduct acts their soldiers are ill-suited to carry out or where plausible deniability is needed.

Read more: Paramilitaries in the Russia-Ukraine war could escalate and expand the conflict

While using these forces has certain advantages for a country, it’s simultaneously problematic because it leads to questions over who is actually behind the actions.

Attacks earlier this year by Yemen-based Houthi groups on ships in the Red Sea are an example of this issue. The Houthi are commonly seen as an Iranian proxy group. Even though there are close ties between the Houthi and the Iranian state, the Houthi are not controlled by Iran. Assuming Iran is directly behind the attack on Red Sea shipping is at best questionable and at worst outright false.

While assessing the role that a state has in directing its proxies and paramilitaries is difficult, this pales in comparison to the difficulty in linking states to international terrorist organizations. It is an ambiguity that terrorist groups can exploit.

One woman kneels to light a candle while a crowd of other mourners look on.
A woman lights candles at the fence next to the Moscow concert hall attack that killed more than 130 people. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Media attention: Oxygen for terrorists

Defining terrorism is an exercise fraught with peril. The politicization of the term since the post-9/11 war on terror has given new meaning to the expression that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Typically, however, policymakers and academics define terrorist groups as non-state organizations that seek to use violence or the threat of violence against civilians to achieve political objectives, with some ambiguity on which entities can perform it.

In the 21st century, the diffusion of communication technologies and the 24-hour news cycle has provided terrorist groups with newfound means to capture international attention.

Video can be uploaded in real time by terrorist groups, and international attention can soon follow. The news media, however, is highly selective in what it covers.

Due to media selectivity, terrorist organizations seek to maximize their audience. One way to do so is by linking their activities to ongoing events. ISIS-K’s attack in Moscow demonstrates this trend.

ISIS-K’s decision to attack the Moscow music venue was not purely opportunistic. ISIS and its subsidiary organizations blame Russia for its role in destroying ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS-K’s strike against Moscow therefore fits its own agenda, while also advancing its goals. The problem is the potential for escalation.

Two men in military gear examine a burned out concert hall.
Members of the Investigative Committee of Russia examine the burned concert hall after an attack on the building by armed terrorists. (Investigative Committee of Russia via AP)

Escalating the Russia-Ukraine conflict

There is still much that is unknown about the attack. One can, however, draw out some of the potential consequences.

American authorities had previously warned Russia that an attack was imminent. The Russian authorities dismissed the warning.

Putin even stated before the attack that American warnings to that effect were a form of blackmail. So even a genuine warning from the United States was seen by Russian authorities in the light of the broader Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The aftermath of the attack has the potential to magnify these concerns. Putin claimed that four people involved in the conflict were captured attempting to flee to Ukraine.

Read more: Why would Islamic State attack Russia and what does this mean for the terrorism threat globally?

That seems questionable: the Russia-Ukraine border is one of the most militarized locations in the country due to the war. The result, however, is that the alleged escape attempt has allowed Russian politicians to link the attack to Ukrainian authorities, despite Ukrainian protests to the contrary.

Russian authorities will have to act; any state would in the aftermath of such an assault. But retaliation is all the more likely given Putin’s consistent messaging as a protector of the Russian people.

Eliminating terrorism, however, is an incredibly difficult if not impossible task, as demonstrated by the American experience. The Russia-Ukraine war, however, is providing a convenient arena for Russian authorities to redirect the grief and outrage in the aftermath of the tragic attack.

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