Moscow concert hall attack: How did ISIL recoup, five years after ‘defeat’?

The group’s Afghanistan arm in particular has gained since the return of the Taliban — even though the two are enemies — say analysts.

Russian Rosguardia (National Guard) servicemen secure an area at the Crocus City Hall on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, March 23, 2024. Several gunmen have burst into a big concert hall in Moscow and fired automatic weapons at the crowd, injuring an unspecified number of people and setting a massive blaze in an apparent terror attack days after President Vladimir Putin cemented his grip on the country in a highly orchestrated electoral landslide. (Alexander Avilov/Moscow News Agency via AP)
Russian national guard servicemen secure an area at the Crocus City Hall in Moscow on March 23, 2024 after the armed attack that killed more than 130 people [Alexander Avilov/ Moscow News Agency via AP]

On Thursday morning, US State Department official Ian McCary sat down in a blue suit, red tie and brown shoes for a question-and-answer session at The Washington Institute to mark the fifth anniversary of the “defeat” of ISIL (ISIS) in Syria.

The US-led coalition, along with its local partners, had on March 23, 2019 pushed the armed group out of Baghuz in Syria — a country where it once had its de facto capital, in Raqqa. “This was and remains a milestone in our continued efforts to ensure ISIS cannot resurge,” McCary said in his comments.

Just a day later, gunmen would barge into a packed concert hall in Moscow, Russia, spraying music lovers with bullets and setting the venue on fire, on the eve of that “milestone” victory.

More than 130 people have been killed, including three children, and over 100 others have been injured, in the worst such attack that Russia has witnessed in two decades.

ISIL’s Afghanistan arm — also known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) – swiftly claimed responsibility. The United States has said that its intelligence suggests the claim is accurate.

On ISKP social media channels, supporters have been celebrating the attack, according to analysts. It’s the latest sign, say strategic experts, of how ISIL has recovered from some of its setbacks in Syria and Iraq, and how Afghanistan has emerged as a vital staging ground for its growing ambitions.

“Should the attack in Russia be definitively attributed to ISKP, it would underscore the group’s resolve to align its actions with its pronounced objectives — targeting countries that play pivotal roles in the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and South and Central Asia,” said Amira Jadoon, assistant professor of political science at the South Carolina-based Clemson University, and co-author of the 2023 book, The Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Strategic Alliances and Rivalries.

The Russia concert attack comes two months after suicide bombings in Kerman, Iran, killed more than 90 people and injured nearly 300 others. ISKP claimed responsibility for those attacks too.

While Russia — seen by ISIL as an oppressor of Muslims in Chechnya, Syria and Afghanistan (during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s) — and Shia-majority Iran have long been in the crosshairs of the armed group, there’s a broader strategic intent behind recent attacks too, said Jadoon.

“By directing its aggression towards nations such as Iran and Russia, ISKP not only confronts regional heavyweights but also underscores its political relevance and operational reach on the global stage,” she told Al Jazeera.

Yet analysts say that none of this would have been possible without the group’s success in building a safe base in Afghanistan — and actually bolstering its presence in that country even after its archenemy, the Taliban, took control of that nation in August 2021.

‘More breathing room’

At the height of its influence, ISIL controlled about a third of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq.

Faced with military pressure from a range of otherwise battling regional players — a US-led alliance, Russia and Iran — as well as the governments of those two countries, it lost 95 percent of that territory by the end of 2017. The March 2019 loss of Baghuz eliminated the group’s physical control of any town, city or region in Iraq or Syria.

Meanwhile, its Afghanistan affiliate, the ISKP was continuing to build its reputation as a deadly force: In May 2020, it was blamed for an attack on a maternity ward in Kabul that killed 24 people, including women and infants. Six months later, its fighters attacked Kabul University, killing at least 22 students and teachers.

Then, as the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, ISKP sent a chilling message to its local nemesis and to the hurriedly departing US military, with devastating bombings at Kabul airport that killed at least 175 civilians and 13 US soldiers.

Since then, “ISKP in Afghanistan has grown in strength significantly”, said Kabir Taneja, a fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation and author of the 2019 book, The ISIS Peril. Its attacks have spilled over the border into Pakistan too, where the group bombed an election rally last July, killing more than 50 people.

And the Taliban’s power grab in Afghanistan has helped, said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

“ISIS-K may be a rival of the Taliban, but ISIS-K benefitted from the Taliban’s takeover, and also the US withdrawal,” Kugelman told Al Jazeera.

“The Taliban staged prison breaks that ended up freeing ISIS-K fighters,” he said. The collapse of the US-backed Afghan military gave the ISKP opportunities to seize weapons. And the Taliban’s lack of an air force has given the group a chance to take and hold ground.

“The absence of NATO air strikes — perhaps the most effective tactic used to manage the ISIS-K threat — gives the group more breathing room, especially because the Taliban can’t operate airpower,” Kugelman said. “In effect, ISIS-K has benefited from an enabling environment in Afghanistan, emboldening it to expand its focus far beyond its bastion areas.”

New ambitions

It isn’t just the ISKP that has grown its influence — the main ISIL has too, said Taneja.

“ISIS in its original regions of operations, Syria and Iraq, also sees [an] uptick in operational capabilities,” he told Al Jazeera. ISIL, Taneja said, today exists in a form of “suspension, where it’s ideologically powerful even if politically, tactically or strategically not that powerful any more.

“And how to combat this is the big question at a time when big power completion and global geopolitical churn has put counterterrorism on the back burner.”

As for the ISKP, the attacks in Russia and Iran are crucial for the group “to remain relevant, amplify its reputation and sustain its strategically diverse cadre”, Jadoon said, referring to the different reasons fighters are drawn to the group — from anger towards specific countries to opposition to the Taliban.

“In essence, orchestrating international attacks beyond the confines of Pakistan and Afghanistan is a deliberate tactic within ISKP’s strategy to globalise its campaign,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera