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Monday, April 22, 2024

COLUMN: ISIS-K’s Evolving Strategies Across the Region and the Enigma Surrounding its Assault in Russia

A series of devastating terrorist assaults struck Moscow, aiming at attendees of a concert held at Crocus City Hall, resulting in the tragic deaths of over 140 individuals on March 22, 2024. Perpetrators, disguised in camouflage attire, unleashed gunfire and hurled incendiary devices within the concert premises, causing extensive fire damage and the collapse of the venue’s roof. ISIS’s Afghan branch claimed responsibility for the attack, a claim later verified by United States (US) authorities. 

The ruthless assault marks yet another tragic chapter in Russia’s history, ranking among the deadliest attacks since the early 2000s. In 2002, Chechen militants seized over 900 individuals as hostages at Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre, demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya and an end to the conflict in the region. Then, in 2004, Russia witnessed its most devastating attack as members of a Chechen separatist group laid siege to the Beslan school, resulting in the deaths of 334 people, including 186 children. 

The recent assault marked the second significant terror attack by ISIS-K, following an earlier incident targeting Iran in January 2024. In both instances, civilians were ruthlessly attacked with firearms, resulting in large-scale casualties. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for both attacks, although their statement regarding the nature of the incidents in Iran differed from official Iranian reports. Similarly, their brief acknowledgment of responsibility for the Russian attack lacked detail. Initial responses from Russian and Iranian authorities mirrored each other, avoiding direct accusations against ISIS-K and instead suggesting the involvement of state actors—specifically, the US and Israel in Iran’s case and Ukraine in Russia’s. President Putin indirectly implicated Kyiv in his brief address following the attack. 

ISIS-K is a prominent affiliate of ISIS and operates primarily in Afghanistan. Emerging from eastern Afghanistan in late 2014, the group consisted of former Pakistan Taliban fighters and local militants who pledged allegiance to the deceased leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Taliban’s seizure of power in 2021 created favorable conditions for ISIS-K, allowing it to exploit the voids left by the Taliban’s control in Afghanistan. 

Before the Taliban’s assumption of power, ISIS-K had limited its presence to a few provinces. However, the instability fostered by the weak Taliban governance created conducive conditions for ISIS-K to expand its activities across nearly 34 provinces of Afghanistan. Besides posing a growing threat within Afghanistan, ISIS-K has expanded its operational reach into neighboring countries. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran have all experienced deadly attacks attributed to ISIS-K. Furthermore, the group vies with Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan for dominance in the Federally Administered Tribal Area. According to data from the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID), ISIS-K saw a decrease in attacks from 2018 until the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, as seen in Figure 1 below. Subsequently, there was a resurgence in attacks, with 22 incidents in 2020, 56 in 2022, and 47 in 2023. In 2021, ISIS-K was among the top 10 terrorist groups in terms of casualties, claiming the lives of 549 individuals across 42 attacks. Notably, ISIS-K was responsible for the highest number of suicide bombings targeting civilians, totaling 83 incidents between 2018 and 2023. 

Figure 1 ISIS K Attacks from 2018 to 2023

The frequency of attacks carried out by ISIS-K in Pakistan escalated significantly from 6 incidents in 2022 to 22 in 2023. Their targets encompassed Sunni clerics who opposed ISIS’s strict religious interpretations, individuals accused of practicing sorcery, as well as Sikhs, Christians, tribal leaders, educators, and members of polio vaccination teams. In July 2023, the group employed a suicide bomber at a political gathering, resulting in the deaths of 63 civilians and injuries to 123 others. ISIS-K took credit for all their 2023 assaults, underscoring their active presence and potency in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan regions. 

There are multiple factors contributing to ISIS-K’s targeting of Russia. Firstly, according to ISIS ideology, Russia is perceived as a crusading force against Muslims. Secondly, Russia’s involvement in the global campaign against ISIS has made it a prime target, despite its strategic support for Bashar Al-Assad to secure its military base in the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s extensive airstrikes have inflicted significant losses on ISIS. Despite expectations of ISIS attacks on Russia during those years, none occurred until September 2022, when ISIS’s Afghan branch claimed responsibility for a fatal suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul. Additionally, the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries in Africa has posed a threat to ISIS affiliates in the region. Lastly, ISIS-K opposes the Taliban government and sees Russia as supportive of the Taliban, further fueling its antagonism towards Russia. 

Recent attacks by ISIS-K suggest a shift in the group’s strategy in 2024. Instead of its usual focus on targeting the US or Western European countries, the group has recently carried out attacks in Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. While its strategy in Pakistan appears logical due to exploiting security gaps left by the TTP and establishing its presence in the country, its attacks in Iran and Russia raise questions about its evolving tactics. The timing of these attacks doesn’t align with conventional explanations, considering both Iran and Russia played significant roles in combating ISIS in Syria between 2014 and 2017. Despite facing harsh retaliation from these countries, ISIS refrained from retaliating with revenge operations. Given the vulnerabilities in security within Iran and Russia, ISIS could have easily targeted them, highlighting a departure from its previous approach. 

Understanding the evolving strategies of ISIS requires examining the involvement of state sponsors backing terrorist groups in the Middle East. These states have supplied funds, weapons, and explosives to these organizations through their intelligence services. Identifying the precise ties between intelligence units and terrorist organizations proves challenging due to the advanced capabilities of these units. Governments often manipulate these associations to further their own objectives, particularly when seeking public backing or adjusting priorities. Incidents of suspicious bombings occurring in authoritarian states within the region, reportedly carried out by groups such as ISIS either preceding or following elections, could hint at potential connections between terrorist groups and intelligence units. 

The recent assault orchestrated by ISIS-K in Russia raises significant inquiries that extend beyond mere intelligence deficiencies:

  1. It appears that the attackers underwent training in ISIS camps, but who informed them about their targets? The militants likely conducted surveillance to gather information about the concert hall, but who aided them?
  2. How did the militants devise a plan to ignite the roof, knowing it would lead to more casualties?
  3. Why did law enforcement respond tardily to the attack, particularly when there were police units closer to the concert hall?
  4. How did the militants evade capture at the scene?
  5. Why did their escape strategy seem less organized compared to their meticulously planned assaults?
  6. Why were the assailants apprehended nearer to the Ukraine border?
  7. Was the objective of the attack to implicate Ukraine as an accomplice? Moreover, why did the militants assert they carried out the attack for financial gain? As per one assailant’s testimony, he communicated with ISIS through Telegram and agreed to execute the attack for monetary compensation but only received half of the promised payment. It is unusual for terrorists to resort to violence for financial motives, as they typically operate under the direction of the organization, and their motivations are primarily ideological. 

Terrorist attacks often lead to significant shifts in policy, which can have unintended consequences. Following the October 7th terrorist attacks, Israel launched a harsh crackdown on Hamas, aiming to punish and eradicate the group in the region. However, this response resulted in overreactions that led to the deaths of thousands of civilians, including women and children, in Gaza. Consequently, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated in the Middle East once again. The recent attacks by ISIS-K on March 22nd are expected to bring both intended and unintended outcomes. Russia is likely to continue accusing Ukraine and other countries involved in the ongoing conflict in the region, leading to a more severe stance towards Ukraine. President Putin may exploit these attacks to divert attention from issues such as contested elections within the country. 

Additionally, Russia is expected to reassess its intelligence capabilities to determine how the terrorists were able to carry out the attack. There will likely be discussions about radicalization within Muslim communities in Russia, leading to policy adjustments. However, generalizations about Islam may lead to overreactions and harm Muslims in the country. Russia may also reconsider its strategies and target ISIS in Syria. Despite ISIS’s loss of power and the departure of many militants, thousands of ISIS fighters are still active in Syria, particularly in areas like Dayr az Zawr. 

The recent ISIS-K attacks in Iran and Russia are likely to be exploited by the Taliban government for its own benefit. Much like Bashar Al Assad utilized the presence of ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria to divert attention from his government’s atrocities against its own people, the Taliban could position itself as a counterforce against ISIS-K. The Taliban may anticipate states seeking cooperation with its government in addressing the ISIS-K threat. However, it is doubtful whether the Taliban possesses the capability to combat ISIS-K effectively. As grievances within Muslim communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to rise, more individuals may be drawn to join ISIS-K. At the same time, the limited resources in regional countries may result in inadequate responses to the ISIS threat. 

In conclusion, the recent terrorist incidents in Iran and Russia have thrust ISIS-K into the spotlight, surpassing its core organization based in Syria. With the rising frequency of attacks and casualties attributed to ISIS-K, it is understandable that the group’s actions are garnering significant attention from regional states. The United States has been closely monitoring ISIS-K, sharing intelligence with counterparts in Iran and Russia concerning the group’s potential for carrying out attacks. The questionable relationships between states that may be supporting ISIS will continue to raise concerns, though satisfactory answers to these questions may prove elusive. Terrorist attacks in non-democratic states often lack conclusive evidence regarding motives and perpetrators, leading to the proliferation of conspiracy theories. A preferable approach would be to piece together information to gain a clearer understanding of the attacks. However, connecting the dots in the recent assault in Russia presents a hazy picture regarding the involvement of ISIS-K and any potential state actors. 

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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