Crocus City Hall Attack: Deciphering Central Asian Jihadism and Russian Counterterrorism

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Crocus City Hall Attack: Deciphering Central Asian Jihadism and Russian Counterterrorism

The Kremlin has made a concerted effort to implicate Ukraine, despite the absence of evidence linking Kyiv to the attack. Meanwhile, ISKP poses a clear threat to Russia.

Crocus City Hall Attack: Deciphering Central Asian Jihadism and Russian Counterterrorism

A view of the Crocus City Hall burned after an attack is seen on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Vitaly Smolnikov

The devastating March 22 terrorist attack at the Crocus City  Hall in Krasnogorsk, on the outskirts of Moscow, allegedly carried out by four citizens of Tajikistan, vividly demonstrates the threats posed by Central Asian jihadi terrorism and Sunni Islamist extremism. The shooting at the concert hall sadly confirmed a security alert issued by the U.S. Embassy in Russia at the beginning of March regarding a terror threat, as well as the March 16, 2023, testimony of General Michael Kurilla, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the rapid development of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the growth of its capability to conduct “external operations” in Europe and Asia. 

Regrettably, at a Federal Security Service (FSB) meeting on March 19 – 10 days after an FSB operation killed two alleged ISKP members, Kazakh citizens, in Kaluga Region – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin dismissed Washington’s numerous terror warnings, assessing them as “outright blackmail” and an “attempt to intimidate and destabilize” Russian society amid the euphoria of Putin’s winning the March 15-17 presidential election with a “historic” 88 percent of the vote.

Questioning the Islamic State Claim: Kremlin’s Skepticism

On the evening of March 22, a coordinated attack took place at the Crocus City Hall music venue in Krasnogorsk, a Russian city on the western outskirts of Moscow. Four gunmen opened fire on the gathered crowd and deployed explosive incendiary devices, resulting in a devastating death toll: at least 137 fatalities and 144 injuries. The attack stands as the deadliest terrorist incident in Russia since the Beslan school siege of 2004, and the deadliest in Moscow since the 1999 apartment bombings.

When police units from the Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) and the Special Purposes Mobile Unit (OMON) arrived at the scene, over an hour after the attack began, the attackers took advantage of the chaos and thick smoke of the burning building to escape.

Shortly after the incident, as the Russian National Guard commenced their search for the attackers, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack via its Amaq News agency, the official media outlet of the terrorist group. Amaq reported, “Islamic State fighters targeted a large gathering of Christians in Krasnogorsk on the outskirts of Moscow. As a result, they killed and wounded hundreds and inflicted great damage on the place before safely withdrawing to their bases.”

The Kremlin appeared to not take the Amaq News claim seriously, hinting without evidence at Ukrainian involvement in the terrorist attack. From the outset, the FSB intentionally attempted to point the finger of blame at Ukraine – again, without evidence and indeed despite evidence to the contrary.

The day after the attack, the FSB announced the detention of 11 suspects, including four “directly” involved in the attack, in the Bryansk region, located 385 km (239 miles) from Moscow, and claimed they were attempting to cross into Ukraine. In his statement on March 23, Putin never mentioned Islamic State involvement, instead implicating Ukraine. Kyiv categorically denied Russia’s accusations regarding its involvement in the terrorist attack.

Upon the dissemination of a video by Russian pro-war Telegram channels, depicting the detention and initial interrogations of the suspects, it became evident that all four alleged attackers are Tajikistani citizens. They have been named as Dalerjon Mirzoev, Saidakrami Rachabalizodu, Muhammadsobir Fayzov, and Fariduni Shamsidin.

In the distressing video footage, which portrays the torture of the subjects including the cutting of one detainee’s ear, there is no indication from the suspects themselves that they were affiliated with ISKP. However, one of the detainees mentioned receiving instructions to carry out the attack and obtaining weapons from an “assistant preacher” via Telegram. This suggests that a religious factor played a role in this terrorist attack. When the alleged attackers appeared in court to be charged on March 25, they all bore visible signs of being abused.

Anti-Russian Ideology of Central Asian Jihadism

Experts in religious extremism and counterterrorism concur that Islamic State leaders have closely monitored the post-attack reactions of the international community, and sought to leverage the “glory of holy jihad against Crusader Russia” to expand its influence and boost its recruitment campaigns. Perceiving potential attempts to “steal” the Islamic State’s “victory” the Amaq News agency, following its initial statement, issued three more official messages. These included photographs of what it claimed to be the four Tajik attackers against the background of the Islamic State flag, a two-minute first-person video, entitled “Exclusive scenes from ‘Amaq,’” and a detailed report about the attack.

In its official statement, and in a characteristic jihadi writing style, the Amaq News agency asserted that “four Inghimasi fighters of the Caliphate assaulted Christians using machine guns and knives, launching firebombs into the hall, resulting in the death and injury of at least 300 unbelievers.” (An Inghimasi fighter is defined by the U.S. Combating Terrorism Center as a “suicide fighter” or “individuals who infiltrate enemy lines with no intention of returning alive.”)

Concluding the statement, the Islamic State had a message for Russia: “And let Crusader Russia and her allies be aware that the mujahidin do not forget to exact their revenge.” 

The Amaq News Agency’s latest official statement maintains consistency in terms of writing style, branding, and jihadi language, aligning with previous announcements by Islamic State for other attacks. 

Notably, al-Qaida and Islamic State-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups regard Russia as one of the primary enemies of Islam, accusing it of implementing a repressive policy against Muslim migrants from Central Asia. ISKP, Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), in their latest propaganda materials, called on their supporters to wage holy jihad against Putin’s “kafir” regime. The anti-Russian ideology of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi terror groups associated with the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is not new.

While the main ideological doctrine of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) focuses on anti-Chinese propaganda and holy jihad against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Central Asian Salafi terror groups look to “kafir” Russia and the “taghut” (idolatrous) Central Asian states as additional sources of ideological inspiration. It is well-documented that Central Asian jihadist groups, leveraging their supporters and sleeper cells within Russia, have perpetrated numerous terrorist attacks targeting civilians. Among the most notorious incidents was the suicide bombing in the St. Petersburg metro in 2017, executed by adherents of KTJ from Kyrgyzstan.

In February 2024, following a calculated strike on a Catholic church in Istanbul by a Tajik ISKP fighter, The Diplomat published my analysis – “Fratricidal Jihad: Assessing Central Asian ISKP Attacks on Turkey” – which delved into the primary factors behind the anti-Russian ideology of Central Asian terrorist groups and their compelled hijrah (migration) to Afghanistan and the Middle East, where they partake in holy jihad against perceived enemies of Islam. 

The report specifically highlighted that a significant number of Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz labor migrants had previously encountered difficult conditions during periods of work in Russia, often finding themselves unable to withstand the religious pressures perversely linked with Russian chauvinism and nationalism. The Kremlin’s insistence on deploying marginalized Central Asian migrants as combatants in the Ukraine war, alongside economic stagnation, and the emergence of pro-war Russian nationalism, is compelling Central Asian Islamists to move from Russia to the Middle East. A long-term study of Central Asian jihadism revealed that many Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz jihadists associated with the Islamic State, the Taliban, al-Qaida, and HTS were previously engaged in labor migration in Russia, where many underwent radicalization.

Unraveling the Origins of Central Asian Salafi Terrorism

The latest United Nations Security Council report indicates that the operational and financial capabilities of the Tajik and Uzbek wings of ISKP are consistently expanding, presenting a heightened threat to not only the post-Soviet nations of Central Asia and Russia but also to the United States and European countries. According to the 33rd report of the U.N. Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, in 2023, a Tajik ISKP member named Khukumatov Shamil Dodihudoevich (alias Abu Miskin) managed to amass $2 million in donations through the Tron blockchain from over 20 Western countries to fund terrorist activities.

It is conceivable that the financing for the Crocus City Hall attack originated from one of these ISKP financial channels. However, it’s improbable that the detained foot soldiers – the four Tajik alleged perpetrators of the terrorist attack – would be privy to the sources of funding, as ordinary members typically lack access to the decisions of the Islamic State’s Shura Council. This shura is where crucial determinations regarding financial and military operations are typically made. 

Following the incident, the Kremlin made a concerted effort to implicate Ukraine, despite the absence of evidence linking Kyiv to the incident. Russian ultranationalists have propagated various conspiracy theories, alleging that Ukraine and the West orchestrated the Crocus City Hall attack by Tajik migrants to foment ethnic conflict within Russia. These objectively implausible conspiracy theories are gaining traction, with some pro-government TV channels and Kremlin-affiliated political experts even suggesting that Tajik assailants at Crocus City Hall carried out the bloody attack under the direction of Ukrainian special services, orchestrated by the U.S. and the U.K.

Significantly, at the outset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Islamic State took a firm stance, declaring the conflict as “foreign” and unrelated to Islamic jihad. It urged its supporters not to participate in the war, stating that it did not constitute a holy war, but rather a conflict between two “kafir” states. The Islamic State’s al-Naba urged its followers not to get involved in the “Crusader on Crusader” war, praising it as a “divine punishment” for crusaders. Al-Naba stated its hope that the war will destroy the “enemies of Islam.”

If the four Tajik alleged perpetrators of the Crocus City Hall attack were indeed ideological followers of ISKP, then they would not have carried out attacks on the orders of “kafir” states.


In conclusion, it is imperative to highlight that rather than downplaying the involvement of the Islamic State in the Crocus City Hall attack and shifting blame toward the West, it would be beneficial for Russia’s counterterrorism forces and its Central Asian allies to meticulously analyze the actual ideological motivations and religious convictions of the purported Tajik attackers. This approach is crucial for effectively addressing the escalating threat posed by Central Asian Salafi-Jihadism on a global scale in the future.