Possible motives for Moscow terrorist attack

24 March 2024

On the evening of 22 March 2024, four gunmen shot up a concert in Moscow, immediately killing 60 and injuring at least another 100. The death toll has since climbed and sits at 113 as many are in critical condition. With much of the world’s attention having been on Russia’s war with Ukraine, this attack came out of the apparent blue. Speculation soon emerged about who might be responsible.

When, within hours, the Afghanistan-based branch of the Islamic State (IS), known as IS-Khorasan Province (ISPK), claimed responsibility many were surprised. In today’s climate of Russia vs the West, ‘standard’ explanations of terrorists doing terrorism no longer seem to suffice. Many on Twitter/X took to conspiracy theories about who could be “really” behind the attacks; the names of Israel, Ukraine and the US were among those floated. Naturally.

Subsequent publication of close range footage of the shooting by the ISKP seems to be further concrete evidence that the group is indeed responsible for the attack.

Why, then, did ISKP attack Russia? The reasons are speculative at this point, but an Al Jazeera article makes the case for at least three:

1. Russian alignment with the Syrian government, which is an enemy of ISIS.
2. Perception that Russian is “oppressing Muslims” in Chechnya and other regions of the Russian Federation.
3. Russia’s fight against ISIS in Syria and in Africa, through the Wagner Group.

It is also worth mentioning that the ISKP has also attacked Iran, and US troops in the past. It did also attack the Russian Embassy in Afghanistan in 2022.

This attack serves as a reminder that the re-emergence of interstate war is not mutually exclusive with the possibility of a sustained and even growing pattern of violence by non-state actors. Moreover, this incident challenges our emerging worldview of a new cold war in which there is, on one side, the West and, on the other, every other country outside its alliance system. America, Iran and Russia have all been targets of the same grouping within a short space of time of each other, whilst the US has been at loggerheads with both of the latter countries as well. This points to the emergence of an order that is not just anarchic but also chaotic: one in which there will be multiple fronts to multiple conflicts — between states, as well as with non-state actors, who will in turn be fighting against each other.