ISIS officials involved in Moscow attack have global ambitions

Five years ago this month, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab militias drove Islamic State fighters from villages in eastern Syria, the group’s last territory.

Since then, the organization, which once established a self-proclaimed caliphate across Iraq and Syria, has metastasized to more traditional terrorist groups — Secret Network of Cells West Africa Engaged in guerrilla attacks, bombings, and targeted assassinations in Southeast Asia.

None of the group’s affiliates is as relentless as the Islamic State of Khorasan, which operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and targets attacks in Europe and other countries. The group carried out attacks near Moscow on Friday, killing dozens and wounding many others, U.S. officials said.

In January, Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) carried out two bombings in Iran at a memorial service for Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s former supreme commander, who was the target of a U.S. drone strike four years ago. Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds more injured. .

“The ISIS threat remains a significant counterterrorism concern,” Director of National Intelligence Avril D. Haines told a Senate committee this month. “Most of the attacks that ISIS has had globally have actually been carried out by parts of ISIS that are outside of Afghanistan,” she said.

Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, commander of the military’s Central Command, told a House committee Thursday that ISIS-K “remains capable and willing to attack U.S. and Western interests overseas within as little as six months with little warning.” “I am doing so,” he said. ”

U.S. counterterrorism experts on Sunday dismissed the Kremlin’s suggestion that Ukraine was behind Friday’s attack near Moscow. “The modus operandi was classic ISIS,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Hoffman said the attack follows the attack on the Bataclan Theater in Paris in November 2015 (as part of a broader operation to attack other targets in the country), making it one of ISIS’s third attacks in the Northern Hemisphere in the past decade. It was said to be the venue for his second concert. City) and the suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena in England in May 2017.

Islamic State Khorasan was founded in 2015 by disaffected members of the Pakistani Taliban and burst onto the international jihadist stage after the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government in 2021. ISIS-K carried out suicide bombings while US forces were withdrawing from the country. In August 2021, 13 US military personnel and 170 civilians were killed at Kabul’s international airport.

Since then, the Taliban have been fighting ISIS-K in Afghanistan. U.S. counterterrorism officials say Taliban security officials have so far prevented the group from seizing territory and recruiting large numbers of former Taliban fighters.

But in recent years, the arc and scope of ISIS-K’s attacks has widened, including cross-border attacks into Pakistan and an increase in plots in Europe. Most of these European plots have been thwarted, prompting assessments by Western intelligence agencies that the group may have reached the lethal limits of its capabilities.

Last July, Germany and the Netherlands systematic targeted arrests Seven Tajikistan, Turkmen and Kyrgyz nationals associated with the ISIS-K network are suspected of planning attacks in Germany.

Three men have been arrested on suspicion of planning an attack in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. cologne cathedral The raid was linked to three other arrests in Austria and one arrest in Germany on December 24. The four were reportedly acting in support of ISIS-K.

U.S. and other Western counterterrorism officials say these plots were organized by low-level operatives and were discovered and thwarted relatively quickly.

“So far, ISIS Khorasan has relied primarily on inexperienced operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in its name,” said Christine S. Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center. he said. House committee in November.

But there is Worrying signs ISIS-K is learning from its mistakes. January, Masked Assailant attacked a Roman Catholic church One person died in Istanbul. Immediately after that, Islamic State Official Amak News Agency, issued a statement of responsibility. Turkish law enforcement detained 47 people, most of them Central Asians.

Since then, Turkish security forces launched a large-scale counterattack against ISIS suspects in Türkiye, Syria, and Iraq. According to , several European investigations have revealed the global and interconnected nature of ISIS funding. UN report In January, Turkey was identified as a logistics hub for ISIS-K operations in Europe.

Counterterrorism officials said the Moscow and Iranian attacks showed greater sophistication, suggesting higher-level planning and the ability to tap into local extremist networks.

“ISIS-K has been obsessed with Russia for the past two years,” said Colin P. Clark, a counterterrorism analyst at the New York-based security consulting firm Soufan Group. He said he frequently criticizes President Putin. “ISIS-K accuses the Kremlin of having Muslim blood in its veins, citing Moscow’s interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.”

The majority of ISIS-K members are from Central Asia, and Russia is home to a large proportion of Central Asians living and working. Some of these people are become radicalized Clark said his position was in a logistics function stocking weapons.

Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University, said, “ISIS-K has gathered fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus, who have been involved in the Moscow attacks either directly or through their own networks.” There is a possibility.”

Russian and Iranian authorities clearly didn’t take it seriously enough public and were distracted by more detailed American civilian warnings about impending ISIS-K attack plans or other security challenges.

“In early March, the U.S. government shared information with Russia about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow,” National Security Council spokesman Adrian Watson said Saturday. “We also issued a public advisory on March 7th to Americans in Russia. ISIS bears sole responsibility for this attack. There was no involvement of Ukraine.”

Russian authorities announced on Saturday that they had arrested several suspects in Friday’s attack. But senior U.S. officials said Sunday they were still investigating the background of the attackers, whether they were sent from South or Central Asia for this particular attack or whether they were already in the country as part of a network of supporters. He said he is trying to determine whether he was there. ISIS-K then got involved and encouraged it.

Counterterrorism experts said on Sunday that following attacks in Moscow and Iran, ISIS-K is doubling down on attacks in Europe, particularly France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and other countries where it has repeatedly attacked over the past decade. expressed concern that this may be the case.

Using another name for the Islamic State Khorasan, the UN report said: “Some individuals from the North Caucasus and Central Asia who travel to Europe from Afghanistan and Ukraine are likely to plan violent attacks in Western countries. “This is an opportunity for ISIL-K to take action.” The report concluded that there was evidence of “current and unfinished operational sectors on European soil conducted by ISIL-K.”

Senior Western intelligence officials have identified three main factors prompting attacks by ISIS-K operatives: the presence of dormant cells in Europe, footage of the war in Gaza, and support from Russian-speaking people living in Europe. It is.

One major event this summer has many counterterrorism officials on edge.

“I’m worried about the Paris Olympics,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former senior U.N. counter-terrorism official who is now a senior adviser to the Counter-Extremism Project. “They would be prime terrorist targets.”

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