Why Russia’s massive security services failed in a deadly attack

A day before the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued an unusual public alert this month about a possible extremist attack at a concert venue in Russia, the local CIA station issued a private warning to Russian authorities with at least one additional detail. I told you. An Islamic State offshoot known as ISIS-K was involved.

American intelligence agencies had been closely tracking the group and believed the threat was credible. But within days, President Vladimir V. Putin denounced the warning as “blatant blackmail” and an attempt to “intimidate and destabilize our society.”

Three days after his remarks, gunmen stormed Crocus City Hall on the outskirts of Moscow last Friday night, killing at least 143 people in Russia’s worst attack in nearly 20 years. ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the massacre in statements, photos, and propaganda videos.

What made this security lapse particularly surprising was that Russia’s own security officials also acknowledged a domestic threat days before the massacre by an Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan called Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). That’s what I was doing.

A Russian internal intelligence report likely circulated at the highest levels of the government points to a possible attack in Russia by Tajiks radicalized by ISIS-K, according to information obtained by the London-based Dossier Center. It specifically warned that the number of Reviewed by the New York Times.

Russia has identified the four men believed to have carried out the attack as being from Tajikistan.

Now Mr. Putin and his lieutenants are trying to blame Ukraine and distract attention from an issue that would be front and center in any country with independent media and public debate in the political sphere. Despite important warnings, has Putin been unable to stop one of the country’s biggest terrorist attacks during his nearly quarter-century in power?

The full story is still unknown, and U.S. and European officials, security and counterterrorism experts believe that even in the best of circumstances, with highly specialized intelligence and well-resourced security services, secret He emphasizes that it is difficult to thwart international terrorist plots.

But they say this failure was most likely the result of a combination of factors, the most important of which is deep mistrust both within Russia’s security establishment and in its relationships with other global intelligence agencies. It is said that it is a feeling.

They also point to the way Mr. Putin has taken over the internal security apparatus for ever-growing political repression at home, and his focus on crusades against Ukraine and the West, which are likely unhelpful distractions.

This account of Russia’s failure to prevent the concert attack is based on interviews with U.S. and European security officials, security experts, and analysts specializing in international intelligence capabilities. Many spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of sensitive information.

“The question is whether we can actually prevent terrorist attacks. We need a really good and efficient system of information sharing and intelligence gathering,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian intelligence expert, adding that domestic confidence is We also have good cooperation with agencies that we have highlighted as necessary and with agencies in other countries. He said, “That’s where the problem lies.”

Putin’s definition of extremists began to expand before the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

The agency primarily responsible for combating terrorism in Russia is called the Second Bureau, or FSB, a branch of the Federal Security Service, and previously focused on Islamic extremists, assassination groups and domestic neo-Nazi groups. I had left it there.

But as Mr. Putin advances his political crackdown at home, his list of targets includes opposition figures and their supporters, such as Alexei A. Navalny, who died in a Russian prison last month, as well as The group has expanded to include LGBTQ rights activists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. , peace activists, and other Kremlin critics.

The number of Islamist-affiliated organizations in the Russian Federal Financial Supervisory Service’s register of extremist organizations has been decreasing since 2013. At the same time, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witness-related organizations with world headquarters in the United States have been added., and is viewed with suspicion by the FSB.

Security experts said the expanded focus was wasting resources and distracting senior leaders.

For example, the commander of the Second Corps is increasingly involved in areas far removed from counterterrorism. In 2020, the US government said he and a branch of the FSB were involved in the poisoning of Navalny.

“Overall, the FSB is a political police force and as such reflects the Kremlin’s concerns,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security operations and a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Currently, the government is most affected by political opposition and Ukrainian sabotage, so these are the FSB’s priorities.”

One European security official said they were chasing a “hypothetical threat” rather than a real one.

Still, U.S. and European officials say Russian authorities tracking Islamic extremists have set up their own unit within the Second Force, and that security services have been overwhelmed by escalating domestic political repression and the war against Ukraine. Despite the strain, it says staffing and funding remain strong.

European security officials who track Russian intelligence activities said the failure to thwart the attack was likely due to other factors, including fatigue from being on “particularly high alert” in the period before Russia’s recent presidential election. This is said to be the result of a combination of factors.

There is also evidence that Russian authorities acted on the warning this month, at least initially.

On March 7, a day after the CIA station issued a private warning to the Russians, the FSB announced it had killed two Kazakhs southwest of Moscow while thwarting an ISIS-K plot to target the capital’s synagogue. U.S. officials believed the attack could be a sign that Russian authorities were about to take action.

Famous Russian music producer Joseph Prigozhin, who performed at Crocus Town Hall this month, recalls that he and his wife, Russian pop star Valeria, noticed how security had been tightened at the venue in early March. did. He said security guards checked people’s bags and cosmetic cases and took other measures never seen there before.

“I called the general director and said, ‘Listen, what’s going on? Are we expecting high-ranking guests?'” Prigozhin said in an interview. “He said, ‘Yosif, I’ll talk to you later.'” He said nothing on the phone. He said he needed it and that was it. ”

Around the same time, staff at the venue were warned of a possible terrorist attack and given instructions on what to do in the event of such an event, said Islam Khalilov, a 15-year-old student who was working at coat inspection that night. said.attack, at Interview posted on YouTube.

Grigory Leps, one of Putin’s favorite singers, performed there on March 8th. Mr. Sherman, a singer whose pro-Kremlin views shot him to fame during the wartime frenzy, was scheduled to take the stage the next day.

However, increased security failed to dislodge one of the attackers, Shamsiddin Fariduni. Employees of the music hall told Russian media that they met Faduni at a concert on March 7. A photo of Faduni wearing a light brown coat at the venue was circulated in the Russian media after verification by The Times.

FSB Director Alexander V. Bortnikov stressed in public comments on Tuesday that the information provided by the United States was “of a general nature.”

“We naturally reacted to this information and took appropriate measures,” he said, noting that the steps taken by the FSB to follow up on this information unfortunately did not substantiate it.

The U.S. Embassy said in a March 7 public alert that the risk of an attack on a concert venue in Moscow remains grave for the next 48 hours. U.S. officials said Russian authorities may have taken a hard line during the 48-hour warning period, but then loosened their stance and increased their vigilance. There is a sense of disbelief even though no attack has occurred.

It is unclear whether U.S. intelligence got the timing of the attack wrong or whether the militants delayed their plans in response to increased security.

In the days that followed, a Russian internal intelligence report, which the Documentation Center said was reported to Russia’s National Security Council, specifically warned of the threat posed to Russia by Tajiks radicalized by ISIS-K. The report said Tajiks had been involved in chaos plots in Europe and attacks in Iran and Istanbul in recent months. The report did not mention Western warnings or a possible attack on Moscow.

The documentation center was founded by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, a long-time opponent of Mr. Putin and an exiled Russian tycoon. The authenticity of that report could not be independently verified.

But by then, skepticism about the plot was growing within the Kremlin, and Mr. Putin casually mocked the public’s warnings in a speech to FSB officials and used the opportunity to attack the West again. .

“The FSB and President Putin view the world through the prism of the United States trying to get Russia, so information that is inconsistent with that framework is easily ignored,” said Andrea Kendall, a senior researcher at the center. Taylor says. He previously worked for New American Security, which led the U.S. intelligence community’s analysis of Russia.

She said that “that dynamic may have resulted in intelligence failures with catastrophic consequences.”

When the CIA privately informed Russia of a possible terrorist plot, it was adhering to a 2015 guideline known as the “Duty to Warn” directive, which requires intelligence agencies to “intentionally kill, cause serious injury and kidnap.” .”

Although such directives are relatively rare, the United States is obligated to issue them even to adversaries, and last year issued directives to both the Afghan Taliban and the Iranian government. The warnings are typically not made public unless, as in the case of Moscow, U.S. authorities determine that a threat could affect U.S. citizens.

Putin thanked the U.S. government for providing intelligence that helped Russia thwart terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg in both 2017 and 2019. But analysts say similar action would be impossible in the difficult environment he has created since the invasion of Ukraine.

The United States has been tracking ISIS-K activities very closely in recent months, senior officials said. In the course of surveillance using electronic intercepts, human tips and other means, American agents received fairly specific information about the plot in Moscow, the officials said.

Experts said Russian intelligence services have traditionally focused on domestic terrorist threats emanating from separatist and religious extremist groups in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Large-scale terrorist attacks on the Russian mainland by international groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are rare, and Russian domestic security services have little experience in tracking such threats and are less skilled at infiltrating extremist groups in Central Asia.

The hostile relationship between the U.S. and Russia has kept U.S. officials from sharing as much information about the plot as necessary this month, due to concerns that Russian authorities would learn the sources and methods.

In the days since the attack, the Russian government has returned the favor to Washington for providing the information, insisting that the warning should be treated as evidence of possible U.S. collusion.

FSB chief Bortnikov said on Tuesday that it was impossible that Islamic extremists alone could have carried out the attack. He particularly blamed the United States.

Oleg Matznev, Safak Timur and Arik Toller Contributed to the report.

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