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Islamic State Attack on Moscow: How will this affect the War in Ukraine?

At the time of writing at least 60 people are known to have died as a result of a shooting at a concert hall in western Moscow on the evening of Friday 22 March 2023. This is a shocking atrocity, including three children amongst the dead and over 130 further people injured. Islamic State has claimed responsibility. The conflict seems to have nothing to do directly with the war in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian authorities have expressly disclaimed any responsibility for it. Nevertheless the event indicates that the war in Ukraine is not the only war that Russia is fighting at this time.

If the Islamic State organisation, a network of Islamic extremists across west Africa and the Middle East, were responsible, then the rationale for this terrorist attack is likely to to be Russian intervention in Islamic west Africa where the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation sometimes characterised as a group of state-sponsored mercenaries, has been operating extensively. They have been supporting regime changes and propping up military governments in the Sahel region (the band of countries incorporating the southern Sahara desert) where Islamic militant groups operate. As well as the Wagner Group deposing French-backed governments in the national capitals in the region, they have also been spearheading attacks upon the Sahel-based Islamic militant groups that operate under the collective name Islamic State. Military defeats inflicted on the Sahel battlefield against the Islamic State network that Wagner Group have been assisting their proxy west African governments with are the likely cause of the terrorist atrocity that Moscow has just suffered.

If this is right, then it reveals to us a number of things. Firstly, Russian imperial ambitions are already overstretched. Because as well as fighting an imperial war of aggression in the occupation of Ukraine, it is often overlooked that Russia is fighting another imperial war in west Africa in maintaining a succession of military rulers who consider their principal mission as elimination of Islamist rebels in their outlying regions. Those Islamic terror groups are now showing that they can reach as far as Moscow in the application of their instruments of terror and that they can strike back. Indeed they are showing themselves to be far more capable than Kyiv in this regard. That is because they have infiltrated Russia with Islamic extremists who are prepared to die for their cause, as the gunmen who committed last night’s atrocity undoubtedly were. Kyiv does not have such committed extremists infiltrated into its ranks.

The second point to make about these atrocious events - and we should not diminish the horror and shock of loss of innocent civilian life in Moscow just because this newspaper stands firm against the Russian military aggression in Ukraine - nothing justifies terrorist atrocities of the kind that took place - is that the Russian government is now going to have to divert substantial national security resources to securing its own boundaries and internal territory. In other words, Russia has suddenly discovered that she has two wars she is fighting now, not one. She is fighting the war in Ukraine; and she is fighting an internal war against Islamic fundamentalism. Russia has found herself fighting Islamic fundamentalism in the past, in particular due to the instability of the Muslim-majority souther Russian republics of Dagestan and Chechnya. There have been terrorist atrocities before inflicted by Islamic extremist groups in Russia’s principal cities, and they have entailed a substantial diversion of resources, particularly those of the omnipresent FSB (Russia’s internal security service), to fight the groups and cells within Russia responsible for them.

In the short term this may mean that the FSB resources devoted to securing the occupied territories within Ukraine may have to be diverted to managing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism within Russia, and Russia may find her national security apparatus overstretched. There is also a question of the wisdom of Wagner Group’s continued activities in West Africa, an area traditionally dominated by France upon which Russia now seeks to encroach, if a heavy domestic penalty is to be paid by Russia as a result. Russian imperialism in west Africa has its own costs, and these may not be tolerable at a time when Russia is fighting an extended and gargantuan war with Ukraine that appears to be in indefinite stalemate and that is hugely costly to the Russian economy in terms of diversion of resources and the costs of sanctions and international censure placed upon Russia.

It would be flippant to say that the attention of Islamist terrorists towards Moscow makes Ukraine’s leverage in the Russia / Ukraine war stronger. Russia proved herself capable of a devastating attack upon the Zaporizhzhia hydroelectric power station yesterday, plunging over a million people in eastern Ukraine into darkness as a result. However the fact that Russia is now suddenly fighting on two fronts is likely to give the Kremlin stark cause for concern. At the time of writing, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone characteristically silent, perhaps contemplating the prospect of whether it is really so wise to be fighting two wars at the same time: one internal and one external. Russia’s veto of the US-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza fighting yesterday is likewise unlikely to endure Russia to her significant Muslim population.

Finally, this terrorist incident has revealed something we already knew which is that notwithstanding the war in Ukraine the intelligence communities of the West and of Russia continue to cooperate: the United States has issued a press release confirming that she informed the Kremlin of the risk of a significant Islamic terrorist attack in Russia in recent weeks, and she had updated her travel advisory for US citizens accordingly. So even in times of the most profound conflict between the world’s Great Powers, they still find areas for common cooperation where their interests are aligned and the battle against Islamic terrorism is one of those areas.


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