What we know after the Islamic State group claims responsibility for Moscow massacre

People lay flowers and light candles standing next to the Crocus City Hall, on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. Russia's top state investigative agency says the death toll in the Moscow concert hall attack has risen to over 133. The attack Friday on Crocus City Hall, a sprawling mall and concert venue on Moscow's western edge, also left many wounded and left the building a smoldering ruin. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

People lay flowers and light candles standing next to the Crocus City Hall, on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 23, 2024. Russia’s top state investigative agency says the death toll in the Moscow concert hall attack has risen to over 133. The attack Friday on Crocus City Hall, a sprawling mall and concert venue on Moscow’s western edge, also left many wounded and left the building a smoldering ruin. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for an attack on a suburban Moscow concert hall that killed at least 133 people, the most deadly attack in Russia in years. Though the U.S. says it has evidence backing up the jihadists’ claim, that didn’t stop Moscow and Kyiv from pointing the finger at each other Saturday as the war in Ukraine rages on.

Much remains unknown about the Friday night attack, including whether it related to a security alert the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued two weeks earlier and whether it signals a resurgence of the group in the West.

Russia continues to investigate after detaining 11 suspects but it wasn’t possible to confirm the authenticity of statements issued by Russian investigators.

Here is a look at some of what is known so far.

WHO CLAIMED RESPONSIBILITY

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility, first Friday and then again Saturday, on the social media channels that they typically use to issue statements. In their Saturday statement they said the attack had come in the “the natural framework” of the ongoing war between the extremist group and countries they accuse of fighting Islam.

IS is an offshoot of al-Qaida that took over much of Iraq and Syria in 2014. It launched a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, a religious minority that lives in northern Iraq, as well as other groups. By 2018, it had been largely defeated on the battlefield by a U.S.-led coalition, but it continues to operate in desert hideouts in both countries. Its regional affiliates are also present in Afghanistan, West Africa and the Far East.

A Pakistani security analyst, Syed Muhammad Ali, said that if it is confirmed that the group carried out the grisly concert hall massacre, it could be seen as revenge for Russian airstrikes against IS hideouts in Syria. He noted that the group has been badly damaged by Russian airstrikes in Syria in recent years.

U.S. CONFIRMATION

A U.S. official told The Associated Press that U.S. agencies said that IS-K, a Central Asian affiliate of the Islamic State group, was responsible for the attack. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that IS-K has long targeted Russia.

Russia’s FSB, the Federal Security Service, said that it disrupted an attack by the same group that was aimed at a Moscow synagogue just a few weeks ago.

WHO IS IS-K?

The group takes its name from Khorasan Province, a region that covered much of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia in the Middle Ages. The branch started with several hundred Pakistani Taliban fighters who took refuge across the border in Afghanistan after Pakistani military operations drove them out of their home country. Its fighters have repeatedly carried out attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power in 2021.

IS-K has thousands of members and is the Taliban’s most bitter enemy and top military threat. The group has continued to carry out attacks in Afghanistan and beyond since the Taliban takeover. They were behind the August 2021 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that left 13 U.S. troops and about 170 Afghans dead during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. IS-K also claimed responsibility for the bomb attack in Kerman, Iran, in January that killed 95 people at a memorial procession for Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020.

HALLMARKS OF AN ISLAMIC STATE ATTACK

A security expert, Olivier Guitta, argues that there is much to back up the Islamic State’s claim, including the fact that the group had specifically threatened Russia.

He noted that it took place on a Friday during the holy month of Ramadan, a time favored by jihadis. And once again the target was a concert hall, just as in the 2015 attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris and the Manchester Arena attack in 2017.

“The modus operandi of the attack is classic ISIS,” said Guitta, using an acronym referring to the Islamic State group. He is the managing director of GlobalStrat, an international security and risk consultancy firm in London.

A U.S. WARNING

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a security alert to U.S. citizens on March 7 saying it was monitoring reports that extremists had “imminent plans to target large gatherings” in Moscow, including concerts.

Putin denounced the U.S. warning as an attempt to scare Russians.

The March 7 warning advised U.S. citizens to avoid large gatherings for the coming 48 hours. The bloody attack came just over two weeks later.

ACCUSATIONS AMID THE BACKDROP OF WAR

In an address to the nation on Saturday, Putin said authorities have detained a total of 11 people in the attack, including four suspected gunmen in what he called “a bloody, barbaric terrorist act.”

He said Russian authorities captured the four suspected gunmen as they were trying to escape to Ukraine through a “window” prepared for them on the Ukrainian side of the border. He didn’t mention IS at all.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it “categorically rejects” accusations by Russia that it was involved and considers them an attempt “to further fuel anti-Ukrainian hysteria in Russian society.”

In the same statement, the ministry in Kyiv suggested that the Russian government itself might be involved. It said: “The Russian regime has a long history of bloody provocations by its special services …. There are no red lines for Putin’s dictatorship. It is ready to kill its own citizens for political purposes.”

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Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington, Colleen Long in Wilmington, Delaware and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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