ISIS affiliate linked to Moscow attack has global ambitions

Five years ago this month, a Kurdish and Arab militias driven out Islamic State fighters from a village in eastern Syria, the group's last strip of territory.

Since then, the organization that once ruled a self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria has metastasized into a more traditional terrorist group — a clandestine network of cells West Africa in Southeast Asia, engaged in guerrilla attacks, bombings and targeted assassinations.

None of the group's affiliates have been as relentless as the Islamic State of Khorasan, which is active in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and aims to attack Europe and beyond. U.S. officials say the group carried out attack near Moscow Friday, killing many people and injuring many others.

In January, the Islamic State of Khorasan, or ISIS-K, committed two bomb attacks in Iran who killed dozens and injured hundreds more during a memorial service for former Iranian general Qassim Suleimani, who was targeted by a U.S. drone strike four years earlier.

“The threat of ISIS,” Avril D. Haines, director of national intelligence, said during a Senate panel this month, “remains a major counterterrorism concern.” Most of the attacks “carried out by ISIS globally have actually taken place by parts of ISIS that are outside of Afghanistan,” she said.

Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, head of Army Central Command, told a House committee Thursday that ISIS-K “retains the ability and willingness to attack U.S. and Western interests abroad by only six months with little or no warning.” .”

US counterterrorism experts on Sunday rejected 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.

This is the third attack on a concert hall in the Northern Hemisphere in the past decade, Hoffman said, following an attack on the Bataclan Theater in Paris in November 2015 (part of a wider operation which struck other targets in the city) and a suicide attack during an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, England, in May 2017.

The Islamic State of Khorasan, founded in 2015 by disgruntled members of the Pakistani Taliban, burst onto the international jihadist scene after the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government in 2021. During the US military withdrawal from the country, ISIS-K led a suicide attack at Kabul International Airport in August 2021, which killed 13 US service members and up to 170 civilians.

Since then, the Taliban have been fighting ISIS-K in Afghanistan. So far, Taliban security services have prevented the group from seizing territory or recruiting large numbers of former Taliban fighters, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials.

But the scale and scope of ISIS-K attacks have increased in recent years, with cross-border strikes in Pakistan and a growing number of plots in Europe. Most of these European plots were foiled, leading Western intelligence services to assess that the group might have reached the deadly limits of its capabilities.

Last July, Germany and the Netherlands coordinated arrests targeting seven Tajik, Turkmen and Kyrgyz individuals linked to an ISIS-K network and suspected of having planned attacks in Germany.

Three men arrested in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia for alleged attack plans Cologne Cathedral on New Year's Eve 2023. The raids were linked to three other arrests in Austria and one in Germany on December 24. The four individuals are believed to have acted in support of ISIS-K.

U.S. and Western counterterrorism officials say the plots were organized by low-level operatives who were detected and foiled relatively quickly.

“Until now, ISIS-Khorasan has relied primarily on inexperienced operatives in Europe to attempt to launch attacks on its behalf,” said Christine S. Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center . a House committee in November.

But there is worrying signs that ISIS-K learns from its mistakes. In January, masked attackers attacked a Roman Catholic church in Istanbul, killing one person. Shortly after, the Islamic State, through its Official Amaq news agency, claimed responsibility. Turkish law enforcement arrested 47 people, most of them Central Asians.

Since then, Turkish security forces have launched mass counter-operations against ISIS suspects in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Several European investigations highlight the global and interconnected nature of IS finances, according to a United Nations report in January, which identified Turkey as a logistical hub for ISIS-K operations in Europe.

The attacks in Moscow and Iran demonstrated more sophistication, counterterrorism officials said, suggesting a greater level of planning and ability to exploit local extremist networks.

“ISIS-K has been obsessed with Russia for two years,” frequently criticizing President Vladimir V. Putin in its propaganda, said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm. “ISIS-K accuses the Kremlin of having Muslim blood on its hands, referring to Moscow's interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.”

A significant portion of ISIS-K members are of Central Asian origin, and a significant contingent of Central Asians live and work in Russia. Some of these people may have radicalize and was able to perform a logistical function, storing weapons, Mr Clarke said.

Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism specialist at Georgetown University, said that “ISIS-K has gathered fighters from Central Asia and the Caucasus under its wing, and they could be responsible for the attack on Moscow, either directly or via their own networks.

The Russian and Iranian authorities apparently did not take it seriously enough public and more detailed private U.S. warnings of an imminent ISIS-K attack plot, or have been distracted by other security challenges.

“In early March, the U.S. government shared information with Russia about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Saturday. “We also issued a public notice to Americans in Russia on March 7. ISIS bears full responsibility for this attack. There was no Ukrainian involvement.”

Russian authorities announced Saturday the arrest of several suspects in Friday's attack. But senior U.S. officials said Sunday they were continuing to investigate the attackers' backgrounds and try to determine whether they had been deployed from South or Central Asia for this specific attack or whether they were already in the countries as members of the supporter network. which ISIS-K then engaged and encouraged.

Counterterrorism experts expressed concern Sunday that the attacks in Moscow and Iran could encourage ISIS-K to step up efforts to strike in Europe, particularly France, Belgium, in Britain and other countries that have been affected intermittently over the past decade.

The UN report, using a different name for the Islamic State of Khorasan, says that “some individuals from the North Caucasus and Central Asia traveling from Afghanistan or Ukraine to Europe represent an opportunity for ISIL-K, which seeks to plan violent attacks in the West.” The report concluded that there was evidence of “ongoing and unfinished operational plots on European soil carried out by ISIL-K.”

A senior Western intelligence official has identified three main factors that could incite IS members to attack: the existence of sleeper cells in Europe, images of the war in Gaza and support from Russian speakers living in Europe.

A major event this summer has put many counterterrorism officials on edge.

“I worry about the Paris Olympics,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former top U.N. counterterrorism official who is now a senior adviser to the Counter-Extremism Project. “They would constitute a prime terrorist target.”

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