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Russian intel heads allege Western support for Moscow attack

March 26, 2024

Two allies of President Vladimir Putin in Russia's intelligence community have implicated Ukraine and its Western allies in the attack on a concert hall near Moscow claimed by ISIS-K, without providing evidence.

Candles burning at a meemorial site in memory of those killed in the attack. March 24, 2024.
Russian officials have acknowledged that the Islamist ISIS-K group carried out the attack, but are insinuating involvement or encouragement elsewhereImage: Dmitry Golubovich/Russian Look/IMAGO

Two senior Russian intelligence officials on Tuesday alleged either Ukrainian or US or UK involvement at some level in last week's attack on a concert hall just outside Moscow that killed at least 139 people and wounded 180 others. 

However, they did not provide evidence, and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko almost simultaneously risked undermining the only apparent basis for this speculation — that the attackers allegedly tried to flee southwest across the border to Ukraine — by saying that they had first tried to cross into Belarus instead.

The attack at Crocus City Hall has been claimed by the ISIS-K terror group, an offshoot of the self-styled Islamic State based in Afghanistan, which has also released videos on its propaganda channels seeming to show perpetrators in the act.

French President Emmanuel Macron had said on Monday that ISIS-K's involvement appeared plausible to French intelligence agencies and appealed to Russia not to try to exploit the attack to blame Ukraine. US officials have also said their intelligence information corroborates the Islamist group's claims.

Patrushev, Bortnikov follow up on Putin comments

Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russian's Security Council, appeared in a video published by Russian outlet SHOT being asked by a reporter whether it was "ISIS or Ukraine" behind the attack. 

"Of course Ukraine," Patrushev replied. Asked later about the remark he said there were "many" indications of Ukrainian involvement. 

The director of Russia's FSB domestic intelligence agency, Alexander Bortnikov, meanwhile repeated the claim that the attackers were looking to flee to Ukraine, and said that people had been waiting to help spirit them across the border, to the extent that one still exists amid Russia's invasion.

Russian Federal Security Service Director Alexander Bortnikov looks on during a meeting of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Board in Moscow on February 28, 2023.
Alexander Bortnikov heads Russia's FSB, the principal successor entity to the Soviet-era KGBImage: GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/AFP

"In general we believe they are involved in this," Bortnikov said, again without offering evidence.

"We believe the action was prepared both by the radical Islamists themselves and, of course, facilitated by Western special services, and Ukraine's special services themselves have a direct connection to this," Bortnikov was cited as saying by Russian news agencies. 

Bortnikov, echoing President Vladimir Putin's comments on Monday, said it remained an open question who had "ordered" the attack.

"We know that the crime was carried out by the hand of radical Islamists with an ideology that the Muslim world has fought for centuries," Putin said on Monday. "We want to know who ordered it."

He also questioned why ISIS terrorists would attack Russia at this particular time, given what he claimed was a more symmpathetic Russian stance towards Palestinians amid the conflict in Gaza than in the West, without being prompted from outside.

A woman places flowers in memory of the victims of the attack in Moscow, in the center of Simferopol, in Russian-held Crimea, Sunday, March 24, 2024.
Vladimir Putin said soon after the attack that all those responsible would be brought to justiceImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Lukashenko says attackers first tried to enter Belarus

Meanwhile, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday that the attackers appeared to have first tried to flee across the border to Belarus — the closest point of exit from Russia if traveling from the Moscow area — before allegedly trying their luck in the warzone further south instead. 

"There was no way they could enter Belarus. They saw that. That's why they turned away and went to the section of the Ukrainian-Russian border," Lukashenko said. 

Who are ISIS-K, the group that hit Russia?

Ukraine repeats it was not involved, implies Russia panicked at security shortfall

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak responded to the latest Russian allegations online on Tuesday. 

He said that the repeated Russian implication of Ukrainian involvement was being met with "complete disbelief even by neutral countries." 

"The lies are officially spread by Patrushev, and after that by the 'head of the FSB' Bortnikov," Podolyak wrote in English. "Question: Why such a collective display of collective indequacy?"

Russia has also repeatedly claimed US and UK involvement in the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea amid its invasion of Ukraine, allegations that London and Washington have rejected.

msh/lo (AFP, dpa, Reuters)