THE BELL WEEKLY: Russia’s worst terror attack in 20 years

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Hello! This week we look at the worst terror attack in Russia for two decades. We cover what happened at Crocus City Hall on Friday evening and how the authorities are responding.

The shadow of the 1990s looms over concert hall massacre

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, terrorist attacks were a tragic feature of life in Russia. Apartment blocks were blown up, there were attacks on the metro and airplanes, and hostage-taking was a constant threat. Over the last 15 years there has been a sharp decrease in the number of attacks and with the start of the war in Ukraine, terrorism in Russia had supposedly been consigned to history. The daily news agenda was instead dominated by military updates. For many, the attack at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall — the deadliest in Russia for 20 years — has revived long-suppressed memories of the terror threat. Amid the mourning, it has reopened old conspiracy theories, recalling accusations of the state’s involvement in past incidents.

Timeline of terror

The attack on Crocus City Hall is the most fatal in Russia since the Beslan school siege in 2004, which killed more than 300 people, many of them children.

  • On the evening of March 22, terrorists drove up to the venue in Moscow’s northwestern suburbs — where crowds were gathering for a concert by veteran Russian rock group Picnic — and immediately opened fire. Unarmed security guards at the doors no chance to offer resistance. The attackers then entered the building and shot indiscriminately as they made their way through the lobby and into the concert hall. There, they continued to shoot concert-goers and started a massive fire, before returning to the venue’s parking lot and driving off in the same vehicle in which they arrived. 
  • There are several police stations near the concert hall and the attackers literally walked past a police van while carrying their weapons, according to videos from the scene. But even so, police response units only began to storm the concert hall almost 90 minutes after the first reports of gunfire and 30 minutes after the terrorists fled the scene.
  • The blaze quickly engulfed the entire building, burning intensely enough to bring down the roof of the complex. Firefighters were still extinguishing the blaze the following day, and rescuers spent the whole weekend clearing up the wreckage, a task that continued into Monday. 
  • According to the latest figures, 139 people were killed. That figure is likely to rise in the coming days, with around 90 people still in hospital, seven in an extremely serious condition. 
  • Some of the victims died as they tried to escape the burning building. Telegram channels with links to the security services reported that at least 42 bodies were found in a toilet and in one of the evacuation stairways. Eyewitnesses said that many emergency exits were closed and as people tried to get out of the building they “stumbled over the bodies of people who had been burned [to death].” The venue’s owners insisted that fire safety systems worked properly and prevented the hall (which is a modern venue, built in 2009) from collapsing for several hours.
  • Vladimir Putin has not visited the scene of the tragedy in person and made his first public statement only 19 hours after it occurred. He thanked the medics, firefighters and rescue workers, compared the terrorists to Nazis and promised “to punish everyone who prepared this strike against Russia.” Sunday was declared a day of national mourning.

Suspects captured

The Islamic State almost immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Later, it released video footage taken by the gunmen during the shooting. In it, the terrorists are seen firing on a group of people at almost point blank range. One man, lying on the floor, has his throat repeatedly slashed.

  • Russia’s FSB said it had arrested 11 men in connection with the attack. Four were the alleged assailants in the massacre. Their vehicle was stopped on Saturday morning not far from Bryansk, a city in southwest Russia, about 400 kilometers from Moscow. The intelligence services said they had “contacts” in Ukraine and were trying to make it over the border. Putin also mentioned this in his address to the nation.
  • All four are citizens of Tajikistan. On Sunday, a court in Moscow ordered them to be held in custody on terrorism charges. In a late-night hearing, one of the accused had a piece of a plastic bag around his neck — which may have been used to torture him. All had bloody, bruised faces with cuts on. Another was brought to the courtroom in a wheelchair, appearing to be barely conscious. The suspects face life imprisonment.
  • After reports of the arrests on Saturday, Telegram channels linked to the security forces started sharing footage of a man in camouflage cutting off part of the ear of one of the suspected terrorists. He then forces him to eat it and threatens to castrate him. Later, more signs of possible torture emerged in a photograph that seemed to show interrogators giving electric shocks to one of the suspects. This torture may call into question the testimony of those arrested, who claimed in filmed interrogations that they carried out the attack in return for 500,000 rubles ($5,400) on the orders of an anonymous “remote” contact.
  • The IStories media outlet studied footage released by ISIS and the images of the detainees shared on Russian social media. Based on an analysis of fragments of their clothing, it concluded that it was the same people in both videos.
  • The fate of some of the 11 who were reportedly detained is unknown. On Monday, three more were brought before a court in Moscow, facing terrorism charges. They included the owner of the car in which the terrorists fled the scene.

The Kyiv ‘connection’ and ‘Ryazan sugar’

Despite strong evidence that ISIS really was behind the attack, Russian propaganda outlets have focused on the Ukrainian connection, talked up by Putin and the FSB, and even blamed Western countries for the attack. In fact, the United States warned of a possible terrorist attack in Moscow (including on concert halls) in early March — an alert described by Putin as “blackmail and an attempt to intimidate and destabilize our society.” Ukrainian officials have repeatedly stated that they had nothing to do with the attack.

  • Notorious propagandist and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan wrote that “ISIS was nowhere near” the attack and alleged that it was set up with the “direct involvement” of Western intelligence services.
  • On the end-of-the-week Vesti Nedeli talk show, host Dmitry Kiselyov highlighted that the terror suspects were detained while heading towards Ukraine, where they allegedly planned to “take refuge.” He said reports of ISIS’s involvement were a “false lead” and that in ISIS attacks, terrorists “don’t try to flee.” Propagandist Irada Zeynalova said on NTV that the attack was “an operation under someone else's flag,” without further elaborating.
  • Russians who left the country due to the war were also targeted. State news agency RIA Novosti carried a prominent op-ed by propagandist Elena Karayeva on its homepage on Sunday. She blamed the attack on opposition “public opinion leaders,” who had justified the murders of pro-war activists.
  • Some Russian officials also accused Ukraine of organizing the attack, albeit without producing any evidence. Andrey Kartapolov, head of the Duma’s defense committee, identified Ukraine and “its patrons” as the principal “interested parties” in the massacre. Senator and former Commander-in-Chief of the Aerospace Forces Sergei Bondarev also said Ukraine was involved.
  • The Kremlin did not directly accuse Ukraine of setting up the attack, but has tried to draw multiple links to both Kyiv and the West. On Monday, in a meeting with security chiefs, Putin said: “We know the crime was committed by Islamist terrorists. But the question arises: who benefits?” He went on to say the massacre was the latest in a “series” of attacks against Russia by “those who have been fighting us with the hands of the neo-Nazi Kyiv regime since 2014.”
  • There is nothing to prevent Moscow from taking advantage of the incident for its own ends. There are at least two possible future scenarios. The first is a new wave of mobilization for the war in Ukraine. On March 20, defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to form two new fighting forces for the war in Ukraine. This prompted rumors of a new wave of mobilization. The second would be to end the moratorium on use of the death penalty. This issue was raised shortly after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 but gained little traction. After Friday’s attack, Vladimir Vasilyev, leader of the ruling United Russia group in the Duma, said that a ”decision would be taken that will meet the mood and expectations of our society.”
  • While the state apparatus hypes talks of a Ukrainian connection, without providing evidence, many critics of the Putin regime have recalled some of the theories that surrounded terror attacks in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, it was suggested that Russian intelligence services were behind some in order to boost Putin’s reputation and justify unpopular decisions from the Kremlin. 
  • Former KGB/FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko wrote about this in his 2006 book, “Blowing up Russia”. Litvinenko was killed in London in 2006, and the European Court of Human Rights accused Russia’s special services of assassinating him. In the book, Litvinenko claimed that Russian agents were behind a series of explosions in apartment blocks in several cities in the fall of 1999. He said the spate of attacks was needed in order to mobilize society for the Second Chechen War. Russian troops used the backdrop of rising terrorism to crack down on separatists in the North Caucasus republic, help bring Putin to power and secure victory in his first presidential election campaign in 2000. 
  • The apartment block bombings gave rise to the expression “Ryazan sugar” to refer to the possible involvement of the Russian secret services in false flag terrorist operations. The term dates from an incident in 1999 — amid the spate of bombings — when security forces found bags of an explosive that resembled sugar, alongside detonators, in the basement of an apartment building in the city of Ryazan. Local officials initially claimed to have thwarted a major terrorist attack, but within half an hour, FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev (now one of Putin’s closest allies) said that there were never any real explosives in Ryazan and the whole thing was a security forces exercise. The contradiction led many to believe that FSB officers had been behind plans to blow up the apartment block, but were foiled and tried to cover it up as a training exercise.
  • Google search statistics give some sense of how Russians recall this theory 25 years later. Within a few days of Friday’s attack, searches related to “Ryazan sugar” reached record levels.

Why the world should care

The deadliest terror attack on Russia in 20 years, combined with a full-scale war on Ukraine, has left many Russians wondering what will happen now. The answer could be further repression, whether in the form of a new wave of mobilization or the return of the death penalty. During wartime, there is nothing to prevent the Kremlin doing either — or both — without the need for any “triggers.”


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