Who was behind the massacre in Moscow?


A POPULAR MOSCOW concert hall turned into a hellish crime scene on the evening of March 22nd when a group of masked gunmen armed with automatic rifles opened fire on crowds at a rock gig. Footage from Crocus City Hall showed at least four men shooting at unarmed people before entering the foyer area leading to the auditorium.

State media reported that Russian special forces had begun to storm the building, just as a steady stream of dead and injured were being taken from it. By the following day, the authorities were saying that at least 133 people died, either from gunshots or because of a fire that swept parts of the building after the assailants threw a grenade or incendiary. Many more have been wounded. The Russian authorities have said that the gunmen initially fled, but have since been apprehended.

The first news of a developing incident came at around 8.30pm local time on Friday night, when police and emergency services responded to a red alert at the venue. Over the next hour two separate explosions were heard, enveloping the complex in smoke and fire, and reportedly trapping hundreds of people inside. According to witnesses quoted by state media, the gunmen opened fire on latecomers as they queued for entry to the hall. Some survived by hiding in toilets and punching holes through to communication shafts.

“We literally jumped over corpses to escape,” a woman identified as Polina L told 112, a social-media channel closely connected to Russian law enforcement. “People ran, and they hid…We hitched a ride a couple of kilometres away, so afraid were we that they would also shoot on the street.”

Within hours of the attack Islamic State had issued a statement claiming responsibility. That claim was impossible to verify. However American officials told several news outlets that they indeed thought the terrorist group was to blame. The incident came two weeks after warnings from Western embassies of an impending terrorist attack in Moscow, advising citizens to avoid large gatherings. On the same day as those warnings, Russia’s security services announced that they had foiled an attack on a synagogue. On March 9th two Kazakh citizens were reportedly killed in a shoot-out with anti-terrorism officers.

President Vladimir Putin later chose to dismiss the Western warnings during his annual address to his most senior spies on March 19th. “All this resembles outright blackmail and an intention to intimidate and destabilise our society,” he was reported as saying. This may now come home to haunt him.

Crocus City, a glitzy retail and entertainment park in north-west Moscow, is one of the largest complexes of its sort in Europe, with its own metro station. Its concert hall regularly hosts big groups such as Piknik, the veteran rockers who were due to perform on Friday night. The venue is notable for another reason. Its owner is Aras Agalarov, a Russian-Azeri property developer with close links to Mr Putin. Some reports identified Mr Agalarov as a conduit between the Kremlin and Donald Trump during the 2016 election.

Who might have been behind the attack? The claim, and American officials’ apparent agreement with it, does make Islamic State the most likely culprit. But there is no shortage of other potential suspects. The Kremlin’s brutal two-year war in Ukraine has created new enemies and increased the amount of arms in open circulation among returnee soldiers. There is a strong nationalist and vigilante movement at home. The Kremlin’s involvement in bloody conflicts internally in Chechnya and Dagestan have also long made Russia a target for Islamist terrorist groups of various stripes. But its intervention in Syria, where Russian soldiers have supported the Assad regime against Islamic State and other rebels, does support that group’s claim of responsibility.

Ukraine immediately denied any involvement in the attack. A high-level intelligence source told The Economist that the Ukrainian government had been worried that the Kremlin might try to weaponise a terror event of this sort, especially as Mr Putin weighs up whether to risk a new wave of mobilisation. The source said it was necessary to wait to see how Russia would officially classify the event: “Whether they will say it is Chechnya, or Dagestan, perhaps that we are involved somehow, or just simply blame us directly.” The reality is that it would be an act of pure insanity for Ukraine to attempt anything of the sort. Killing civilians would be a sure way to alienate the Western supporters on whom Ukraine so heavily depends.

Still, the Kremlin is trying to implicate Ukraine, even if, in an address to the nation on the afternoon of March 23rd Mr Putin stopped short of directly accusing it of mounting the attack. Instead, he claimed that Ukraine had provided a “window” of escape for the terrorists, who had fled towards that country before supposedly being captured, without saying where they had actually come from.


Source link

Back to top button