Thoughts on the Crocus City Hall Attack

The scale and atrocity of the Krasnogorsk attack shook the world, bringing back bloody images of other mass killings around the globe. Yet 48 hours later we remain dumbfounded. Without questioning the Afghan branch of Islamic State’s claim to have carried out this terror act, we cannot but reflect on the colossal and incomprehensible security flaws that made this massacre possible.

Crocus City Hall, a 6,200-seat concert venue, is part of a larger complex, Crocus City Expo. On the fateful evening, the complex, adjacent to regional administration buildings, was unguarded, with the exception of a few unarmed security guards. The metal detectors were out of order. The square outside a huge building was empty. The four gunmen entered the complex through a side entrance, burst into the already packed hall a few minutes before the start of a rock concert, fired for a good 20 minutes into the crowd, set the hall ablaze by spraying the seats with a combustible liquid, then drove off in their car left on a crosswalk 200 meters from the building. Special forces arrived almost an hour after the terror offensive began, although their base is just across the ring road from the complex. The terrorists were eventually caught in the Bryansk region, the Kremlin says, some 400 km from Moscow. They were heading for Ukraine, Vladimir Putin tells us, where “a window of passage to Ukraine” had been set up for them, even though the Bryansk region borders both Ukraine and Belarus, and it was to Belarus that the car was headed. Without the roads being checked for hours on end? Without the well-known Perekhvat interception system being activated? And then there is the front line. Could there have been a window for the terrorists on the Russian side?

One might have believed in the innocence of the Russian authorities, so unprepared for a beastly attack, if Russia were a land of milk and honey. But Russia has been plagued by terror attacks since its wars in Chechnya. What is more, two weeks ago, the Kremlin was warned by US intelligence and the services of six European countries of an imminent attack. Putin dismissed this warning as “Western provocation”. But even if there had been no warning, Russia is known for its impressive fencing of all public events, including large-scale concerts, not to mention opposition rallies. The perimeter is always secured by roadblocks guarded by heavily armed police forces, and passing through metal detectors is mandatory.

This leads us to consider the possible complicity of Russian services in this attack. Remember that the FSB was strongly suspected of masterminding explosions in Moscow and two other cities in 1999 (almost 300 dead), which served as a pretext for invading rebel Chechnya. It should also be recalled that an FSB agent, Khanpach Terkibaev, infiltrated the terrorists who took hostages in the concert hall in Dubrovka, Moscow, in 2002, and left the building before the brutal assault by Russian forces (130 dead, 124 of whom died from the asphyxiant gas used by these forces). These are not the only examples. It therefore seems plausible that the Russian services were aware of the planned attack and let it happen. But they may not have foreseen the scale of the disaster to come.

Crocus City Hall the day after the attack // Press service of the governor of the Moscow region

So what would be the purpose of such an operation? First and foremost, it would intensify the war against Ukraine. Indeed, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said only two days before the attack that he would create two new armed forces and 14 divisions by the end of the year. Indeed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov spoke for the first time of a “war” rather than a special military operation. Above all, the Russian media was ordered by the presidential administration to blame the attack on Ukraine, with virtually no mention of Islamic State (IS). However, this intensification had been planned. The country has already been mobilized, its economy is already geared up for war, and propaganda is already in full swing.

On the other hand, this operation could trigger an even greater hardening of the regime within the country. In a letter from the Speaker of the State Duma to Putin in November 2023, which Ukrainian hackers were able to seize, Vyacheslav Volodin proposes a program to be carried out through the adoption of several freedom-destroying laws after the scheduled re-election of the incumbent president. On the domestic front, it involves “de-Westernization”, which would take the form of increased nationalization of all sectors of the mining and heavy industry; the “sovereignization” of science and culture by placing them under state control; the strengthening of censorship, including on television and the Internet; the “solution” to the problem posed by opposition movements; and the moderate clericalization of society. Putin signed this typed letter with the words “I agree”).

So it is no coincidence that official voices are calling for the moratorium on the death penalty to be abolished, including that of former president Dmitry Medvedev calling for “death sentences for all terrorists and repression of their families”. And when you consider that dozens of opponents and intellectuals are facing charges of “terrorism” or “justification of terrorism”, such as stage director Zhenya Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk, Volodin’s phrase about the “solution” to the opposition problem takes on a sinister meaning: for some, it could be a “final solution”.

There is one more aspect that no-one has yet discussed. The seriousness of the terror attack inevitably puts Vladimir Putin and the Russia he rules with an iron fist on the side of the victims. Many media outlets have already spoken of the “Russian Bataclan”, of the need to strengthen the common front against the terrorist threat. But we should not forget that this is a terrorist regime which is itself inflicting grievous damage on martyred Ukraine, killing its civilians and stealing its children, and terrorizing its own population. Nor should we forget that Putin’s Russia, like the USSR, maintains relations of trust with several terrorist organizations. It recognizes IS as a terrorist structure, but not Hamas or Hezbollah. What is more, after the Syrian revolution in 2011, Russian security forces let thousands of Chechens and other radicalized Muslims, including their infiltrators, leave for Syria to join the ranks of IS. A force which the Russian armed forces later attacked (hence a motive for revenge for IS), but which was by no means its primary target.

Western countries need to understand that compassion for the victims should not mean complacency toward the Putin regime. 

Born in Moscow, she has been living in France since 1984. After 25 years of working at RFI, she now devotes herself to writing. Her latest works include: Le Régiment immortel. La Guerre sacrée de Poutine, Premier Parallèle 2019; Traverser Tchernobyl Premier Parallèle, 2016.

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