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ISIS-K Claims Credit After 137 Killed in Moscow Concert Attack; Russia Tries to Blame Ukraine

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ISIS-K, an affiliate of the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility for an attack on a popular concert hall in Moscow that killed at least 137. Authorities say gunmen opened fire inside the Crocus City Hall building during a sold-out rock concert and then set part of the venue on fire. More than 100 people were injured in the attack, and many remain in critical condition. Authorities have detained 11 suspects, four of whom, all reportedly citizens of Tajikistan, are charged with terrorism and face life sentences. As more details emerge about the attack, we speak with professor of international affairs at The New School Nina Khrushcheva about the history of Muslim fundamentalist attacks in Russia and Putin’s “unfortunate” decision to ignore Western intelligence warnings about terrorist attacks. We’re also joined by longtime Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker Joshua Yaffa, who details possible motivations for ISIS-K and how Putin is attempting to fit this attack into his narrative opposing Ukraine and the West. “First and foremost, he cares about preserving his own power and the continued stability of his ruling system,” says Yaffa, who explains how Putin tries to control political blowback by equating ISIS-K with any group he opposes, including Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption network and the so-called worldwide LGBT movement. “This is important to understand both in trying to determine how this attack happened in the first place and also what might Putin’s response be moving forward.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

In Russia, the death toll has risen to 137 from an attack on a popular concert hall in Moscow Friday. Authorities say gunmen opened fire inside the Crocus City Hall during a sold-out rock concert, then set part of the venue on fire. More than 100 people were also injured, many in critical condition. A survivor described the attack.

ANASTASIA RODIONOVA: [translated] They were just walking and shooting as they went along. There were five of six of them. They were just walking and just shooting like this. They did not shoot upwards. They did not scream. They did not say, “Everyone, lay down. We will kill you,” etc. They were just walking and gunning down everyone methodically in silence. Sound was echoing, and we could not understand what was where.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunday was a day of mourning in Russia. Authorities have detained 11 people, including four men from Tajikistan who appeared in court today. They all appeared to have suffered significant injuries, reportedly suffered during interrogations. One suspect was in a wheelchair and seemed to lose consciousness during the court session. Reuters reports he may have had an eye missing. The four are charged with terrorism and face life sentences.

An affiliate of the Islamic state, ISIS-K, has claimed responsibility and posted video of the attack online. Russian authorities have suggested Ukraine was in the attack, a claim Kyiv called absurd.

The U.S. Embassy had reportedly warned Russia earlier this month that it was, quote, “monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow,” unquote, especially concert halls, and U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the U.S. government had, quote, “shared this information with Russian authorities in accordance with its longstanding 'duty to warn' policy.” Putin called the warnings, quote, “provocative” and “outright blackmail” in a speech last Tuesday. Today, a Kremlin spokesperson refused to respond to reporters who asked Friday — if Friday was an intelligence failure.

DMITRY PESKOV: [translated] Our special services work independently. Any help now is out of the question, although, as you know, the day before, President Putin had many phone communications, leaders of various countries, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey and other countries, whose leaders spoke with the president over the phone. The intentions to develop and improve cooperation against terrorism were voiced there. The topic was discussed. There are no contacts with the Westerners now.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In a minute we’ll speak with Nina Khrushcheva, a professor at The New School university here in New York. But first we turn to Joshua Yaffa, contributing writer to The New Yorker magazine, their longtime Moscow correspondent, author of Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia, his new piece, released yesterday, “How Will Putin Respond to the Terrorist Attack in Moscow?”

Josh, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, how will and how is Putin responding to this attack, as we just listened to Dmitry Peskov, the longtime Kremlin spokesperson?

JOSHUA YAFFA: Well, you highlighted, rightly, that this is an awkward, to put it mildly, subject for Putin, given the warnings that the West made publicly, through that U.S. Embassy notice that you read, and there were also clearly private warnings that now the U.S. National Security Council is talking about, in which the U.S. shared some intelligence about the prospect or likelihood of an attack. And Putin, at a meeting with high-ranking FSB officials, an address he gave to an FSB colloquium, in three days before the attack, dismissed those warnings, as you said, as blackmail, as a provocation, as a kind of ruse by the West. So, all of this is now, again, to put it mildly, and very tragically, quite awkward for Putin, given the scale of destruction in the terror attack last week.

Putin’s first instinctual reaction, I think, both based on political calculation but also, I think, kind of genuine — his genuine paranoid read of how things work, was to try and cast a shadow on Ukraine, suggesting that somehow these ISIS-K terrorists had links to Ukraine, that Ukraine and perhaps the West were behind this attack. That fits very much into Putin’s paranoid worldview. Of course, it’s a very convenient argument and narrative for not just Putin himself but the Kremlin information machine to make to the Russian public. We’ve seen propaganda outlets go into overdrive. State media, Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT, really pushed this narrative that somehow Ukraine must be involved, that even if the perpetrators, the ones who actually carried out the attack, were citizens of Tajikistan, perhaps doing so out of allegiance or in coordination with ISIS-K, that the real villain lies in Ukraine. And I think Putin will continue to try and push this narrative to the extent possible.

We saw, as you mentioned, clear signs of torture from the suspects who were brought to Moscow court. Could torture be used to extract a kind of “confession,” in air quotes, from them that indeed Ukraine or the West stood behind the attack? I think that’s possible. We don’t know.

It’s also possible that given how awkward and uncomfortable this is of a subject and how it doesn’t actually fit with the larger Kremlin narratives about the war in Ukraine, the necessity of that war, the standoff with the West, the United States as the main enemy, that Putin, the Kremlin, the propaganda machine of the Russian state may try and change the conversation, move on, quickly change topics and actually not devote a lot of attention to this attack and see if they can’t get the Russian people to grimly absorb it as the Russian public has had to grimly absorb so many tragedies in recent years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to your reference to what Russian President Vladimir Putin said, suggesting Ukraine was involved in the deadly attacks on Crocus City Hall, vowing to punish all those responsible.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] All four of the actual performers of the act of terror, all those who shot and killed people were found and detained. They tried to hide, and they were moving in the direction of Ukraine. There, according to the preliminary data, they had a crossing of the border prepared from the Ukrainian side. … All executors, planners and those who ordered this crime will be rightfully and inevitably punished, whoever they are and whoever directed them. Let me repeat: We will identify and punish everyone who stood behind the terrorists, who prepared this attack against Russia, against our people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Vladimir Putin. He said that these people, the Tajiks, were headed to the Ukraine border. Talk about who ISIS-K is, that claimed responsibility for this attack.

JOSHUA YAFFA: ISIS-K is a group, an affiliate of the larger ISIS, or the ISIS that we came to know in Syria and Iraq. It’s based in Central Asia, Afghanistan, where it’s most active, and it’s engaging in a kind of civil war within the jihadi community with the Taliban, has made Russia a target, at least rhetorically, for some time, citing Russia’s own campaign, or the Soviet Union’s campaign in Afghanistan against the mujahideen in the '80s, all the way up to Russia's war against ISIS, its air campaign in Syria, very brutal, destructive, indiscriminate air campaign, a ground campaign involving Wagner mercenaries against ISIS in Palmyra and other sites around Syria, Russia’s own repression and ongoing counterinsurgency against Muslim communities, oftentimes Muslim extremist or Muslim militant communities, in the Russian North Caucasus, so that there’s no share of grievance on the side of ISIS-K, again, which doesn’t really need to work very hard to try and find or justify targets. It’s also in recent months tried to plan attacks in Europe, Germany, elsewhere. Those apparently have been foiled. So, the fact that Russia is in ISIS-K’s crosshairs is neither nothing new nor particularly all that surprising, given what we know about the group and Russia’s own involvement in various interventions in the Muslim world over the years.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring into the conversation with Joshua Yaffa Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, her book titled The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, also co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones, and wanted to get your response, as well, to this attack — you’ve talked about it, immediately going back to 2004, the Beslan school siege, when Christian [sic] rebels — Chechen rebels, rather, occupied a school in the town of Beslan — and whether you think, as Josh was just saying, Putin, whose brand is so-called security, can just hope that this goes away very quickly in the minds of the Russian people.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, thank you, Amy.

Putin can hope that it goes away. It doesn’t go away. There has been at least three instances already since Friday where various venues, including hospitals, have been warning bomb warnings, and they’ve been evacuated. So, that seems to be going on. Even if there is no bombing, and perhaps they’re false warnings, it is really to destabilize this Putin’s claim that Russia is stable.

And, of course, when we talk about Putin’s or Russia’s state dealings with the Islamic fundamentalists, it goes back even to 2002, when a theater, during the performance of Nord-Ost, was attacked. And then, of course, Beslan school is 2006. Then, there have been a study done that from 1995 to 2006 — I mean, it’s not a clear number, but approximate number — about 20,000 people have been killed in those attacks by Islamic fundamentalists. Then, of course, there’s other instances, the 2011, the 2007, the 2017, all in subways or other places in Russia. And also, that is the first time when Russia dealt with ISIS, with ISIS-K, with this group that attacked on Friday, was in 2022, where the Russian Embassy in Kabul was bombed, and two people were killed then. So, really, there’s been more than one or two. There have been over 10 or even 20 instances of Putin’s or Russia’s dealing with it.

And in his performance, in his sort of response to the attack, when he spoke for about six minutes after the attack on Saturday, he spoke about the Nazis, because that’s the important message that he needs to deliver, since his whole point in Ukraine is denazification of Ukraine. So, he needed to make this kind of connection, while, in truth, of course, he should have been talking about the kind of Muslim treatment in Russia and the Islamic fundamentalist threat, that is not just in Russia but all over. And that’s unfortunate, because Russia seems to be denying global cooperation, and that will create more problems, not just for the world, but for Russia, inside Russia, for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, just to say, ISIS-K has targeted the United States, but the United States has left Afghanistan. They’ve targeted Pakistan, repeatedly targeted China, as well as Russia. The significance of — these are different lines than we traditionally see. You know, you’re either attacking Russia or the United States. We see it very much as an East-West line. ISIS-K doesn’t.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Exactly, it doesn’t. And that’s why when Peskov says, “We have no cooperation with the West,” that’s unfortunate, because exactly that. And, in fact, Putin himself, 20 years ago, he was the one who was encouraging the George Bush administration, George Bush Jr. administration, to work together. He was the one, in fact, even in 2015, 2014, was encouraging Barack Obama to work together on this kind of issues. Clearly, that time has long gone. And now Putin is going to be a lone actor in this, which, unfortunately, really doesn’t bode well for Russia, because we probably will see more attacks like that. And if Russia is not going to listen to Western warnings or any warnings, then, in fact, how it is going to fight a rising threat? I mean, we saw already that France has raised its security level to the highest level. So, if it is a threat, once again, a global one, and Russia will be left alone to do that, that will become a problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua Yaffa, the piece that you wrote before this piece that you wrote on how will Putin respond to the attack came around the time of the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s headlined “Has Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine Improved His Standing in Russia?” And you write, “Putin’s authoritarian drift has accelerated into something resembling a full-blown military dictatorship.” How will this attack impact where he’s headed? I mean, we see overnight massive attacks on Ukraine, trying to — do you think it’s trying to redirect attention back to Ukraine? And what do you say to those who are saying they were headed to the Ukraine border, that whether or not some of these attackers were Tajik, that there’s some hand in it by Ukraine?

JOSHUA YAFFA: I’d say a few things. One, indeed, this is a trend that began before the war but accelerated greatly since Russia’s invasion, which is Russia’s authoritarian drift, empowering of the security services, really the FSB, the main security service, becoming kind of the political police of Russia. These are trends that began a long time ago and have accelerated since the invasion. But what we see is that for all of Putin’s authoritarian — kind of gathering of authoritarian control and handing over much authority to the FSB, that these institutions are there to protect the regime, not the Russian people. I think that that’s the great lesson of late-stage Putinism, what we’re witnessing now, but really true of so many autocracies, that as they hand more and more control to things like security services, secret police, carry out mass repressions against their own citizens. An analysis by a group named Proekt, an independent Russian media outlet, counted more political prisoners under Putin than were under the leadership of Khruschev or Brezhnev in the Soviet period, so we’re talking about a massive number of Russian citizens facing these repressions.

And what is it all for? Not to actually keep Russia or its population safe, but to keep the regime safe. And I think that’s important to understand, both in trying to determine how did this attack happen in the first place and also what might Putin’s response be going forward. First and foremost, he cares about preserving his own power and the continued stability of his ruling system.

How he might respond in terms of lashing out at Ukraine, trying to redirect attention to Ukraine, you mentioned a massive Russian drone and missile attack against Ukrainian targets today against the center of Kyiv. A university, among other targets, was struck. The city of Kharkiv is undergoing rolling blackouts, you also mentioned. So, yes, of course, this will be tempting for the Kremlin to try and deflect from the real, by all accounts, source of this terror attack — Muslim fundamentalism, ISIS — try to redirect to a more convenient, sellable target — Ukraine — that fits more in line with Russian — overall Russian propaganda messaging. But it’s not really clear how much there is slack in the rope, so to speak, for Russia to escalate more in Ukraine. What can it do more than it’s already doing? These attacks against Ukrainian cities, against Ukrainian infrastructure, they have been going on, well, really, for two years, since the invasion began. But in the last weeks we’ve seen Russia ramp up the scale of these kind of swarm attacks of ballistic missiles, drones against especially energy targets, trying to force blackouts, heating shutoffs and crises across Ukraine. So, all of that was happening before these attacks. Can Russia do more of it? I guess. But it’s hard to think of Russia escalating in a qualitative way beyond what it’s been doing for the past two years.

As to whether or not there was actually any Ukrainian links to this account, there’s been absolutely zero credible evidence of this that has emerged. The suspects were detained on a highway near in the Russian city if Bryansk. It’s about 140 kilometers from Ukraine. Were they actually headed to Ukraine? Who knows? The idea that they would cross one of the most monitored and heavily militarized borders in the world, just imagine what the border between two countries at war looks like, the amount of military personnel, intelligence personnel that are watching that border. The idea that people who just committed a terror attack could kind of easily sneak across the border seems a little far-fetched to me. But again, we don’t even know exactly: Were they planning to cross the border? Were they planning to cross the border to Belarus? To say that they were apprehended at the Ukrainian border is a bit of a stretch, given we’re talking about a distance of 140 kilometers. And beyond that fact, which really in and of itself might not amount to much, there’s really no other evidence whatsoever that would suggest Ukraine has anything to do with this attack, beyond the Kremlin’s understandable urge to try and force that narrative first and foremost on the Russian public to explain why the Kremlin didn’t see this coming and wasn’t able to prevent it.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Khrushcheva, to talk about those energy attacks, this from the Financial Times: “The US has urged Ukraine to halt attacks on Russia’s energy infrastructure, warning that the drone strikes risk driving up global oil prices and provoking retaliation.” Your response?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, and it is, because the — Joshua just talked about the recent Russian attacks that were before the Friday terrorist event. In fact, during the elections, during that process of Putin’s new term of president, Ukraine escalated its attacks on the cities around the Russian border and on the oil and gas infrastructure. So Russia retaliates back. So, in a sense, it becomes, you know, escalation on one side, escalation on the other side. This is not to equate, because, obviously, Russia is an invader. But it is — you know, the escalation now in the last month has been going on on both sides.

I don’t think Ukraine cares. I mean, they — in fact, Ukrainians did say they understand what the United States is asking for, but they really can’t care about this, because they are at war. They fight the way they can, especially now, when the Western aid, especially the aid from the United States, has been stalling in Congress. They have to do something, so they’re doing what they can. And I don’t think it’s quite fair on the part of the other parties involved to say, “Well, don’t do it,” because they are at war, and they have to fight by any means, by the means possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Joshua, you write in your piece, ISIS is on the Kremlin’s list of terrorist and extremist organizations, but so is Alexei Navalny’s political network. And on the day of the attack, Friday, Russia added the, quote, “worldwide LGBT movement” to the same list. What purpose does this list serve?

JOSHUA YAFFA: That’s a very fair question, that I would be — that would be difficult for me to answer convincingly or rationally. But the existence of this list, or, rather, its composition, the fact that you have ISIS on the same list of banned terrorist and extremist organizations next to Alexei Navalny’s political and Anti-Corruption Foundation, or something that I’m not even sure any fair-minded person could understand how to define the so-called worldwide LGBT movement, whatever that is, shows the Kremlin’s priorities in how it sees or what it sees as true dangers. And this gets back to what I said a moment ago, that the existence of this security apparatus and the reason for this granting so much power to organizations like the FSB, the scale of political repression we’ve seen in Russia, it’s not about protecting the Russian people. This is a point I made a minute ago. It’s about, first and foremost, protecting the political power and the political regime of Vladimir Putin.

And who is a threat for Vladimir Putin? Well, for example, the political organization, with field offices at one point around the country, of Alexei Navalny. LGBT movement, again, whatever that really means, to talk about the worldwide LGBT movement. But by stigmatizing and scapegoating LGBT movement and individuals, Putin is able to present his war in Ukraine as a kind of civilizational values war against the decadent West with its same-sex marriages and trans rights and so on.

Except there are very real human costs behind the inclusion and stigmatization and scapegoating of groups, for example, like LGBT community. Just this week, the first prosecutions or the first arrests we’ve seen of two people in connection with violation of this law — in other words, these are two people who owned a gay bar in Russia — they have been arrested for this fact and could face prison sentences of up to nine years for aiding this so-called extremist terrorist organization. So, one does have to wonder about the priorities of a political system and a government that equates ISIS terrorists with owners of a gay bar. Who are they devoting resources to track, to monitor, to go after? How are those resources being allocated? And I think some obvious questions immediately arise about, again, the true motives and interests of such a regime, based on where they parcel out resources, who they see as enemies. And who are they policing? ISIS terrorists or the owners of gay bars?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We will continue, of course, to follow what has taken place in Moscow. Joshua Yaffa, contributing writer to The New Yorker magazine, longtime Moscow correspondent, speaking to us now from Berlin, Germany. His new piece, we’ll link to, “How Will Putin Respond to the Terrorist Attack in Moscow?” And Nina Khrushcheva, professor at The New School, author of The Lost Khrushchev and co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps.

This is Democracy Now! This breaking news: The Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has announced he plans to resign by the end of the year. In addition, Boeing’s chairman and the head of Boeing’s commercial airplane unit are also leaving. The Justice Department recently opened a criminal probe into the company. There is a meme going around that says, “When one door closes, another one opens — Boeing.”

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