The March 22 attack on a Moscow theatre, with more than 130 killed, marks the largest attack from ISIS in Russia to date and occurred just days after President Vladimir Putin began his fifth term in office.

Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, and previous IS terror attacks have been closely linked to Chechen separatists and the Chechen civil wars of the early 1990s and 2000s.

Russian authorities arrested four men, who were charged with the attack. A Moscow court ordered that the men, all of whom are citizens of Tajikistan, be held in pre-trial custody until May 22. Putin didn’t mention IS in his speech to the nation about the attack, and Kyiv accused him and other Russian politicians of falsely linking Ukraine to the assault to stoke fervour for Russia’s fight in Ukraine, now in its third year. However US intelligence officials said they had confirmed the IS affiliate’s claim.

“ISIS bears sole responsibility for this attack. There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement. The US shared information with Russia in early March about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow, and issued a public warning to Americans in Russia, Watson said.

This latest attack is consistent with trends report in the Global Terrorism Index 2024 produced by the leading international think tank the Institute of Economics & Peace (IEP), which identified that IS and its affiliates remained the world’s deadliest terrorist group – and also a trend that individual attacks were becoming more lethal.

There are multiple factors that help explain the decision of ISIS to target Russia, and Moscow in particular.

Focus on Ukraine

The Russian security services have likely had their overwhelming focus on their invasion and war in Ukraine with significant threats emanating from Ukraine to Russia, notably the coordinated drone attacks on Russian energy infrastructure: This focus is notable in President Vladimir Putin’s statement apparently blaming Ukraine for the attacks despite public claims of responsibility from ISIS-K. This may speak to the blindness within Russia’s security apparatus to alternative security threats. Despite warnings by US and Western intelligence it appears likely that the attack was strategically planned and carried out while Russia was focussed elsewhere.

The potential for Russian nationals or nationals from Central Asia – including the suspects’ homeland of Tajikistan – who can gain relatively simple entry into Russia also makes Russia a potentially softer target than the US or Europe.

Russia’s role in the Middle East and globally

Russia are playing an increasingly more aggressive role in the Middle East. Its 2015 intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime was crucial to its survival and ability to fight and largely defeat ISIS along with Kurdish forces and western airpower. It now continues to support its client and as such Russia represents a similar imperial power propping up a corrupt regime as the US did in jihadist ideology.

With the US withdrawn from Afghanistan Russia is now as big a target given their links to the regimes across the Middle East that ISIS-K seeks to destroy. It is unclear but also possible that Russian support for regimes in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel where ISIS is active may be a motivating factor. ISIS-K have also alluded to the decade long Russian war and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Russian repression of Islamic populations

Russia has at least since the Chechen wars maintained a strong security presence and often repressive approach to its large Muslim population along its southern periphery, especially in Dagestan and Chechnya. Repression of Muslims within home countries is often a key theme of ISIS propaganda.

ISIS-K in Afghanistan

ISIS-K is now an established presence throughout Afghanistan. Their relationship with the Taliban is not the same as the Taliban had with Al Qaeda in the 1990s. ISIS-Ks stated goal is the overthrow of the regime and they are in conflict over particular areas. There is, however, the strong possibility that ISIS-K will continue to be able to operate and plan attacks within Afghanistan with no foreign counterterrorism force able to operate inside Afghanistan. It is possible that Afghanistan is once again becoming a base for transnational terror groups.

IS still the world’s deadliest terror group

In 2023, IS was responsible for 1,636 deaths, despite its attributed deaths falling by 17%. IS was followed by Hamas, JNIM, and Al-Shabaab. Together, they were responsible for over 75% of terrorism-related deaths globally. A decade ago, they were responsible for less than 25%.

In 2023, IS attacks occurred in six of the nine GTI regions: Asia-Pacific, Europe, MENA, sub-Saharan Africa, Russia and Eurasia and South Asia. In the Middle East, Syria was the country most affected by IS attacks. It recorded 224 attacks, an increase from 152 in 2022, and a quarter of all IS related deaths.
Using machine learning techniques, IEP researchers were able to attribute an additional 15,000 deaths to IS since 2007, increasing the total number of attributed deaths from 25,000 to 40,000.

The GTI highlights that terrorism remains a serious global threat, with total deaths from terrorism increasing by 22% to 8,352 in 2023, now at their highest since 2017. Even when excluding the October 7th Hamas attacks in Israel, deaths would still have increased by 5%. This is despite terrorist incidents decreasing by 22% to 3,350, resulting in a 56% increase in the average number of people killed per attack. This is the worst rate in almost ten years.



Vision of Humanity

Editorial Staff

Vision of Humanity

Vision of Humanity is brought to you by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), by staff in our global offices in Sydney, New York, The Hague, Harare and Mexico. Alongside maps and global indices, we present fresh perspectives on current affairs reflecting our editorial philosophy.