A Message Coming from Moscow: ISIS is recovering

Four members of the Islamic State organisation “ISIS” carried out a shooting attack on the “Crocus City Hall” music concert in Moscow on Friday evening, killing over 100 people, according to a statement from the organisation’s A’maq agency.

The operation has raised many questions, ranging from scepticism about the identity of the perpetrators, despite the organisation’s statement, to the reasons behind the attack and its implications and future ramifications on the global jihadist landscape.

In this regard, the Politics and Society Institute conducted an interview with Hassan Abu Haniya, a non-resident researcher at the Institute and an expert on Islamic groups and movements. The following report highlights the main points discussed in this interview.

Between the identity of the executor and the peculiarity of the targeting

The “Crocus” operation carried out by armed individuals last Friday does not deviate from the ISIS organization. Considering the operation’s nature, execution method, and nature of the target, it clearly bears the organisation’s mark, despite the overlap that occurs in such cases between geopolitical conflict and terrorist activity and the accusations exchanged between countries. However, the operation indicates the involvement of an organised network in its execution, not limited to individual acts of “lone wolves.”

Moscow insists on holding Kyiv responsible for the operation, claiming that the organisation is a tool in the hands of Ukrainian intelligence. While this hypothesis theoretically holds some logic due to the intersection of interests between the two parties, it requires evidence, especially since the organisation has carried out attacks in the United States and other Western countries multiple times, indicating that shared interests do not necessarily imply mutual coordination. Regarding the attempt by fighters to escape towards Ukraine, it raises several possibilities regarding the identity of the perpetrators, with Ukraine potentially serving as a haven due to chaos, especially with the presence of the international brigade led by Ahmed Zakayev, known for their Salafist tendencies, alongside the “Sheikh Mansur” and “Johar Dudayev” battalions, some of which may lean towards extremism and join ISIS.

However, on the other hand, many questions arise about the reasons that led to the execution of the operation in the capital, Moscow, at a time when the attention of all Muslims and Arabs is focused on the war in Gaza and the events in Palestine. Moreover, the Russian stance towards Gaza, if taken into consideration alongside the positions of other countries, is better than that of the United States and other Western countries. However, ISIS considers Hamas, the executor of the “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation, as a “national” movement, accusing it of apostasy and disbelief and accusing it of being subordinate to the axis led by Iran. As reflected in its statements, the enemy encompasses not only Israel and the West, but also other parties. Therefore, the organisation does not differentiate in hostility between the United States and Russia—for example—but its operations are linked to the operational capabilities of each branch, which may also be evident in thwarting its planned operation in a Jewish synagogue in Moscow earlier this March and its carrying out of the bombing operation in the city of Kerman in southern Iran, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 people and the injury of hundreds during the commemoration of the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, last January.

In the current circumstances, the organisation finds an opportunity to rebuild its Caucasus province responsible for that region and carry out its operations, and perhaps the thwarting of 419 terrorist operations—according to the Russian National Committee for Counter-Terrorism—in Russia during 2023, with a significant portion bearing the fingerprints of the organisation.

Implications of the Attack and Expectations

The attack carries numerous implications and raises many questions about future possibilities and expectations, both in the near and medium terms. American estimates support the view that many indicators today suggest the world will witness larger attacks in the future in all regions, not just in the Caucasus and Khorasan provinces. The focus on geopolitical conflicts such as the war in Gaza has diverted the United States from the international coalition and the war against ISIS, giving jihadist currents ample space. The operational capability of the organisation or any of its branches only emerges when there is a state of “comfort” in shaping an organisational structure, which may portend further attacks. Therefore, if conditions favour the organisation, it will not hesitate to attack any other state.

Furthermore, since losing its last stronghold in Baghouz, eastern Syria, in March 2019—just five years ago—the organisation has shown indications of significant restructuring and recovery. At a time when all American and United Nations reports confirm the organisation’s shift towards decentralisation and its significant adaptive capacity. Thus, the organisation’s priorities in the previous period were focused on preserving, restructuring and then returning. The recent operation in Russia or elsewhere demonstrates a form of recovery and the ability of the external organisation apparatus—specifically—to operate and activate provinces. For example, the Caucasus province, which was formed in 2015, has been on the verge of collapse since 2018 and is at its weakest, and the same applies to the Khorasan province, which was absent from the scene but has been restructured since 2020 to become active and the most important province today for the organization. In summary, recent operations and preceding ones in the recent past indicate signs of recovery in the core (Iraq and Syria) and recovery on the peripheries, especially in the Caucasus and Khorasan provinces, which are strategically the most important. Although the organisation today holds significant power in Central and West Africa and the African Sahel, its concentration today is in the Khorasan province, to the extent that for the first time, similar to Al-Qaeda, it is considering transferring leadership there.

Implications of the Organisation’s Resurgence on the Middle East

Amidst the significant focus on the events of the war in Gaza and the pressure facing the Hamas movement, ISIS will be one of the happiest parties if the movement is defeated and eliminated. In the organisation’s view, the loss of the “national” movement grants it more legitimacy and proves through it the credibility of its narrative, which it uses to attract followers. Moreover, the current conditions in the region indicate further compounded crises, which the organization exploits and thrives on by investing in geopolitical contradictions and the escalating state of chaos, as seen today in Syrian geography. This indicates the organization’s incomplete defeat, but rather its continued activity in some areas due to the multiplicity of conflicting parties and the persistence of the crisis


The recurrent rise of the organisation can be understood through the objective circumstances facing it rather than its internal conditions. The organisation has proven its ability to capitalise on chaos and geopolitical conflicts. If, for example, we exclude the deep-rooted fundamental reasons related to the crisis of official Arab regimes, there is always a local or regional circumstance such as the war on Gaza or American preoccupation with protecting Israel, asserting presence in the South China Sea, and supporting Ukraine against Russia, which creates a state of chaos that serves as the main ally of ISIS. In light of the current global and regional developments, it is evident that these circumstances are recurring and setting the stage for the reappearance of the organisation once again. Despite the frequent talk about the return of the jihadist phenomenon every 10 years after its defeat or a period of dormancy, it seems that the organisation, which lost its last stronghold in 2019, is capable of returning today before completing 10 years of absence. This is especially true since its shift towards a decentralised approach has made its activity linked to the operational capability of each province, thus raising high possibilities for activity in every province where it is present.

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