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ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack that killed over 100 in Russia

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Islamic State is claiming responsibility for an attack that killed more than 100 people at a concert venue in suburban Moscow Friday. U.S. intelligence officials say they believe it was the group's branch based in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K. So why Russia and why now? Colin Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, which focuses on global security. And he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

COLIN CLARKE: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So why would ISIS-K attack Russia specifically and why at this time?

CLARKE: Well, ISIS-K has long talked about Russia in its propaganda. It's accused Russia, and credibly so, of spilling Muslim blood in previous conflicts. Think back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979 to '89, the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, and more recently, Russia's support to the Assad regime in Syria. Why now? The Russian security services are perceived to be vulnerable and possibly overstretched, given the ongoing war in Ukraine.

RASCOE: So Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly accused Ukraine of the attack, contrary to the National Security Council's estimation and the Islamic State's own admission. So do you think that Putin is worried about public support?

CLARKE: In some ways. It's coming on, you know, several weeks after the death of Alexei Navalny. The war, Russia's war in Ukraine, is also not going well. And the Russian state has just concluded another sham election, cementing Putin's reign. So there's probably a lot of building resentment. And Putin is an opportunist. He's going to use this attack to attempt to consolidate further control and likely to conscript Russians for the war in Ukraine, claiming a national emergency.

RASCOE: And so it is more beneficial, or he is thinking that it's more beneficial for him to point at Ukraine than to point at ISIS-K?

CLARKE: Exactly. Because if it - you know, if he points to ISIS-K, it shows that it was an intelligence failure. Because the United States actually warned about this a week ago under its duty to warn, right? Even though U.S.-Russian relations are at somewhat of a nadir, the U.S. intelligence service reached out to the Russians, said that there's, you know, bits and pieces of evidence pointing to some kind of imminent attack. It's unclear whether the Russians dismissed this offhand or if they just failed to stop the attack.

RASCOE: Well, I guess, what do you - do you have any idea of, like, why they wouldn't take that warning seriously, especially if the U.S. told them that there could potentially be something happening?

CLARKE: Again, they may have taken it seriously. They just may have been unable to prevent it, to put the final puzzle pieces in place to stop the attack. But at the same time, Putin was publicly very dismissive of it, potentially looking at it as some kind of a decoy or a ruse. It's tough to say, and we're never going to get the truth coming out of Russia. We're going to get lots of disinformation and obfuscation. But we're never really going to get the full story.

RASCOE: What does this tell you about ISIS-K right now? Are they strengthening? Is this something that is only a concern for Russia, or is this a larger concern for...

CLARKE: It's a...

RASCOE: ...More than just Russia?

CLARKE: It's a global concern because this is a global network of terrorist affiliates. There's been several plots actually just this year alone, disrupted in Europe, plots in Germany, plots targeting Sweden. So I think, you know, the United States, Europe, the West, and, you know, more broadly needs to be concerned about what's clearly an uptick in plotting. So the intent is there. And now it seems that the capabilities are growing, too, especially over the past two years. You know, the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan August 2021. We've really been flying blind, you know, on data and evidence coming from that country in terms of how jihadist groups are evolving.

RASCOE: So what's on your radar in the coming days? Like, what are you on the watch for as this story plays out?

CLARKE: I'm looking for other potential plots. You know, there's been attacks by ISIS-K in Turkey and Iran. So they're flexing their muscles regionally. I think further afield, I'm very concerned about this summer - Paris 2024 Summer Olympics - given how frequently France has been a target of jihadist terrorism and given the kind of steady drumbeat of plotting by groups like ISIS-K and other ISIS affiliates as well.

RASCOE: That's Colin Clarke of the Soufan Center. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CLARKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.