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On the evening of March 22, in the city of Krasnohorsk near Moscow, a group of armed men entered the Crocus City Hall concert venue and opened fire on visitors and security guards. According to official Russian data from March 28, 144 people died during the terrorist attack. The Wilayat Khorasan organization, the Afghan branch of the Islamic State (IS), claimed responsibility for the attack. However, Russian propaganda and its state speakers blamed Ukraine for the terrorist attack both in the first hours after the terrorist attack, when there was still no information about the performers and organizers, and a week later when IS had already declared its involvement and provided photos and videos on behalf of the terrorist attack’s performers.

"Ukraine must disappear altogether": how Russian propagandists reacted to the terrorist attack

Russian public speakers began to accuse Ukraine of the terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall as soon as the first footage from the scene appeared on social networks. Even when the Piknik band’s concert visitors were escaping from the fire, and the Russian security forces gathered to enter the premises, the propagandists had already started their work. Immediately after the terrorist attack, Alexandr Dugin published a post on his Telegram channel: "It would be right if Ukraine disappeared altogether by tomorrow morning." Later, Dugin deleted this post, although he left many others in which he compared the terrorist attack in the suburbs of Moscow with the "shelling of Belgorod and Donbas", thus hinting at a "Ukrainian footprint". Dugin's long-time patron, "Orthodox oligarch" Konstantin Malofeev spoke in the same spirit, veiledly calling for nuclear bombing of Ukrainian cities: "Let's give the peaceful population of Ukraine 48 hours to leave the cities, and finally end this war with the victorious defeat of the enemy with the use of all [Russia’s] forces and means." Both Malofeev and Dugin, who reposted it, did not delete this post.

Russian "Z-warrior" Semen Pegov, in his WarGonzo Telegram channel (1 million subscribers) in the first hours after the terrorist attack, also accused Ukrainians, saying, who else is capable of such a crime to kill unarmed civilians cynically? Only those who "perceive their terrorism as a mission" and who "repeated "put the Russian on a twig" (москаляку на гілляку) as a mantra for many, many years. These are the fruits of a long-term ideology of cultivating hatred of Russians." Pegov does not specify what mantras the Russian military repeated to kill Ukrainians on the territory of Ukraine for two years.

On the morning of March 23, Russian security forces detained four citizens of Tajikistan suspected of carrying out a terrorist attack. At the same time, IS-Khorasan announced through its channels about the organization of the terrorist attack. To confirm this, they published a photo of four men in front of the flag of the Islamic State, whose clothes are similar to the clothes of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack and to the clothes of the men who were detained by the Russian security forces. Subsequently, the IS channels also published a video of the shooting in Crocus, filmed by a terrorist. The American CBS, citing information from US officials, also reported on the involvement of IS in the terrorist attack. However, none of this made Russian propagandists doubt the "Ukrainian trace" in the terrorist attack.

The leader of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, said: "So, yes. It is not ISIS. Khokhly [derogatory for Ukrainians] did it." The reports of the Western media, which, according to Simonyan and other propagandists, "consistently and unanimously" claimed about the Islamic State’s role, are allegedly based not on the facts and the recognition of the IS but exclusively on the desire to "whitewash" Ukraine. "It's just that the performers were chosen in such a way that it was possible to convince the stupid international society that it was ISIS," Simonyan stated.

One of the largest Russian propaganda channels in Telegram (2.5 million subscribers) also "explained" the following day after the attack for "those who still doubted Kyiv's involvement in the terrorist attack in Crocus". Like other propagandists, the authors of this post did not provide evidence for their accusations, simply postulating them as fact and presenting "arguments" only for possible objections. To confirm that "Ukrainians are capable of organizing terrorist attacks", they used the examples of the deaths of Daria Dugina and Maksym Fomin (Vladlen Tatarskyy) and the attacks on the Crimean Bridge. According to them, if the Ukrainian special services are capable of organizing the elimination of enemy propagandists and attacks on infrastructure facilities used for military purposes, then they are capable of shooting civilians in a concert hall. According to propagandists, "it's the same thing".

What's more, Ukraine's propensity for terror is derived from "Ukrainian statehood" itself. The authors of the mentioned Telegram channel claim, "Many still cannot come to terms with the idea that the Ukrainian special services are capable of committing such a bloody terrorist attack using recruited Islamists. However, this surprise should immediately evaporate if one would recall the entire history of Ukrainian statehood". Also, the terrorist attack is cynically compared to the shelling of Russia's border territories; allegedly, Ukrainian troops are "terroristically shelling peaceful Russian citizens". Of course, the propagandists forgot to point out that from the same territory, they regularly attack Ukrainian cities and villages using, in particular, ballistic missiles and aerial bombs.

After the arrest of the suspects in the terrorist attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin also spoke about the "Ukrainian trace". According to him, on the Russian-Ukrainian border, 140 km from which the videos of the alleged detention of the suspects were filmed, an "exit" was "prepared" for terrorists to cross. Propaganda channels picked up on the thesis about the deliberate going to the territory bordering Ukraine and the prepared "reception" of terrorists. Simonyan writes, "The ghouls had 100 km left to reach the Ukrainian border... It is already clear that [Russia’s] non-brothers orchestrated everything. It's easy to find performers in the messengers’ chats. Here comes the question: did the dog in the embroidered coat break off the chain, or was he given such a command? In any case, the trainer is to blame."

The propagandists were not embarrassed by the obvious question: if Putin's version is accurate, who was supposed to prepare the "exit" from the Russian side on the border, where battles are being fought, fortifications are being built, and troops and special services are concentrated? In addition, propagandists ignored the fact that Alexander Lukashenko's words also undermined the propaganda theory that terrorists tried to enter Ukraine. He said that after the terrorist attack, the Belarusian security forces blocked the roads to the country. Hence, the suspects in the terrorist attack "turned away and went to the Ukrainian-Russian border". Therefore, even if we assume that the terrorists were moving toward the Ukrainian border, then this was a forced, not a planned, action.

Operation under a double false flag: how anonymous Telegram channels discussed the terrorist attack

In addition to Ukraine, of course, propagandists also blame the "collective West". Especially after evidence of the terrorists' connections with the Islamic State appeared (a photo of the perpetrators of the terrorist attack taken in front of the IS flag, as well as a video of the shooting shot by the perpetrators), and it became inconvenient to blame Ukraine directly (although many didn't stop). Therefore, propaganda had to invent complex schemes of "connections" in the triangle "Ukraine — the West — Islamists". "Ukrainian" Telegram channels, which spread Russian propaganda, were allegedly especially active and ingenious.

Ukrainians were offered the version that the terrorist attack was allegedly staged by the British special services aimed to blame both Muslims and Ukrainians at the same time, to strike at Russia, and to disrupt possible negotiations regarding the war in Ukraine. "So far, everything indicates that the British have developed a multifaceted operation that should create many fault lines... Let's remember that the Brirs have been fighting the Russians for 300 years, and the Ukrainian conflict is just a step in the game," writes the anonymous Telegram channel with 400 thousand subscribers.

The same channel cites the fact that Crocus City Hall belongs to a Muslim as one of the arguments why the Islamic State is not the real performer and perpetrator of the terrorist attack. This argument is consistent with the fact that IS carries out the vast majority of its terrorist attacks in Muslim countries and kills mostly Muslims: Shiites, Alawites, competitors from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, etc.

Another Telegram channel with a million subscribers claims that the "escalation" in the war and the alleged possible "official declaration of war" by Russia against Ukraine because of the terrorist attack is beneficial to Western countries and Biden personally. "According to our data, the war is beneficial to the Western partners because they want to throw Ukraine off their shoulders, a "suitcase without a handle", and it is not their fault that they did not provide enough weapons and money. Zelenskyy, who overstepped, will be the one to blame. Also, the official war is beneficial to Biden before the elections. It will increase anti-Russian rhetoric in the US, giving the Democrats a good PR case," the channel stated.

Such Telegram channels daily sow "betrayal" and despair in Ukrainian society; therefore, the terrorist attack in the Moscow suburbs was also presented in the most unfavorable light for Ukraine. Not only will Russia finally "start to fight for real", but also the Western partners should now allegedly give up their support for Ukraine. "The EU condemned the terrorist attack in the Moscow region. In the conditions of an actual war, the European Union agrees with the Kremlin's right to respond to it," claimed one of such channels. It is difficult to explain how this is consistent with the reports of the same channel about the joint attempts of Western media and special services to "smear" Ukraine in every possible way. Although, of course, it is possible to do if one builds a complex conspiracy scheme.

In addition, just as in the past with the attacks on the Crimean Bridge, the terrorist attack in the suburbs of Moscow was used to justify a new wave of attacks on Ukrainian energy facilities. Only this time, this version looks downright absurd, considering that the first massive strikes, in particular on the Dnipro HPP, were carried out early in the morning on March 22, before the terrorist attack.

Among the "Ukrainian" Telegram channels that spoke about the terrorist attack, one should also mention the non-anonymous one. Anatoly Shariy returned to the usual rhetoric about the country of "dumb cattle" and "cocaine antichrist". He posts much less criticism of Russia and Kremlin propaganda on his channel compared to the beginning of the full-scale invasion. On the other hand, Shariy took an unshakable and identical position with the toughest Russian propagandists concerning the terrorist attack in Crocus: Shariy blames the Ukrainian special services and Zelenskyy personally as the organizers of the terrorist attack. Even the collective West, according to Shariy, is not the one to be blamed directly, but only the Ukrainian government.

"The West patted this abomination on the head when the regime imprisoned innocents, patted them gently by the ear when the opposition was banned, the church was dispersed when thousands of innocents were imprisoned and killed without trial, when murders were ordered abroad, the West pretended not to notice, turned a blind eye. As a result, it raised a reckless terrorist. It was so natural and expected that now all that remains is to watch the moaning in the style of "we didn't want it," Shariy writes. Shariy's "arguments" are reduced to the same as those of other Russian propagandists, "they [Ukrainians] hire grandmothers to set fire to the military commissars", which means that they can hire four terrorists to kill one and a half hundred civilians, which is almost the same thing." He also repeats Putin's thesis that the terrorists were allegedly planning to flee to Ukraine.

Why the Islamic State could (not) stage a terrorist attack in Crocus

One of the propagandists' arguments is that the terrorist attack was organized by the Ukrainians (or the "collective West") because the Islamic State allegedly simply could not organize it. First of all, IS, in the form in which it existed before in Syria and Iraq, no longer exists, and in general, it allegedly has left the world media’s focus of attention. Secondly, the terrorist attack is allegedly "unprofitable" for Islamist radicals since the focus of the Muslim world's attention is the Gaza Strip, so why fight against Russia, which is "friends" with several radical Muslim regimes at once? Thirdly, this attack is allegedly not similar to the "handwriting" of Islamic terrorists because those who attacked Crocus did not die at the scene of the terrorist attack, did not take hostages, but tried to escape. All these theses in various forms and combinations occur in anonymous "Ukrainian" Telegram channels and Russian propagandists’ ones.

All three theses in support of the argument about "the inability of IS to organize such a terrorist attack" do not withstand criticism. Although the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS, which held the attention of the world community in the mid-2010s, has indeed been defeated, its numerous branches in various countries remain active. Most of them have gone underground and operate mainly by carrying out terrorist attacks against those they consider their enemies. These are mostly other Muslims and religious communities in their localities, so the Western and Russian media mostly ignore these events. But this does not mean that they are not there.

Wilayat Khorasan, the Afghan branch of IS that claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack outside Moscow, was created in 2014 and has since killed thousands of people. They claimed responsibility for the explosions at the Kabul airport in 2021, during the capture of the city by the Taliban and the evacuation of American troops. That terrorist attack killed 182 people, including 13 US servicemen and 28 members of the Taliban. IS-Khorasan considers both those and others to be its enemies. In September 2022, IS claimed responsibility for an explosion near the Russian embassy in Kabul that killed at least ten people. In January 2024, IS-Khorasan staged a terrorist attack on Russia's ally Iran, where 94 people were killed. Also, in January, there was a shooting in a Catholic church in Istanbul. One man was killed, and two suspects, citizens of Russia and Tajikistan, were detained. The Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that it was also a terrorist attack organized by IS. Russia’s FSB recently announced the discovery of the IS-Khorasan cell, whose representatives were planning an attack on a synagogue in Moscow.

Thus, it can be seen that the Afghan branch of the Islamic State organizes terrorist attacks both in Afghanistan itself and outside its borders. Among their enemies are the Taliban movement (Russia's "partner"), which now controls most of Afghanistan, and the Kremlin-allied Ayatollah Shiite regime in Iran. IS accuses Russia of crimes against Muslims in Russia and Syria, where Russian troops have been conducting operations since 2015 (and continue to conduct them even after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine). It is obvious that the Gaza Strip issue is still not the main one for IS-Khorasan. Instead, according to SpecialEurasia analysts, it is interested in expanding its influence in its region, particularly among Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group, the Tajiks, and in Tajikistan itself, other Central Asian countries, and through them, among migrants in Russia.

One can assume that the terrorist attack in the capital of Russia was planned by ISIS-Khorasan precisely as an action that could increase their recognition and influence, just as terrorist attacks in Europe at one time increased the influence of the Syrian-Iraqi ISIS.

Europe is not safe even now. In France, the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Gérald Darmanen, informed us of the decision to halve the number of spectators at the planned opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games due to the threat of attacks by Islamist radicals.

As for the thesis spread by Russian propaganda that IS terrorists "usually don't act like this", it also cannot withstand criticism. The history of terrorist attacks by IS and other Islamists allows us to conclude that terrorists act in different ways, depending on the conditions, the level of organization, and the degree of fanaticism of the perpetrators. In the 2015 Paris attacks, which Russian propagandists cite as an example of "how terrorists usually operate," two of the terrorists fled the scene and were killed days later when their hideout was stormed.

Moreover, propagandists even compared the terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall with the terrorist attacks of the early 2000s in Dubrovka (Nord-Ost) and Beslan. According to them, then terrorists took hostages, but now they don't, so these are "wrong" terrorists. It is obvious that the propaganda has a critical shortage of arguments for denying the role of IS in the terrorist attack and "confirming" the role of Ukraine.

After all, propaganda does not need arguments to "designate" Ukraine as the responsible one for the terrorist attack. Russian agitational propaganda and Z-figures blamed precisely Ukrainians from early on, without having any information about the terrorist attack, simply because it was convenient and profitable for them. After all, for them, it is confirmation that the so-called "special military operation" was launched not because of the Kremlin's desire to destroy Ukraine as a state but for the "protection" of Russians. Now, they are trying to use the terrorist attack to find at least some arguments in support of an aggressive war. When discussing the terrorist attack, one can use a conspiracy theory, in which all logical operations will obey a predetermined conclusion. In the future, it will be possible to provide testimony extracted from detained suspects regarding the execution of a terrorist attack, who are currently publicly tortured, without hiding the controllability of all future "confessions". However, one can also simply say that an "escape exit" to cross the border was prepared for the terrorists or that "there has been a transfer of cryptocurrency from Ukraine." Lastly, the only important thing will be what actions the Kremlin decides to take, justifying a terrorist attack, as well as how Ukraine and its allies will be able to respond to these actions.

Main page illustration and infographic credits: Natalia Lobach

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