Moscow terror attack suspects likely received instructions in Turkey, Russian daily reports

Moscow terror attack suspects likely received instructions in Turkey, Russian daily reports
(Clockwise from top left) Alleged terrorists Dalerjon Mirzoev, Shamsudin Fariduni, Muhammadsobir Fayzov and Rachabalizod Saidakrami at a remand hearing on March 24. / Tass
By Akin Nazli in Belgrade March 25, 2024

Two of the four Tajik men alleged to have participated in the deadly March 23 terrorist assault on concertgoers at Crocus City Hall on the edge of Moscow probably received instructions for the armed attack when they travelled to Turkey, Russian newspaper Izvestia reported on March 25, quoting an unnamed source.

The other two suspects accused of taking part in the terrorist atrocity, which took the lives of at least 137 people, were recruited on Russian territory, the source was also cited as saying.

Later on March 25, a Turkish security official told Reuters that two of the accused gunmen briefly entered Turkey to renew their Russian residence permits, but were not radicalised in Turkey. They were not subject to any outstanding arrest warrants and so were able to travel freely between Russia and Turkey, the official added.

Russian authorities have identified the four suspects as Dalerjon Mirzoev, Rachabalizod Saidakrami, Shamsudin Fariduni and Muhammadsobir Fayzov. All of them are citizens of Tajikistan, who were working in Russia.

It would not be correct to describe the group of suspects as having made up an organised sleeper terrorist cell in the classic sense, according to another unnamed source quoted by Izvestia. The group was not formed as a cell within the framework of any structure but was put together literally a few weeks prior to the attack with some cash payments made to the perpetrators, the source also reportedly said.

Fariduni confessed during an interrogation that on March 4 he arrived in Russia from Turkey, Izvestia’s source was further reported as saying.

“I listened to a lesson on [social media platform] Telegram, to a preacher. Then the [preacher’s] assistant wrote. He wrote on Telegram, without a last name, without anything. He offered money. Five hundred thousand [Russian rubles, equivalent to around $5,500]. To kill, no matter who,” Fariduni was said to have said in the interrogation.

On February 23, Fariduni posted photos on social media from Istanbul, Izvestia also reported.

“Wahhabi preachers, convicted in absentia and put on the wanted list by Russia—for example, Abdullah Kosteksky and Abu Umar Sasitlinsky—currently live in Turkey. Everything is good [for them] there, they have their own media centre through which they preach,” the newspaper quoted one of its sources as saying.

A branch of the Salafi jihadist Islamic State group—namely Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP, ISIS-K or Isil-K), nowadays usually described as based in Afghanistan—has claimed responsibility for the brutal terrorist attack, though the Kremlin has declined to comment on the evidence that IS-KP was behind it.

It’s important to note that the hierarchy of IS-KP is loosely arranged. The group is known to have told militants sympathetic to it that it will claim responsibility for any attack carried out on its behalf. IS-KP has also encouraged sympathisers, who are not trained terrorists, to carry out attacks based on their own evaluations and decision-making. Such a reality can make it impossible to identify the instigator of an atrocity.

Difficulties are also caused by media coverage of terror attacks. Much of it is typically misleading and manipulative, with articles swayed by the particular media organ’s ownership, loyalty to a government and/or various other factors.

The involvement of an intelligence service or another entity in a terrorist attack conducted by a group only loosely linked and affiliated to a guiding organisation is always possible. 

After the US withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, jihadist activity in the country and in Central Asia expanded. In the years since, Tajik nationals have taken part in many terrorist attacks, although not in Russia until now. Worth recalling, however, is that last December five Tajik nationals and a Russian citizen from Dagestan were sentenced by a military court in Moscow to prison terms of between 16 and 22 years after being convicted of organising a terrorist group associated with Islamic State and plotting a terrorist attack against the Federal Security Service (FSB) HQ in Moscow. Their defence lawyers insisted that the case was trumped up for political reasons and that the alleged crimes were provoked by security officers, according to a report by Current Time.

Looking more closely at how Turkey is used by jihadists, note that the country has, since 2011 when the Syria and Libya conflicts ignited, turned into a “jihadist hub”. And some jihadist groups, backed by the Turkish government, have fought Russia’s proxies in Syria and Libya.

It is very unlikely, however, that a Turkey connection to the alleged Crocus City Hall terrorists would trigger a radical shift in bilateral relations between Ankara and Moscow. Even while Turkey-backed groups have been fighting the Russian proxies in Syria and Libya in the past decade, relations have remained practicable and strong enough to permit Russia to build Turkey’s first nuclear plant, with the first unit tentatively scheduled to launch later this year.

After the West imposed its Ukraine war-related sanctions on the Kremlin, Turkey emerged as an important transit hub for exports flowing to Russia. Relations between Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan are transactional, with both strongmen often indulging in give and take arrangements that raise eyebrows in Europe and the US. There is plenty to gain, and plenty to lose.

Even the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria in 2015 did not cause enduring damage to relations. And both sides saw the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara by a Turkish police officer in 2016 as an attempt by a third party to damage their ties.

It would be somewhat absurd to think that the Erdogan regime engaged with the suspects. Turkey is a three-ring circus for all jihadist organisations from around the world.

It is no surprise that some of the suspects have been to Turkey.

Currently, Turkey, with an official population of 85mn, hosts more than 10mn migrants, including millions of jihadists who have fought in the wider region ranging from Afghanistan to Libya.

The country’s eastern borders are open, while its western borders are closed because of Ankara’s so-called readmission deal on migrants signed with the EU in 2016.

Just like all of the other international jihadist organisations, IS-KP has networks in Turkey. It has in fact carried out two headline attacks in Istanbul. These are the Reina nightclub attack that took place on New Year’s Eve in 2017 and the Ataturk Airport attack of June 2016.

In late January, some alleged IS-KP terrorists carried out an attack inside a Catholic church in Istanbul during Sunday prayer. Only one person was killed. There were reports that the attackers’ gun misfired.