Moscow wakes up to count its dead following the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack

Moscow wakes up to count its dead following the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack
At least 60 people died and as many as 200 were injured after gunmen opened with machine gun fire on concert goers on a night out in Moscow's Crocus City Hall / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 23, 2024

As day breaks over a shocked Moscow, locals are trying to absorb the aftermath of a deadly terrorist shooting spree at the Crocus City Hall shopping centre and concert venue that killed at least 60 people and probably more.

Russia’s Investigative Committee has officially reported that “over 60 people” have been killed. They warned that the number of victims could increase. An unofficial count now puts the death toll at 82 as of the morning of March 23, and is expected to climb further as the day wears on. A further 200 people were also believed to have been trapped inside the building as a fire tore through it, producing a thick choking smoke.

The victims were gunned down by around a half dozen gunmen toting Kalashnikov machine guns, shooting some at point blank range as they tried to escape the building. At least another 100 were injured and more bodies are expected after some of the concert goers fled to the roof of the building that subsequently caught fire and collapsed.

The auditorium, where the ceilings have partially collapsed, is being dismantled. More victims may be found there.

“The unofficial death toll in Moscow's Friday terrorist attack has climbed to 82 people and reportedly includes at least three children,” Kevin Rothrock, an editor at Meduza, said in a tweet.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin conveyed get-well wishes to victims via Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova. He did not address the nation himself.

It appears that most of the attackers managed to escape before the rapid response security services arrived an hour after the shooting first broke out. However, other reports said that some of the gunmen were still held up inside the building with an unspecified number of hostages.

Numerous theories on who was behind the attack are circulating with at least half a dozen conflicting versions. The US authorities suggested that the perpetrators were connected to the Islamic extremist group ISIL, a claim the Kremlin denied, saying instead that some “tall Slavs” were involved in the attack who may have been wearing false beards.

Moscow authorities reported that 115 people were hospitalised, including five children, and most of the deaths so far were due to smoke inhalation, not gunshot wounds.

“The main work on emergency care to those wounded in the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall is complete, doctors are stabilising the state of patients and continue working,” Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said during the morning of the following day.

The Telegram channel 112 reports that a doctor among the first responders found a bomb planted on one of the bodies and that the explosive was apparently disguised as a medical heart monitor. Security forces isolated the body and removed the bomb. The outlet reports that officials have not ruled out that this body was one of the attackers.

Slavs and Tajiks

A police search bulletin issued in the wake of the attack reportedly describes gunmen as “tall Slavs” who possibly wore fake beards, fuelling speculation about Russian Volunteer Corps involvement in the attack. The RVC comprises Russians that have volunteered to fight against their homeland in Ukraine.

Several sources who spoke to the newspaper Kommersant say they still suspect Friday’s terrorist attack in Moscow is the work of the RVC, a far-right paramilitary unit based in Ukraine.

The sources told the paper that police officers started receiving search bulletins stating that the terrorists are “young men, Slavs, above average height, and possibly used fake beards and moustaches.” The same sources told Kommersant that FSB agents reportedly arrested a group of men who wanted to join the RVC not long before the attack.

However, this theory has also already been undermined. A representative of the RVC, a paramilitary group of Russian fighters based in Ukraine, has categorically denied the group’s involvement in the attack.

“Obviously we have nothing to do with this,” a RVC representative told liberal opposition newspaper Novaya Europe.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a former Russian State Duma Deputy who is now in exile in Kyiv, told Novaya Europe that the Freedom of Russia Legion he represents, another militarised group that has carried out partisan attacks in Russia, was in no way involved with the terrorist attack in Moscow. Ponomaryov believes the Russian authorities may still try to blame them.

“I think we will be blamed for this, but it’s obvious that no forces that work with us are in any way involved in any actions directed against civilians. It is no less obvious that what has been done has been done by Putin,” Ponomaryov told Novaya Europe.

Islamic State (ISIL)

Reuters says Islamic State has claimed responsibility, a claim that was backed up by US intelligence, which told American news agencies that it had “no reason to doubt it.”

However, the notice taking credit, posted on social media, was questioned by experts that claim it was fake and used a format that IS has abandoned several years ago. Moreover, there has been no confirmation of responsibility for the attack on Telegram channels normally used by ISIL for communicating with the public.

On March 7 the FSB said it had prevented an attack on a synagogue in Moscow that was being planned by an Islamic State cell. The FSB said attackers opened fire during the attempted arrest and were "neutralised by return fire", but few other details were given about the alleged plot.

However, on March 22 the FSB also dismissed the claim that ISIL was behind the Crocus City attack.


A variant of the same story is the attack was carried out by IS-Khorasan Province, another Islamic extremist group that has a base in Afghanistan and has recently focused its attention on Russia in retribution for Russia’s fight with terror groups in Syria and elsewhere.

The group was formed in 2015 by members of militant groups, including those from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and is active in central Asia and Russia. It carried out twin bombings in January in Iran that killed nearly 100 people, The Guardian reports.

The term "Khorasan" refers to a historical region encompassing Afghanistan and parts of Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is the most radical and violent jihadist group operating in Afghanistan, responsible for attacks on schools, hospitals and maternity wards. Even the Taliban want to suppress the group without success.

Indeed, the Afghan Foreign Ministry in the Taliban government strongly condemned the terrorist attack on Crocus City.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan [Russia's version of the name of the organisation] condemns in the strongest terms the recent terrorist attack in Moscow, Russia, claimed by Daesh [the Arabic name for the Islamic State terror group] and considers it a blatant violation of all human standards," the ministry’s Spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi wrote on X.

"Daesh, which has targeted civilians in Afghanistan and other regions of the world as well, again clearly demonstrated through this incident that it is a group in the hands of intelligence agencies aimed at defaming Islam and posing a threat to the entire region. The regional countries must take a coordinated, clear and resolute position against such incidents directed at regional destabilisation," he added.

For IS-Khorasan, enemies include anyone categorised as "infidel," including not only the West but also Shiite Muslims. At its peak, the group consisted of around three thousand members.

Last autumn, the director of the FSB stated that "the group is increasing its capabilities, which over time will enable it to carry out terrorist attacks outside of Afghanistan."

CNN reporters said they had been told that “since November there has been ‘fairly specific’ intelligence that Isis-K wanted to carry out attacks in Russia … US intelligence warned Russia about it”.

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015 was decisive and gave President Bashar al-Assad recontrol of the country against the opposition and Islamic State. Isis-K has fixated on Russia ever since, frequently criticising Putin in its propaganda say experts.

It may be that a Islamic terrorist group inside the Former Soviet Union (FSU) was responsible, as the Crocus City attack bears many of the hallmarks of a Chechen terrorist-style attack that plagued Russia two decades ago, as reported by bne IntelliNews. Moscow suffered a string of bombings in the late 1990s and start of the noughties during the first and second Chechen wars.

There are also several radical groups inside the FSU such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and ISIL fighters that participated in both of the Chechen wars. 

And as bne IntelliNews columnist Bruce Pannier recently wrote, there is a growing problem with terrorism in Tajikistan, where groups have been accused of plotting or carrying out terrorist attacks in Austria, Germany, Iran and Afghanistan. Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, ISKP has expanded its propaganda aimed at recruiting Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan and across the border in Central Asia.

Ukraine not involved

Ukrainian officials have stringently denied any role in the attack. “Ukraine certainly has nothing to do with the shooting/explosions in the Crocus City Hall. It makes no sense whatsoever,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidential administration. “Ukraine has never resorted to the use of terrorist methods,” he said. “It is always pointless.”

The White House also said on March 22 it had no initial indication that Ukraine, which is fighting an invasion by Russia, was involved in a "terrible" attack on a concert hall in Moscow. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the United States was still gathering information.

"There is no indication at this time that Ukraine, or Ukrainians, were involved in the shooting," Kirby told reporters. "I would disabuse you at this early hour of any connection to Ukraine."

However, even if Ukraine was not involved, observers are widely expecting the Kremlin to take advantage of the outrage over the attack in Russia and link it to the campaign in Ukraine.

Already the Russian state-controlled television network NTV aired a video in which a Ukrainian security official claims responsibility for the Moscow terrorist attack. However, that video has already been shown to be fake.

Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov was shown supposedly confirming Kyiv’s involvement in the terrorist attack. However, the video in question uses edited footage from several days ago, Meduza reports.

Former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who now is deputy head of the security council, quickly took to social media on the day of the attack to say that if Kyiv’s involvement in the attack on the concert hall is “proved,” all those involved “must be tracked down and killed without mercy, including officials of the state that committed such outrage”.

Putin reacts

Russian President Vladimir Putin has wished all those injured in the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack a swift recovery and conveyed compliments to medical staff, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said.

"We together with [Russian Health Minister] Mikhail A. [Murashko] reported to the president on the state of health of patients, the president wished all a recovery and conveyed compliments to doctors," she told reporters.

According to a statement from the Kremlin, the Russian president met with FSB director Alexander Bortnikov, Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Federal Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin and National Guard chief Viktor Zolotov. However, the Kremlin has yet to comment on its next steps other than a criminal case has been opened.

Bortnikov reportedly told Putin: “The terrorists’ priority goal is to seize power in the countries of Central Asia, primarily in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and include them in the so-called global caliphate,” he added, alleging that “this is being done with the active participation of American and British intelligence services.”