World Braces for Islamic State to Build on Moscow Attack

WASHINGTON — What is normally a time of celebration is turning to one of anxiety, as counterterrorism officials are on high alert for the Islamic State terror group to build on its deadly Moscow attack with new plots targeting Easter.

Already, some European countries have issued heightened threat alerts while increasing security. Italy, in particular, cites the approach of the Easter holiday as one reason for additional concern.

The latest propaganda from Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS, has only served to reinforce such worries.

In a statement Thursday marking 10 years since IS first announced its now-defunct caliphate in Iraq and Syria, spokesperson Abu Huthaifa al-Ansar called on followers to target “crusaders,” especially in Europe and in the United States.

Even in its claim of responsibility for the attack near Moscow, the group’s Amaq news agency said its operatives have targeted a gathering of Christians. And this past January, IS claimed responsibility for an attack on a Catholic church in Istanbul that killed one person.

IS also has a history of attacking Christians celebrating Easter, notably claiming responsibility for Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka in April 2019 that killed more than 300 people and wounded at least 500 more.

“Easter and/or Easter-related activities would absolutely be high on the hit list for a potential attack,” said Colin Clarke, director of research at the global intelligence firm the Soufan Group.

“ISIS is on a roll, and there could be a real push to sustain the momentum by launching another high-profile assault, especially on a symbolic target,” Clarke told VOA. “I’d also be concerned about Orthodox Easter the following weekend, and the logical place to look would be where ISIS has struck Christian targets before.”

‘Substantial’ threat risk

Other countries, while acknowledging the threat, say they have long been on high alert for such plots and that sounding additional alarms will do little good.

“The security authorities’ risk assessment of the Islamist threat in Germany has not yet changed as a result of the terrible attack in Moscow,” a German government spokesperson told VOA, speaking on the condition they not be named.

“It was already high before,” the official added, calling the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate “currently the most aggressive” of the terror group’s branches while adding it “currently poses the greatest Islamist threat in Germany.”

Britain has taken a similar stance.

“The threat level to the U.K. from terrorism is already currently substantial, meaning an attack is likely,” a spokesperson told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This assessment has not changed.”

In the United States, as well, nothing has changed.

Last May, U.S. officials warned the country was stuck in a “heightened threat environment.” In September 2023, the Department of Homeland Security’s annual threat assessment said the U.S. was at “high risk” for a terror attack, specifically pointing to the threat from the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, also known as IS-Khorasan, ISIS-K, or ISKP.

“We remain vigilant against the evolving threat posed by terrorist groups, including ISIS-K,” U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Thursday. “We have maintained an unwavering focus.”

US assessment

The Pentagon issued a similar assurance.

“The Department of Defense has not taken its eye off of ISIS,” press secretary Major General Pat Ryder said Thursday in response to a question from VOA.

Recent U.S. intelligence assessments have portrayed IS as a terror organization that may be at a turning point, underscoring what the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment, issued earlier this month, described as “cascading leadership losses in Iraq and Syria.”

But the same report warned that “regional affiliates will continue to expand.” And while the U.S. report cited a shift to Africa, U.S. and other current and former Western officials see IS leadership in Afghanistan as taking on a more prominent role.

“Most plots that we are aware of go back to ISIS-K,” a former senior Western counterterrorism official told VOA earlier this year.

There has been long-running concern about IS-Khorasan’s efforts to expand its sphere of influence beyond Afghanistan.

Some Western officials and regional observers warn that as far back as 2021, the IS Afghan affiliate was seeking to seed Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with small but highly capable cells and networks that could serve as the basis for future attacks.

Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in jihadism, said, “There was a large cohort of Central Asian foreign fighters that went to Syria last decade when IS was controlling territory there. So, those that survived were likely a backbone to this broader facilitation and plot/attack network.

“There was also a smaller cohort of Central Asians that joined up with ISKP in Afghanistan,” Zelin told VOA. “Then there are Central Asian migrant communities in Russia that IS can recruit from in the same way they do with Arab migrant populations in Western Europe.”

Focus on Central Asia

One humanitarian official in Central Asia, who asked that their name be withheld because of fears they could be targeted, told VOA that IS has managed to establish small, high-quality cells and networks across the region.

“The networks still exist, but they are not going to be recruiting more [big] numbers,” the official said, adding that there are signs that “the recruitment might happen more outside of Central Asia.”

“The vulnerabilities and push factors [that move someone to join IS] are a lot stronger in Russia, especially in light of the current situation in Russia toward migrants,” the official said, noting those same factors exist across many European countries that host Central Asian diaspora communities.

There are indications that IS-Khorasan has found ways to leverage other terror groups.

Andrew Mines, a program specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, said, “ISKP doesn’t just attract foreign recruits, it also cooperates with Central Asian-dominated groups like IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] and … ETIM/TIP [Turkistan Islamic Party] to a more limited extent.”

Mines told VOA that IS-Khorasan has proven to be adept at maximizing its resources.

“ISKP has shown it is capable of receiving, training and deploying assets within and outside of Afghanistan, as well as using the ‘virtual planner’ and inspiration attack planning models.”

Current and former officials say it is those types of capabilities, combined with high-profile attacks, such as the one near Moscow and January’s double suicide bombing in Kerman, Iran, that make IS-Khorasan a formidable threat even as some data suggest the affiliate’s exploits in Afghanistan itself have been on the decline.

The IS-Khorasan attack in Russia, along with foiled plots in Germany late last year, both of which appear to have relied on ethnic Tajiks, could also be an indication that group’s efforts to build an extended network is coming to fruition.

“This could even be the first sort of real flowering of a developed ISIL-Khorasan capability,” according to Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former senior U.N. counterterrorism official, using another acronym for the IS Afghan affiliate.

And Fitton-Brown, now a senior adviser for the New York and Berlin-based Counter Extremism Project, worries IS leaders will want to capitalize on the momentum they likely see from this year’s successful terror attacks.

“They got that attention for Iran. They’ve got a lot more attention for doing it in Russia. And they would get even more attention if they could bring off something on this scale in Western Europe,” he told VOA.

“But whether they can bring it off is a question, because up to now there have been a lot of abortive attempts where they’ve had active terrorist plots in Western Europe, particularly in Germany, but they’ve been detected and prevented and disrupted,” Fitton-Brown said.

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