Russia casts doubt on Islamic State being behind concert attack

Though terror group has claimed responsibility and published footage of attack, Moscow seems to pin blame on Ukraine, accusing US of covering for Kyiv

A Russian Rosguardia (National Guard) servicemen secures an area as a massive blaze is seen over the Crocus City Hall on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2024, following a terrorist attack attributed to the Islamic State. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)
A Russian Rosguardia (National Guard) servicemen secures an area as a massive blaze is seen over the Crocus City Hall on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, March 22, 2024, following a terrorist attack attributed to the Islamic State. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

Russia on Monday challenged assertions by the United States that the Islamic State terror group orchestrated a gun attack on a concert hall outside Moscow that killed 137 people and injured 182 more, accusing Washington of covering for Ukraine.

In the deadliest attack inside Russia for two decades, four men burst into the Crocus City Hall on Friday night, spraying people with bullets during a concert by the Soviet-era rock group Picnic.

Four men, at least one a Tajik, were remanded in custody on terrorism charges. They appeared separately, led into a cage at Moscow’s Basmanny district court by Federal Security Service officers.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, a claim that the US has publicly said it believes, and the group has since released what it says is footage from the attack. US officials said they had warned Russia of intelligence about an imminent attack earlier this month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not publicly mentioned the Islamist group in connection with the attackers, who he said had been trying to escape to Ukraine.

Putin said some people on “the Ukrainian side” had been prepared to spirit the gunmen across the border. Ukraine has denied any role in the attack and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Putin of seeking to divert blame for the attack by mentioning Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024, following a terrorist attack on a concert hall in the city, which has been attributed to the Islamic State. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, called into question US assertions that Islamic State, which once sought control over swaths of Iraq and Syria, was behind the attack.

In an article for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, she said the US was evoking the “bogeyman” of Islamic State to cover its “wards” in Kyiv, and reminded readers that Washington had supported the “mujahideen” fighters who fought Soviet forces in the 1980s.

Two US officials said on Friday that the US had intelligence confirming Islamic State’s claim of responsibility.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told reporters that Russia could not comment on the Islamic State claim while the investigation was ongoing, and would not comment on the US intelligence, saying it was sensitive information.

A woman places flowers by the fence next to the Crocus City Hall, on the western edge of Moscow, Russia, March 23, 2024, following an attack the previous day, for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility. (AP Photo/Vitaly Smolnikov)

Echoing the US intelligence assessment, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that Russia was a victim of an Islamist attack and that the group behind the Moscow shootings had also attempted to commit several acts in France recently.

“This attack was claimed by Islamic State and the information available to us, to our [intelligence] services as well as to our main partners, indicates indeed that it was an entity of the Islamic State which instigated this attack,” Macron told reporters during a visit to French Guyana, adding that “[t]his group also tried to commit several actions on our own soil.”

“We have offered to increase cooperation with the Russian [intelligence] services and our partners in the region, so that the culprits can be found as quickly as possible and so that we continue to fight effectively against these groups which are targeting several countries,” said the French president.

“I think that it would be both cynical and counterproductive for Russia itself and the security of its citizens to use this context to try and turn it against Ukraine,” he added.

The French government on Sunday raised its terror alert warning to its highest level following the shootings in Moscow.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives at Cayenne-Felix Eboue airport in Cayenne, as part of a two-day visit to the French overseas department of Guyana, on March 25, 2024. (Ludovic Marin/AFP)

Video shows part of suspect’s ear being cut out

Putin said 11 people had been detained, including the four suspected gunmen, who he said had fled the concert hall and made their way to the Bryansk region, about 340 kilometers (210 miles) southwest of Moscow, to slip across the border to Ukraine.

Unverified videos of the suspects’ interrogations circulated on social media. One of the suspects was shown having part of his ear cut off and stuffed into his mouth.

One man, a Tajik named Dalerdzhon Mirzoyev, leaned against the glass cage as the terrorism charge was read out. Saidakrami Rachabalizoda, his ear in bandages, remained sitting.

Muhammadsobir Fayzov appeared in gaping hospital clothes and sat in a medical chair, his face covered in cuts. Shamsiddin Fariduni, his face bruised, stood.

Saidakrami Murodali Rachabalizoda, a suspect in the Crocus City Hall shooting on March 22, 2024, sits in a glass cage in the Basmanny District Court in Moscow, Russia, March 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The Kremlin’s Peskov left a journalist’s question about the treatment of the detainees unanswered.

Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, triggering a major European war after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian forces on one side and pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian proxies on the other.

The US and its European allies have supported Ukraine, extending billions of dollars of money, weapons and intelligence in a bid to defeat Russian forces.

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