On the Crocus City Hall Attack

James Meek

The acts of terror in Western countries carried out by ultra-radical Salafi Muslims in what was, by the Hijri calendar, the early 15th century – most notably the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 – were expressions of failure: the failure by the ultras to topple, or even seriously jeopardise, their most hated enemies, the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, whom they consider contemptible apostates.

That their Western targets, in particular the US, were the sponsors of those regimes and of Israel, and that after 9/11 the US and Britain intervened bloodily and recklessly in Muslim countries, gave the jihadis the texts of their justifications, without ever completely obscuring the uncomfortable fact that no Muslim country, whether defined as government or people, has been prepared to merge its course with militant Salafi ideals, in either their al-Qaida or ISIS incarnations. Militant Salafism has had bases galore, some powerful and populous, but, despite its name and boasts, Islamic State has never captured a state.

If, as seems highly likely, the attack on Crocus City Hall in Moscow on Saturday was organised by the Salafi ultras of Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP), based in the Pashto-speaking lands on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it’s another sign of the radical militants’ weakness, given that ISKP’s preferred enemy is Afghanistan’s government, the Taliban. Despite ISKP attacks, despite the rolling catastrophe of the collapse in international aid, despite the startling success of its campaign to stamp out the cultivation of opium (Afghanistan’s most valuable export), the Taliban is still in charge.

Mass murder at a Moscow light entertainment venue, where 140 people were gunned down at point blank range as they gathered to watch the nostalgic rock of the elderly band Picnic, may have promoted the long hand of ISKP to donors and potential recruits, but it changes nothing for the organisation where it most wants things to change, at home. In a recent issue of the Voice of Khurasan, an English-language magazine put out in pdf form by an ISKP-adjacent organisation, being ‘friendly’ with Russia – and China, and America – figured as just one of a long list of crimes laid against the chief recipient of ISKP hate, the Taliban supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada.

Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about the Crocus City atrocity yesterday, in a video conference with security officials and regional government heads. His tenuously grounded and at times unhinged claims of Ukrainian involvement in the attack – at one point he plunged into a digression about Ukrainian nationalist youth movements of the 1940s – may be taken as instructions to his subordinates to find Kyiv’s fingerprints on the operation, whether they exist or not. But the Russian leader was also obliged to accept, and confront, the fact that Islamists were at least the proximate agents of the killings. Putin professed bafflement as to why ‘radical, even terroristically inclined Islamic organisations would be interested in striking blows against Russia, which is speaking out today for a just resolution of the intensified conflict in the Middle East.’

Silent during the public part of the meeting was Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s security service, the FSB (Putin’s old job). He could have reminded his boss that five years ago, in Tajikstan – the ex-Soviet country of which the four Crocus City suspects are apparently citizens – he had warned of the rise of ISKP in neighbouring Afghanistan. Many citizens of former Soviet countries were in its ranks, he had said, having experienced battle in Syria, and they were using established economic migration routes to set up cells and find recruits in the old Soviet space.

As part of his wider project to align Russia away from Europe and North America and towards the bulk of the world, defined by him as a camp united by its resentment of the hegemony of the old West, Putin has tried to leverage Russia’s Muslim population – perhaps 10 per cent – into an obligation-free political stake in the Ummah as a whole. And yet the political monoculture he has created in Russia, where he is immune to criticism and every step he takes must be a win because he has taken it, risks blinding him to the complexity, contradictions and uncomfortable consequences of his policies.

In 2003 Putin was the first leader from a country where Muslims are a minority to speak at the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation; two years later, Russia became an observer at the OIC. He glad-hands Muhammad bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, speaks up for the Palestinians, shops for weapons in Iran and empowers the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

But Kadyrov, a homophobic, torturing tyrant prone to send his local goons into the rest of Russia to arrest his enemies, is loathed by Russian liberals and nationalists alike. He is in power because Putin put him there after waging a war against Chechnya that resulted in the deaths of around thirty thousand civilians, most of them Muslim. Putin’s intervention in support of Assad in Syria has killed another nine thousand. Just a few days before the Crocus City attack, Russian planes were bombing targets in Syria; in ISKP’s propaganda, America bombs Syria more, but Russia and America are essentially the same – Crusaders, Christians, unbelievers. Putin drew heavily on the poor youth of Dagestan, another predominantly Muslim autonomous Russian region neighbouring Chechnya, to man his army in the attack on Ukraine. But the fragility of his control over the area was revealed last October, when an angry crowd tried to drag Jewish passengers off a plane that had arrived from Israel.

Putin’s grand vision of Russia as the keystone of a structure of anti-Atlanticist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic patriarchies spanning Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and, under Trump, the United States itself, suffers from its failure to address the deep sense of beleaguered, exclusionist nationalism within white Christian Russia, haunted by its demographic decline relative to the country’s Muslim population. Putin is striving to be globalist and anti-globalist at the same time, a hard move to pull off. He wants to increase the ethnically Russian population of Russia by an almost alchemical procedure, whereby ordinary Ukrainians come under occupation and, thus freed from Nazi mind control, instantly turn into loyal Russians; but even if it worked like that, the fact that the process involves the deaths of tens of thousands of people on both sides would make it self-defeating.

Immediately before and after the Crocus City atrocity, Russian forces continued their assault on Ukraine, firing missiles, dropping bombs, destroying power stations, killing civilians, killing Ukrainian troops, sacrificing the lives of their own. All told, adding together Chechnya, Syria, Georgia and Ukraine, soldiers and civilians, the number of violent deaths directly attributable to Putin’s wars easily surpasses 100,000.

Perhaps it is naive to point out the contradictions in Putin’s courting of nationalists at home and like-minded strongmen abroad; riding the wave of other people’s confusion for the sake of the survival of your own loyalty group has long been the modus operandi of the president’s homeland-within-a-homeland, the Russian secret police. Every so often, as in 1905, 1917 or 1991, this results in a severe discontinuity, and as horrible as the Crocus City attack was, the most dangerous radical jihadis in Russia, for Russia, may be found closer to home.

One of the motifs of Russian news videography in the Putin era is the Orthodox priest blessing weaponry – the splashing of holy water on a tank or a nuclear missile. In the two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed, accoording to a a survey by the Levada Centre, the number of Russians who considered themselves atheists plunged and the number declaring themselves Orthodox believers rose from fewer than half to three-quarters. Under Putin, militarism, nationalism and religion rose together.


  • 27 March 2024 at 6:19pm
    shewie says:
    Good grief, yet another James Meek jeremiad against Mr Putin, this time using the appalling terrorist atrocity at the Crocus as the hook on which to hang his schadenfreude. Mr Meek was wrong about Mr Putin (and Russia and Ukraine) back in September 2022 and he has been wrong ever since. And I refuse to enumerate the countless instances in his writings where he has been wrong.
    Why? Because Mr Meek confuses his opinion with reality because Mr Meek is a propagandist, not a journalist. You don't, indeed can't argue with a propagandist, that's the whole point.

    • 28 March 2024 at 11:47am
      Delaide says: @ shewie
      Your final point is a good one. You’ll get no argument from me.

    • 28 March 2024 at 4:10pm
      nlowhim says: @ shewie
      Agreed. Meek’s rakes have been a little too jingoistic for my tastes.

    • 29 March 2024 at 1:23am
      whatnot says: @ shewie
      good grief shewie, still crying about 'your taxes' going to support Ukraine? if you so 'can't argue with a propagandist', what do you do when you watch Kiselev froth at the mouth on Kremlin TV - just nod, or shout 'uraaa!'?

    • 4 April 2024 at 9:21pm
      Camus says: @ shewie
      It sounds as if you believe that Mr Putin actually came to the rescue of the beleaguered Russians in Luhansk and rescued the Crimean Tatars from Ukrainian repression, as well as freeing Syria from the dangers of American invasion. If he is such a benevolent and competent leader, he might try donning a disguise and trying out the Ulbricht trick. He wanted to know what people really thought about him - not just the fawning praise of his underlings, so off he went into the deepest provincial hinterland, asking what people thought of their leader. "Wonderful! " "we are a lucky people" they all said. But one man asked him to follow him into a distant part of the forest, where he looked around, made sure they were alone and said "what I think of Ullbricht? He's doing his best" .

  • 29 March 2024 at 10:19am
    Rodney says:
    A good article, thanks.

    I fear the number of violent deaths directly attributable to Putin’s wars is much, much higher than 100,000.

    The UK Defence depts has estimated this March that more than 350,000 Russian soldiers had died in the invasion of Ukraine since February 2022.

    • 4 April 2024 at 2:22pm
      fbkun says: @ Rodney
      If so, that makes him an amateur compared to the likes of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Joe Biden, to name a few.

    • 4 April 2024 at 9:24pm
      Camus says: @ fbkun
      How does he compare to Stalin?

    • 5 April 2024 at 1:08pm
      fbkun says: @ Camus
      Shouldn't we compare Putin to the leaders of the "free world" ?

    • 5 April 2024 at 2:28pm
      Delaide says: @ fbkun
      No comparison, no matter how flawed and simplistic is necessary. Putin’s invasion is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the unimaginable misery of hundreds of thousands more. Full stop.

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