RUSSIA: Islamic State: From religiously motivated hatred of ‘infidels’ to terrorism

By Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (27.03.2024) – 139 Russians are known to have died in the worst terrorist attack for two decades on the Russian soil, perpetrated on 22 March in the Crocus City Hall in Moscow.

The Islamic State has publicly claimed responsibility for the attack, praising the “Islamic fighters” who carried it out and it has repeated its claim after the Kremlin had started accusing the sole Ukraine for sponsoring it, an outrageously unfounded statement. Moscow’s stubborn denial to recognize the hand of the Islamic State in the terrorist attack might exacerbate their hatred towards Russia for stealing their “victory” from them and lead to more acts of terrorism in retaliation.

Concerts of modern Western music for young people are abhorred as places of perdition by the Islamists. They are a privileged target as it was previously shown by a terrorist attack against a concert attended by 1500 young people in the Bataclan theatre in November 2015 in Paris.

The religious-political ideology of the Islamic State

The priority targets of the Islamic State leaders are Muslim majority states which ‘compromise’ with other countries, especially in the West, or do not implement the shariah as they understand it in its most repressive form. Even Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is considered ideologically corrupted.

The Islamic State operates under a global offensive jihad to cleanse “its own” territory of both foreign infidels—nonbelievers of Islam—and apostates and the group endorses violence against local Muslims if they object to the strict adherence to sharia and do not conform to its dogma.

Their other main enemy includes countries with Christian majority populations and the states that they support. Here the Islamic State puts Russia and its allies in the same bag as Western countries as it does not make any distinction between all these ‘infidels.’ No doubt the Islamic State contemplates with pleasure two blocs of Christian majority countries fighting against each other and waits for windows of opportunities to exploit their weaknesses.

Russia is also the enemy of the Islamic State because of its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its war against Muslims in Afghanistan in the 20th century and its wars in Chechnya.

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP): more extremist than the Taliban

In the terrorist attack perpetrated in the concert hall in Moscow, US officials have pointed to the Islamic State (IS) affiliate called “Islamic State Khorasan Province” (IS-KP) as prime suspect – though so far there is no evidence that this is the case. The IS-KP has not itself claimed responsibility for the attack in Moscow. This message has come from the IS central communications channels.

The IS-KP is a branch of the IS across parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia, a region called in the past Khorasan. It adheres to the broader IS ideology, which seeks to establish a global, transnational caliphate governed by Islamic jurisprudence. In 2016, the IS issued a paper entitled “Islamic State Creed and Methodology of Takfir”, which stated that anyone who rejects sharia law will be labeled as kafir (an apostate) and can be executed as a result.

In its fight against the “near enemy” (apostates in its region), the IS-KP has launched numerous attacks on members of Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia minority.

The IS-KP’s commitment not to compromise with the West initially attracted some disgruntled Taliban members condemning the Taliban’s peace negotiations with the United States, the Western “crusaders.” In 2021, the IS-KP specifically vowed retaliation against this peace deal and refuses to acknowledge the Taliban as a legitimate Islamic power.

The IS-KP and Russia

The brutal attack in Moscow is not the first time the IS-KP has targeted Russia.

In September 2022, ISKP militants claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul and some experts say the group has opposed the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in recent years. Michael Kugelman, of the Washington-based Wilson Center, said the IS-KP “sees Russia as being complicit in activities that regularly oppress Muslims” and counts as members a number of central Asian militants with their own grievances against Moscow.

Some analysts say they believe the IS-KP has targeted Russia over what the terrorist group views as the Russian government’s oppression of Muslims, including in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.

Some terrorist attacks by IS-KP

The IS-KP has significant disagreements with the Taliban, which it views as having abandoned jihad. It has launched hundreds of attacks on mosques, civilian targets and security forces in Afghanistan as well as ethnic or religious minorities.

In May 2020, the IS-KP attacked a Kabul maternity ward that killed 24 people and another one on Kabul University in November that left 22 people dead.

On 26 August 2021, the IS-KP carried out an attack at Kabul’s international airport, killing 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghans during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. This was an international target but still in Afghanistan.

The group has recently hit targets in neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, in Tajikistan and Pakistan. In January last, the group was said to have carried out twin bombings in Iran that killed nearly 100 people – but the IS-KP never claims responsibility.

KP in a few dates

IS-KP emerged in Afghanistan in late 2014. The group is named after an old term for the region that included parts of Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

It was formed at the peak of the expansion of the Islamic State in 2015 when the Iraq- and Syria-based group was trying to expand by building a network of affiliates through the Middle East, the Maghreb, west Asia and other parts of Africa.

The IS-KP was founded by disgruntled members of the Pakistani Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other groups who were attracted by the extremism and resources of the Islamic State and pledged allegiance to it.

In January 2015, the Islamic State formed its “Khorasan” province and appointed Hafiz Khan Saeed as the first IS-KP emir. Khan Saeed had previously served as a commander with responsibility for ‘operations’ in Orakazi in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

In 2018, the IS-KP membership peaked in but afterwards dropped, partly because of efforts by the Taliban and the United States to dismantle it.

In May 2019, the Islamic State announced the existence of new provinces in Pakistan and India—areas which had previously fallen under IS-KP’s geographic remit.

In June 2020, the Islamic State appointed Shahab al-Muhajir as IS-KP’s new emir following the capture of his predecessor, Aslam Farooqi.

In June 2021, the United Nations estimated that IS-KP consisted of a core group of fighters numbering between 1,500 and 2,200 active in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar. These fighters were dispersed into relatively autonomous cells operating under the Islamic State banner and ideology.

Further reading about FORB in Russia on HRWF website