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The Moscow Terrorist Attack: Pro-Islamic State Narratives and their Wider Implications 

The Moscow Terrorist Attack: Pro-Islamic State Narratives and their Wider Implications 
3rd April 2024 Meili Criezis
In Insights


On 22 March 2024, four gunmen entered Crocus City Hall in Moscow, Russia and carried out an attack killing 139 people. Later that same evening, Amaq News Agency released a short announcement stating that “Islamic State fighters attacked a large gathering of Christians in the city of ‘Krasnogorsk’…and they killed and wounded hundreds and inflicted great damage on the place before safety withdrawing to their bases.” On 23 March, Amaq produced a more detailed follow-up statement (along with a blurred image of the terrorists) saying the concert venue location had been surveilled prior to the attack and that four “Islamic State fighters” carried out the operation with “machine guns, pistols, knives and incendiary bombs” among other details. The Moscow attack also received a mentioning in Islamic State spokesman Abu Hudhaifa al-Ansari’s recent Al Furqan audio speech release. [Translations provided by Aymenn Al-Tamimi]

IS central media also released an official claim repeating the information shared from the Amaq releases, and as Aaron Zelin emphasised, the claim itself did not attribute the attack to Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP/IS-K) or indeed any IS province. However, Zelin additionally states that the lack of a more specified claim at the province level “doesn’t mean ISKP networks weren’t involved,” suggesting that “the way IS does its external operations claims are a bit more nuanced than its regional attack claims.” A US official shared with the Associated Press that “US agencies said that IS-K was responsible for the attack.” The Kremlin, on the other hand, accused Ukraine, the United States, and Britain of being behind the attack. Two weeks before the attack, the US abided by its ‘duty to warn’ tenet and tried to warn Russia of an imminent attack. Central Asian migrants in Russia, especially Tajik nationals, have also faced further heightened xenophobia, discrimination, and violence following the 22 March attack.

Following the terrorist attack and IS’s official claim, pro-IS supporters expressed excitement and circulated propaganda. This Insight examines some prominent responses expressed across their public social media channels and analyses their wider implications. 

Countering Mis/Disinformation

Pro-IS supporters have made efforts to counter conspiracies that entities other than the Islamic State were responsible for the attack, highlighting an instance where supporters must confront the spread of dis/misinformation. This is not meant to overlook the fact that IS has previously disseminated its own disinformation narratives but instead serves as a reminder that the circulation of false information can pose serious issues for IS and its supporters if it gains enough traction. In the context of the Moscow terrorist attack, countering such narratives remains crucial for the following primary reasons: 

  • The attack invigorated supporters globally and attracted significant international attention to both IS Central and IS-K. As a result of this notoriety, IS and its supporters understand that the group must maintain its image and reputation following a high-profile attack. 
  • Successful large-scale operations may potentially draw in more recruits (directly and in a more decentralised manner), and pro-IS supporters note the propaganda value that such incidents hold, meaning they cannot allow conspiracies to detract from their propaganda momentum.
  • Implications by the Kremlin and the FSB that Ukraine, the United States, and/or Britain ultimately orchestrated the attack come into direct opposition with IS’s long-standing position that it will never cooperate or take sides with State actors. As a reminder, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, official IS media sustained, as Lucas Webber et al stated, a “Ukraine-focused media campaign in its weekly al-Naba newsletter under the headline ‘Crusader Against Crusader Wars’…”. Pro-IS supporters have also spent their energy emphasising their hostility toward both Russia and Ukraine before while reminding fellow sympathisers that one cannot be a “martyr” if the person provides support for either Ukraine or Russia. 

To counter efforts to detract from IS’s official claim, supporters are pushing the following points: 

  • Supporters are posting reminders of previous IS-claimed attacks from around the world as proof of IS’s capabilities to launch operations in countries near and far from what once was the so-called territorial Caliphate.
  • Supporters state that efforts to invalidate IS’s claim constitute their enemies’ attempts to “question the capabilities of the Islamic State.” Some narratives say the reasoning behind this is their adversaries not wanting to believe that IS remains capable of organising attacks. Other narratives assert that it is a deliberately calculated attempt to make IS appear weak so their enemies can save face. 
  • Pro-IS channels and accounts across platforms continue resharing the official claim from IS central media as well as the Amaq statement releases and the attackers’ bodycam footage recorded during the operation. 

On a more general and related note, when official claims by IS media are not released as quickly, IS supporters often remind one another to avoid speculating (seemingly to prevent the growth of dis/misinformation in their own online networks) and maintain patience while waiting for official statements. 

Historical Memory 

Although anti-Russian IS narratives may not be as widely well-known, researchers have discussed these viewpoints and the ways in which the group draws on historical memory. For example, IS propaganda has stated Russia must pay for its involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War, its atrocities in Chechnya during both Chechen wars, and its support of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime. Pro-IS supporters have echoed IS propaganda narrative patterns about Russia in their own posts and comments with special emphasis on Russian war crimes in Chechnya as well as a general disdain for the Russian State. 

The attention given to Russian historical contexts reflects the same tailored approach IS media and IS supporters apply to other countries, demonstrating the importance of incorporating specific and more localised historical narratives into wider propaganda designed to resonate with target audiences. 

Promises of Future Violence 

Supporters and pro-IS/IS-affiliated media continue posting propaganda promising future violence. This behaviour is neither surprising nor unexpected. However, wider public engagement with and attention to this genre of IS content is notable in that it reflects ongoing issues with the amplification of their violent threats. Although IS supporters have circulated these threats widely throughout their own social media networks, they arguably reached a much larger general audience once individuals unaffiliated with pro-IS online spaces began posting screenshots and sharing them within their own networks. Perhaps most notably, threats directed toward the outgroup (ie IS’s adversaries) are exactly the type of content that IS hopes reaches the wider public. Supporters seek to not only invigorate one another with displays of bold and threatening rhetoric but also to project a dynamic that Amanda Rogers describes as “an inflated threat capacity to enemy and competitor in the global attention economy…”. This is something of which we must remain mindful. For a more in-depth report about harmful amplification, see Data & Society’s report titled ‘The Oxygen of Amplification’. 


The Moscow terrorist attack demonstrates the ongoing serious threat posed by IS and its IS-K branch, and it undoubtedly hopes to expand its reach. But as Sara Harmouch, Amira Jadoon and Munira Mustaffa highlight, we must consider that it also serves the dual purpose of obscuring from the international view “local setbacks for IS-K” by obfuscating the obstacles the branch faces at the ‘Khorasan Province’ level. Setbacks include “military defeats, loss of territory and leadership, and diminishing resources.” Such on-the-ground realities further underline the importance propaganda (whether official or unofficial) plays in portraying IS (and, in this case, its IS-K branch) as strong and capable on an international level. 

In other words, it is a strategy that centres on a projection of reach, power, and psychological fear that IS seeks to induce in adversaries. In the meantime, we must also continue working toward long-term solutions to reduce risks posed by the unstable situation concerning the camps in Eastern Syria and ongoing threats posed by other IS branches. 

On a final note, Russian law enforcement’s use of torture on the suspects of the Moscow attack and subsequent promotion of related photo and video evidence demonstrates what Tanya Lokshina at Human Rights Watch said is a “level of violence that has become normalised in Russia over the past two years of the war” where it had once been “unthinkable for them to proudly publicise the video evidence.” In response, Al Azaim media published in multiple languages a direct response stating: “stop [the] abusing and torturing of Islamic State captives,” followed by promises of revenge and declarations that it only increased desires for retaliation against Russia. The IS terrorists must face justice for their crimes, but in addition to being a human rights violation, torture also undermines the “value of testimony extracted by law enforcement agents.” As demonstrated by the Al Azaim media response, it creates a self-reinforcing dynamic where brutality feeds further brutality while opening a new regional-level propaganda narrative avenue for IS to justify future violence.