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ISIS-K attack in Moscow draws fears of plots in US, Europe

The deadly ISIS-K attack on a Moscow concert hall last week is raising concerns that plots by the terrorist group, once restricted to Afghanistan, could be carried out in the United States and Europe — and sooner than thought.

Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the Central Asian offshoot of the terror group the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for killing at least 143 people and injuring more than 100 others when four gunmen burst into the Crocus City Hall theater in Moscow just ahead of a concert on March 23.

The high-profile attack, the deadliest on Russia in two decades, is all the more jarring given the group’s limited ability to carry out attacks beyond the Middle East just a few years ago. Experts warn that the speed with which ISIS-K has been able to broaden its scope in its attacks should be taken seriously.

“I hesitate to say, ‘Oh, this is an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland,’ but the fact that [ISIS-K] has been able to evolve from this group that has generally been limited to Afghanistan and the neighborhood, and now it’s being linked to all of these plots far beyond Afghanistan, including in Europe, I think that’s quite concerning,” said Michael Kugelman of the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center.

Established in 2014, ISIS-K seeks to create a Muslim caliphate across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The group, known for its extreme brutality, was formed by a group of disgruntled Taliban militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan that eventually began to recruit more broadly from Central Asia.

The group took a hit when the Islamic State lost its caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2017 after a brutal battle in Mosul, Iraq, fought by U.S., Iraqi, and Kurdish forces. They were further diminished by NATO Airstrikes in 2018.

Still, ISIS offshoots have continued to spread across the globe in areas left unchecked, according to Kabir Taneja with the leading Indian think tank, the Observer Research Foundation.

ISIS “has continued to thrive in other parts of the world, regions that perhaps most people don’t care about too much,” Taneja said. This may have made “the threat seem less, lax, or impotent,” but ISIS’s “aligned groups in Afghanistan, the African Sahel, Mozambique, and even continuing in Syria, have been slowly gnawing their way into prominence in these parts of the world.”

Kugelman said ISIS-K is likely the most active and potent of any Islamic State regional affiliate currently.

ISIS-K has focused most of its attacks on Afghanistan, notably the August 2021 bombing outside the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul during the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan. The bombing – which killed at least 183 people, including 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members – “sort of woke the world up to the threat that the group posed,” Kugelman said.

Other notable attacks include a suicide bombing outside the Russian embassy in Kabul in September 2022 and dual suicide bombings on Jan. 3 in Kerman, Iran, that killed nearly 100 people at a ceremony for the anniversary of the death of Qassem Soleimani, former head of the elite Quds Force within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The United States firmly sees the group as an ongoing threat, with U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Michael Kurilla warning lawmakers last March that ISIS-K was rapidly building up its ability to conduct “external operations” in Europe and Asia.

Attacks within the United States were not as likely, he said, but predicted that ISIS-K would be able to hit U.S. and Western interests outside Afghanistan “in as little as six months and with little to no warning.”

And in September 2023, the Department of Homeland Security released its annual threat assessment, which said the U.S. was at “high risk” for a terror attack, pointing to ISIS-K as a likely perpetrator.

Europe has also been on high alert after the Moscow attack, with Italy and France raising their security levels in the wake of the shootings.

Making matters more tense, ISIS spokesperson Abu Huthaifa al-Ansar on Thursday called on followers to target “crusaders,” particularly in Europe and the United States. The propaganda was released on the 10th anniversary of when ISIS first announced its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, say they remain vigilant against the evolving threat posed by including ISIS-K and other terrorist groups.

“The Department of Defense has not taken its eye off of ISIS,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday.

But that vigilance is hampered by Washington’s diminished ability to develop intelligence against ISIS-K and other extremist groups in Afghanistan due to the U.S. withdrawal from the country in 2021.

“When the United States left Afghanistan more than two years ago, the writing was clearly on the wall that ISIS-K was a significant threat, and that the threat was going to grow greater in the U.S. absence,” said the Atlantic Council’s Amb. Nathan Sales, a former coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department.

He added: “I think we’re in a very difficult position right now in terms of our ability to collect actionable intelligence on the group, let alone take action . . . .We simply don’t have the assets in Afghanistan that are necessary to collect and take action and that’s a very frightening situation to be in at a time when ISIS-K is developing the capabilities to go along with the intent to hit their enemies.”

That thinking has been seized on by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who last week connected the Moscow attack to U.S.-Mexico border policy, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that it was “common sense” a for-profit human smuggling group with reported links to ISIS will “most certainly use [their network] to move operatives” into the country.

“I’m not claiming there’s an imminent threat to the U.S., but I am saying that border situation and the existence of that network is a threat to the United States,” said Rubio, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Sales said that while the porous southern border is a real concern, it’s not the only worry.

“We also have to be worried about terrorists entering the country through other means, whether because they were able to obtain a visa at some consulate overseas or whether they were able to exploit a vulnerability in the visa waiver program and travel from abroad without going through a visa scrutiny,” he said. “There’s a number of pathways that terrorists could take to carry out operations here in the homeland.”

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