Terrorist attacks are on the rise in Russia as Putin remains 'distracted' by war in Ukraine

  • Gunmen attacked Orthodox churches and synagogues in Dagestan on Sunday, killing around 20 people.

  • The attacks raised questions about Russia's domestic security as it continues its war in Ukraine.

  • Experts told BI that Russian security services were likely "distracted" by the invasion.

On Sunday evening, gunmen attacked two Orthodox churches and two synagogues in Russia's predominantly Muslim Dagestan region, hurling Molotov cocktails and exchanging fire with police.

The attacks, which killed around 20 people, raised major questions about whether the Kremlin has the resources to protect its citizens back home while pursuing its war in Ukraine.

The incident "caught security forces completely off guard," Lucas Webber, a research fellow at the Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank, told Business Insider — despite the fact that it would have required "quite a bit of planning and preparation beforehand."

The attacks also illustrated "the diverse range of militant actors Russia has angered through its domestic and foreign policy actions," he added.

The Institute for the Study of War reported that the Islamic State's (IS) Northern Caucasus branch, Wilayat Kavkaz, was likely behind the attacks, noting that they had "increased fears within the Russian information space about further terrorist attacks and instability in the North Caucasus."

Five of the six gunmen said to have been killed in the attack also had connections to the Dagestan region's political elite, according to the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington DC-based think tank.

A view of the destruction after more than 15 police officers have been killed in armed attacks in Makhachkala checkpoint and a synagogue in Derbent, in Dagestan, Russia on June 24, 2024. Describing it as a 'terrorist attack,' the Republic's head, Sergey Melikov said: 'We know who is behind this and what the organizers of these attacks aimed for. War has come to our home.' Active phase of counter-terrorism operations in Makhachkala and Derbent has been completed, and six gunmen responsible for the attacks were neutralized. (Photo by National Antiterrorism Committee / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Around 20 people were killed in the armed attacks in Makhachkala and Derbent.Anadolu/Getty Images

The attacks marked the latest in a series of major domestic security failures that have plagued Russia since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Such incidents have presented a major problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose reputation as a strongman able to guarantee security and order in Russia while also waging a war against Ukraine appears to be flailing.

Earlier this month, security forces stormed a detention center in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don where six inmates linked to Islamic State had taken two guards hostage. The inmates were killed, and the hostages were freed, Russian news agency Tass reported, citing Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service.

In March, gunmen entered the packed Crocus City Hall concert venue in Moscow, killing more than 140 people and leaving many more injured. Four men from Tajikistan were detained following the attack. Islamic State later claimed responsibility.

In October, a mob of protesters also ransacked Dagestan's main airport in search of Jewish people to target.

North Caucasus

Russia's North Caucasus region has a long history of rebellion against Kremlin rule, especially in Chechnya, where Russia battled separatists in two bloody wars — in 1994-1996 and then in 1999-2009.

But such violence became increasingly rare, with immense pressure from security services and developments in Syria and Iraq causing Islamic State's presence in the Caucasus to splinter, Mark Youngman, the founder of Threatologist, which analyzes Eurasian security risks and specializes in the North Caucasus, told BI.

"Since 2017, there has been no organized insurgency — no infrastructure, no leadership — challenging Russia's presence," Youngman said. "Since that point, most jihadist violence has been perpetrated by isolated individuals and small groups — people inspired by jihadist ideology, but lacking resources and connections."

Emergency services vehicles are seen outside the burning Crocus City Hall concert hall following the shooting incident in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow on March 22, 2024.
Emergency services vehicles outside the burning Crocus City Hall.Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Nevertheless, Russia remained a "priority enemy of Islamic State," Webber said — something he noted has been exacerbated by Russia's "2015 intervention in Syria, expanded private military companies activities across Africa, and strengthened ties with Iran and the Taliban."

Youngman said that part of the problem stems from Russia not taking "meaningful steps" to tackle the root causes that have fed support for radical ideologies in the region, such as "arbitrary behavior by the security services, human rights violations, poverty, corruption," and "lack of opportunities."

Russia has instead relied on force to counter insurgency, Youngman said.

Despite Sunday's incident being the second major terrorist attack in just three months, Russian security services "have not really changed their strategy," Harold Chambers, a political and security analyst specializing in the North Caucasus, told BI.

"Dagestan's authorities have been focused on hunting Ukrainian agents, real or fake, and followers of online opposition members," Chambers said. "Thus, the presence of radical actors who were publicly known went unaddressed."

Russia's security services "do not seem to possess the same level of intelligence about threats — or, if they do, they are not acting on it," Youngman added. They are "distracted by events in Ukraine."

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