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Deadly Attack in Russia Signals ISIS's Resurgence

The recent attack in Russia signals a worrying resurgence of terrorist groups, demanding a global reassessment of counterterrorism tactics and cooperation to address the evolving threat.

By Srijan Sharma
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Attack in Russia | The Probe

Sketch showing terrorists shooting at civilians and unleashing terror in a city landscape | Image courtesy: Special arrangement

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In the past two months, the spectre of ISIS has reemerged with devastating clarity, orchestrating two major attacks that stretch from the West to Eurasia. Initially striking in Iran and culminating in a horrific assault in Russia, where ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, targeted a concert in an attack in Russia, mercilessly killing over 135 people and injuring nearly 200. This brutal act in Russia stirs painful memories of the 2004 Beslan school siege, a nightmarish event that ended with 334 dead, including 186 children, at the hands of a Chechen terror group linked to ISIL-CP, the Islamic State’s faction in the Caucasus. These attacks, especially the recent attack in Russia, signal troubling currents in what many hoped was a receding global terror threat.

For years, the narrative has been shaped by significant victories against such terror groups. The United States' military efforts have notably diminished Al-Qaeda's reach and leadership, culminating in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during Operation Kayla Mueller. These actions contributed to a perceived weakening of ISIS's grip on global terror. Yet, the recent violence forces us to confront a harsh reality: the threat of ISIS and its affiliates is far from over. The resurgence of such attacks not only demands a rigorous reassessment of the group's capabilities and intentions but also challenges the global community to reevaluate its approach to counterterrorism.

Russia On ISIS Axis 

Russia is currently grappling with a renewed threat from ISIS, particularly its faction active in the Caucasus, known as ISIL-CP. Despite being militarily weakened and considered low in operational capabilities, this group's focus on Russia has not waned, underscored by the recent attack in Russia. Driven by two main factors, this persistence highlights the group's determination. Firstly, Russia's military involvement in Syria, its support for Bashar Al-Assad, and its pronounced stance against ISIS have made it a notable target for the terror organisation. Secondly, ISIS is making concerted efforts to rejuvenate its influence, especially through its regional branches in the Caucasus and West Asia. These efforts aim to reassert their significance and presence, as clearly demonstrated by the attack in Russia.

This situation places Russia in a precarious position, facing potential risks not just within its immediate vicinity but as ISIS-K seeks to extend its influence into Central and West Asian territories. Without vigilant countermeasures, this expansion threatens to revive ISIL-CP's activities in the Caucasus, potentially escalating into a broader terror threat affecting both Europe and Asia. Since 2019, ISIS has explicitly targeted Russia, attempting significant terror operations that, until now, have largely been thwarted. However, a resurgence of attacks on Russian soil highlights the enduring challenge posed by ISIS. The precise motivations behind these renewed assaults are complex, potentially linked to Russia's geopolitical manoeuvres, such as its opposition to a US-proposed ceasefire in Gaza, among other factors.

Russia’s Middle East Policy and Israel-Palestine Issue

While it might seem that Russia has taken a stance against Israel, notably with its hosting of a pro-Hamas group shortly after the tragic attack on Israel on October 7, this manoeuvre significantly strained the relationship between Russia and Israel. Russia's critical posture towards Israel was, in part, a strategic countermeasure against the West, particularly highlighting perceived shortcomings in Biden's Middle East policy. As the conflict in Gaza persists, Russia finds that leveraging this situation as a diplomatic tool against the US and its allies has become less effective.

This approach, however, poses challenges to Putin's broader ambitions in the Middle East. Putin's strategy has been to carve out a substantial Russian presence in the region, enhancing Russia's influence in West Asia for both strategic and economic reasons. Strategically, Russia aims to diminish US dominance in the area and strengthen its position in Central-West Asia. Economically, the goal extends beyond merely securing a role as a security provider in Central Asia. These ambitions necessitate a careful navigation of relations with Israel, considering the substantial Russian diaspora there and Israel's search for alternatives to its traditional reliance on the US. Thus, maintaining a balanced and pragmatic relationship with Israel becomes essential for advancing Russia's geopolitical interests, requiring both nations to perform a delicate diplomatic dance to sustain their respective positions on the global stage.

Deciphering the Complex Web of Global Terrorism: The Ongoing Journey from Disparate Fragmentation to Coordinated Reunification Efforts

In the wake of concerted efforts to dismantle the networks of Al-Qaeda and ISIS over a two-year period, these global terror organisations have increasingly sought refuge in more obscure and less monitored regions, such as West Africa, in an effort to slip under the radar of Western intelligence. This strategic withdrawal into the shadows, however, is not an end but a pivot towards a more fragmented yet persistent mode of operation.

Recent intelligence assessments provide a sobering perspective on this adaptation. As noted in the latest Global Threat Assessment by US Intelligence, "ISIS will remain a centralised global organisation even as it has been forced to rely on regional branches in response to successive leadership losses during the past few years." This statement shows the resilience of ISIS, indicating a strategic recalibration rather than a defeat.

Al-Qaeda exhibits a similar trend, with the assessment revealing that "Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates on the African continent and Yemen will sustain the global network as the group maintains its strategic intent to target the United States and US citizens." This in turn shows the enduring threat posed by Al-Qaeda, especially through its affiliates that continue to operate with a dangerous blend of local and global ambitions. The report also sheds light on Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda's branch in Somalia, detailing its efforts to bolster attack capabilities through the acquisition of new weapons systems, all while navigating a complex counter-terrorism landscape. This development is particularly alarming as it represents a clear and present danger to US personnel and interests in the region.

The narrative emerging from these assessments paints a picture of global terror networks that are down but far from out. Their ability to adapt, regroup, and even thrive in the face of adversity speaks to the complex challenge they continue to pose. The assessments converge on a critical concern: the "regional capabilities" of global terrorist organisations. Evidence has mounted significantly over the last two years, notably with ISIS-K escalating its operations in Afghanistan against the TTP and executing targeted missions like the Gurudwara bombings in 2022. This expansion into West and Central Asia is a clear attempt to reaffirm its presence and hint at a potential resurgence. Similarly, the actions of Al-Shabaab, with its attack on UAE military forces in Somalia and the distressing kidnappings of hundreds of children by Islamic terrorist groups in Nigeria, spotlight the urgent need for a recalibrated approach to understanding and combating terrorism.

These incidents, including the recent attack in Russia, reaffirm a hard hitting reality: while the global terror network may appear fragmented, the threat of a resurgence, especially from regional factions, looms large. The targeted regional operations of these groups, causing devastation in places like Africa and Afghanistan, serve as an example that a mere surface-level engagement with the issue of terrorism is insufficient. The focus must shift towards a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the regional dynamics at play, recognising that these are not isolated incidents but part of a broader, coordinated strategy. Ignoring the regional capabilities and operational strategies of these factions could lead to grave consequences.The resurgence of these groups not only threatens regional stability but also poses a significant challenge to global security architectures.