Carnage Hall of terror in Moscow - A background

International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, Balkans and around the world. Prof. Ecaterina Matoi, Program Director at the Institute MEPEI from Bucharest, Romania, prepared the text entitled “Carnage Hall of terror in Moscow - A background”, in which she explores various past and present regional developments in relation to the Crocus terrorist attack in Moscow.

 Prof. Ecaterina MATOI

Carnage Hall of terror in Moscow - A background



On March 22nd, 2024, a terrorist attack on the outskirts of Moscow resulted in 133 deaths and more wounded at the moment of writing of these lines. It took place before the concert of rock band Piknik at Crocus Center, a band that had been banned in Ukraine (2016) after performing in Crimea.

The attack has been condemned by multiple officials around the world, including United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez, while the Russian Federal Security Service forces arrested 11 individuals, among which possibly Tajik nationals. Some of them were allegedly gunmen that shot people, while heading for the Ukrainian border. Following names were mentioned initially: Nasridinov Makhmadrasul, Ismonov Rivozhidin, Safolzoda Shokhinjonn and Nazarov Rustam (Morozov & Sudakov, 2024). A larger list of suspects was published by Anton (Gerashchenko, 2024) on Twitter/X: 1. Faizov Rivozhidin Zokirdzhonovich (20.05.2004), 2. Ismoilov Rivozhidin Islomovich (25.09.1972), 3. Faizov Muhammad-Sobir Zokirdzhonovich (20.05.2004), 4. Nasramailov Makhamadrasul Zarabidinovich Nasramailov (21.07.1986), 5. Safolzoda Shohinjon Abdugaforovich (28.07.2002), 6. Nazarov Rustam Isroilovich (02.01.1995).

While multiple media outlets propagate the so-called claim of Islamic State on the attack, an alleged increased activity of Center for Information and Psychological Operations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (TsIPsO) has also been reported in Russian mass-media, along with the claim that whoever carried out the attack, the “organizers” or “customers” may be different (, 2024). This analysis explores various past and present regional developments in relation to the Crocus terrorist attack, given the complex and dynamic background of what essentially can be equated to an American-led revival of the Cold War in a more complex, contemporary form.

Brief review of the Cold War outcomes on the global stage

The complexity and implications of much denounced Cold War will not be analysed in this review, but certain elements may be relevant to the Crocus terrorist attack at least indirectly. This major confrontation of the 20th century was considered to be bipolar, and it dominated the history of global affairs from this period. However, it must be emphasized that it was not the only significant political narrative, as many countries were still struggling for independence in a presumed post-colonial order that was supposed to bring more equity among nations. While many countries in the industrialized West were competing in terms of economic size, many African states were still lacking large-scale electricity sectors, Iran was undergoing the Islamic revolution and major wars like the ones from the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam or Afghanistan were already considered proxy wars between American-led Occident and an assertive USSR. Major characteristics of this confrontation that are considered relevant for this study are related to the scale of this confrontation, the fact that the two major poles attempted to rally behind them third party actors (for example Cuba as a contextual ally for the USSR or Mujahideen for the Americans), i.e., proxies, and replacement of the colonial struggle with an alleged ideological confrontation between “democracy” and “communism”.

USSR’s collapse in the early 1990s has been interpreted as winning the war, which was indeed acknowledged by all parties at that time. However, it is important to emphasize that this was not a victory comparable to normal war victories: the successor of USSR, i.e., Russian Federation, did not come under direct/indirect American influence, as in other cases, its currency was not changed as in Germany and Russians agreed to approve independence of territories under the condition that NATO and the Western Sphere will not expand eastwards. Moscow also maintained its rule over regions inhabited by other ethnic populations, or with religions other than Russian Orthodox Christianity, like for example the Republic of Tatarstan.

The democratic/liberal sphere however expanded its influence gradually in former USSR territories, as the world was supposedly entering a unipolar format. Russia maintained a regional influence, but was not able to retaliate to NATO and EU expansion in Eastern Europe during the first two decades after USSR’s disintegration. Furthermore, the promise of global peace remained desiderate, as the push of Western economic and military alliance resulted in other wars, the most prominent being the ones from Afghanistan and Iraq.

From a capitalist perspective, the other side of the democracy coin, it made sense to move towards the former USSR territories: the war was expensive and these regions could have benefited from a capital-driven development as well. The extent of Western expansion in Eastern Europe or Central Asia and associated dynamics shall not be discussed in detail, but it is a given: Western companies invest and seek strategic positioning in the new markets. Amid a sinuous relation between the US and Russian Federation, marked by strategic ambiguity and an apparent rapprochement, Europe and especially Germany benefited from cheap Russian energy among other commodities in what appeared to be a generally peaceful development. However, the first decades after USSR’s collapse were not entirely peaceful in and around Russian Federation, episodes like the Chechen War or invasion of Georgia being represented in the West as a Russian unsuccessful bid to become more democratic and respect what is generally called other nations’ sovereignty.

However, neither such episodes nor longer conflicts like Nagorno-Karabah dragged Russia into a conquest war. The 2014 Maidan coup, however, represented a real turning point that determined the Russian Federation to occupy Crimea. Justified as retaliation to Western expansion, this occupation may have been considered a strategic imperative for military defence of Russian territory as well. The move emboldened American-led NATO to push further eastwards based on at least two possible arguments: Russia occupied Ukrainian territory and it might become more anxious about Western expansion into former USSR territories, hence weak. Given the 1990s outcome, it would be rather improbable to consider that the Russian Federation can defend its stance in the region, and this assumption probably dominates nowadays decision-makers.

Hence, following major characteristics can be associated to the post-Cold War period for the purpose of this study: a Western alliance pushing eastwards, into former USSR territories based on the conviction that USSR lost the Cold War in a similar manner that other parties lost wars, frictions around West and South-West borders of the Russia Federation and a novel form of proxy confrontations characterized among others by the emergence of extremist organizations, employment of private military companies and an ever growing propaganda that competes even the original Cold War misrepresentations. It must be emphasized that the military confrontations with Russians take place mostly around its borders (Russian presence in Syria is considered relatively limited) although the scale and intensity of the wider multifaceted confrontation cannot be isolated geographically. From this perspective, France’s reaction to developments in the Coup Belt, and Russia’s success in replacing French influence from countries like Niger, that delivers vital uranium ore for France’s atomic-based energy supply system, represent an exemplary case of proxy political confrontation that has the potential to accentuate the military confrontation at Russian borders.

Extremist organizations, proxy wars around Russian Federation in the 21st century

At present, the Russian Federation does not have a common border with Afghanistan anymore, but USSR’s past conflict with this country remains an important episode in the era of Cold War proxy wars. In article titled: “US created Taliban and abandoned Pakistan, says Hillary,” “Dawn” publication cited what Mrs. Clinton had mentioned related to this issue in 2009 (Dawn, 2009). The article cites following statement: “Let’s remember here… the people we are fighting today we funded them twenty years ago… and we did it because we were locked in a struggle with the Soviet Union.” Other assumptions that the US contributed at least to creating and/or funding/arming this movement are mentioned in an article that scholar Michael Rubin wrote on the topic. While mentioning opinions of other scholars (Jeffrey Sommers, David Gibbs, Robert Fisk, writer Mort Rosenblum), that allegedly claim “…Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qa’ida group and Afghanistan’s Taliban government were really creations of American policy run amok” (Rubin, 2002).

This article presumably aims to counter or weaken the assumptions of other scholars claiming that the US / Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a role in the Mujahideen victory against USSR, but it does not clearly contradict them: the article does not mention that CIA had nothing to do with this affair, but that the argument is “inaccurate”. Rubin states: “…the “blowback” argument—that Central Intelligence Agency policies of the 1980s are directly responsible for the rise of the Taliban—is inaccurate” (Rubin, 2002). The alleged countering of arguments is further marked by ambiguity: “In fact, neither bin Ladin nor Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Umar were direct products of the CIA” (Rubin, 2002), the ambiguous term here being “direct product”. Hence, this remarkable work appears to an accurate representation of facts, but it hardly contradicts directly the opinions that support the thesis of US involvement in Taliban’s victory over USSR.

Irrespective of the accuracy in describing the US role in the development of Taliban, either by former official Hillary Clinton or (various) scholars, two assumptions are unambiguously clear: the Mujahideen/Taliban became a legend in terms of fighting arrogant imperialism – both the Soviet and later the American ones, and this model appears to have spread, with or without a US role throughout the world. Two possible roles can be considered from this perspective: the direct or indirect support for rebel organizations or challenging such organizations and determining them to become stronger through actions like, for example, the Drone Wars from Yemen.

The fact that Afghan Mujahideen model worked against USSR expansionist tendencies can hardly be contested. The American failure to counter them with the help of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance is a testimony to this historical fact. A 2010 article from The Guardian, revealing that a “…secret ‘black’ unit of special forces hunts down Taliban…” also states among others: “A huge cache of secret US military files today provides a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan, revealing how coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, Taliban attacks have soared and NATO commanders fear neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are fuelling the insurgency” (Davies & Leigh, 2010).

At the moment of American and allied forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan back in 2021, the relations between the US and Russian Federation were tense but not fully blocked: signs of fundamental disagreements after the rapprochement attempts in the 1990s appeared in the form of competition in Ukraine after 2008 Bucharest NATO summit and continued with decisions like the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty withdrawal in 2019. Amid this frenemy relation, the US negotiated with Russian Federation a possible relocation of its assets from Afghanistan in Central Asia before the 30th August, 2021, withdrawal. The hope that allied forces will leave Afghanistan might have been appealing for Moscow, hence in July 2021 the Russians signalled a possible acceptance for Americans to use its former bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for “limited security operations in Afghanistan” (Eurasianet, 2021). The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has had far-reaching implications for the region and certain countries. It was not a complete defeat as some observers attempted to portray it, as USSR’s disintegration was not a complete defeat for the Russians 3 decades before. Some of the implications shall be described in the following paragraphs, as the American and allied withdrawal implied the withdrawal of its Northern Alliance human and equipment assets from a new hostile Taliban-led environment.

Preparations for US withdrawal from Afghanistan began in early 2021 and a New York Times article listed a couple of measures like for example: Turkish troops present in Afghanistan after retreat, helping CIA to collect intelligence, maintenance of civilian contractors (16’000 out of which 6’000 Americans according to cited Pentagon numbers), possible repositioning of forces in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, deployment of surveillance drones and attack planes, long-range bombers, etc. (Schmitt & Cooper, 2021). In the same pre-withdrawal period, the American General Tod Wolters is cited when stating that NATO will continue to train Afghan Special Forces, probably in Europe (Tucker, 2021).

The American and European withdrawal from Afghan territory was accompanied by Afghan allies’ withdrawal shortly before 30th of August as well. This confirms the existence of a relatively mobile force supported by and previously working for the interests of US and its allies in Afghanistan. Two August 2021 reports are relevant from this perspective: the Wall Street Journal announced on August 18th, 2021 that “a large portion of the Afghan Air Force ended up in neighbouring Uzbekistan…”, with at least 46 (US-supplied) aircraft and helicopters crossing the border to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (Cullison & Lubold, 2021), and the Times of Israel cited AFP and AP reports claiming that a US Military C-17 aircraft evacuated 823 Afghans to Qatar in the wake of Taliban takeover (AFP & AP / The Times of Israel, 2021). On September 21st, a report from The Intercept claims that the son of Ahmad Shah (leader of Northern Alliance), Ahmad Massoud (a Tajik ethnic), fled to Tajikistan together with Amrullah Saleh (former Afghan vice-president and head of intelligence) in the aftermath of Taliban’s Panjshir Valley takeover (Cole & Klippenstein, 2021). The article mentions that Massoud hired Robert Stryk Washington-based lobbyist and Senator Lindsay Graham “embraced” Massoud and Saleh, as he is “keen on the U.S. returning to Afghanistan” (Cole & Klippenstein, 2021). Therefore, the initial assumption that Taliban victory has not been final and the US disposed/may dispose of a relatively mobile friendly political and military force in the region, i.e., in Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, is confirmed by multiple factual reports.

With respect to the topic approached in this study, there are unofficial reports claiming that some of the Crocus attackers might be Tajik nationals. Furthermore, Russian media claims that as of March 2022, Ukrainian embassies, including that from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, was recruiting mercenaries (, 2024). The same article also claims that the so-called IS/ISIS “…arose…with the direct participation (of) American intelligence agencies, primarily the CIA” (, 2024).

Further unofficial allegations claiming that the US could have supported extremist organizations like ISIS-K were formulated by the investigative journalist Alex Rubinstein (based in Mexico City, previously working with Russia Today, Sputnik, Mint Press and The Grayzone) (Rubinstein, 2021). Other Russian-affiliated sources appear to claim that ISIS was a British proxy (Vestnik_RUS, 2024). Such allegations are not officially confirmed; hence they cannot be considered as a basis for this analysis. However, the possibility of Ukraine recruiting foreigners for its “International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine,” including from Central Asia, cannot be excluded. Likewise, Russian Federation’s recruitment of Central Asian mercenaries is discussed in detailed media reports (EUToday Correspondents, 2023).

The synergies that have the potential to connect the pro-West Afghan military and political mobile assets from neighbouring countries like Tajikistan are mainly the anti-Russian and anti-Taliban common stances, and the possible presence of Tajik nationals on the Ukrainian front. The American perspective on the Crocus terrorist attack appears to be an arrogant imperial one. The fact that Western intelligence agencies allegedly warned own citizens (on March the 7th) and allegedly Russian authorities about possible attacks, is equated by the pro-Russian Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic with interception of communication and (precise) knowledge on the terrorist attacks preparations (TASS Russian News Agency, 2024). In a BBC article, the security correspondent Gordon Corera (based in London), suggests that the Russian authorities had been warned by Washington, stating: “There are always questions after any attack as to why it was not stopped or detected” (Corera, 2024). The article claims, in what appears to be a renewed propagandistic attack on the Russian administration, that the warning was “unusually specific.”

The argument is based on alleged Washington’s disclosure on: imminent possible attacks by extremists, targeting large gatherings in Moscow and the so-called Islamic State (IS). The article claims that the warnings have been allegedly dismissed by Moscow, and in a clear attack against newly re-elected President Putin, the order was to focus on the “special military operation” from Ukraine. Since further details were missing from the warning (like for example perpetrators or locations and precise content of exchanges), President Putin is cited mentioning that the Washington warnings “resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilise our society” (Corera, 2024). Claims that Russian administration simply ignored warnings, or that President Putin has “particularly difficult issues,” are at least speculative.

They are in line with the pressure campaigns that Western spheres of influence exerted on the Russian administration in order to overthrow the establishment and potentially make gains in the difficult Ukrainian front. The difficulties of British and Americans related to Ukraine are not necessarily direct imperatives in the sense that the war chests are already empty, but the difficulty of this confrontation appears to increase. Hence, is there something the Russians or Americans could have done to prevent the Crocus terrorist attacks? Certainly yes, and certainly there was a Russian security breach/failure to safeguard its citizens. However, this double-edge sword can open various possibilities: either the pressure on President Putin’s administration will increase and an overthrow becomes more imminent, or the Russian Federation can claim higher legitimacy in attacking Ukrainian and foreign mercenary forces on the front. Either way, the chances for this situation to get worse before getting better increase.

Crocus terrorist attack as distraction from critical simultaneous developments

Should this alleged so-called Islamic State operation strengthen Western interests in Ukraine and Central Asia, it can potentially alleviate pressure from a tense Western environment. While the US remains an uncontested global superpower, with great influence in European affairs and global military presence, new developments like for example China’s accelerated economic and political rise appears to determine Washington to exhibit what can be perceived as signs of weakness. Among these, one can mention the now overwhelming use of financial sanctions with possible negative consequences on the stance of dollar around the globe, the authoritarian-like attempts to overtake Chinese strategic assets like TikTok American branch, a risky ban on Huawei, etc. On the other hand, pushes by various American representatives for Europeans to buy as many American weapons as possible, and get more involved in the Ukrainian tragic conflict, have the potential to compensate at least on short-term for the overall risks the US undergoes when challenging a claimed future multipolar world. However, amid an accelerated global warming process and an environmental risk, the world is arming itself and Europe aims to develop an indigenous military complex on short and middle term.

The US is also confronted with what can be perceived as an internal political crisis, marked by a fierce battle between the camp of Democrats and that of former President Donald Trump, unclear economic perspectives although the financial and economic data (definitions always in a modernization process – but as of September 2023 poverty rate in the US was reported at 12.4 % (Ney, 2023), while Russian Federation’s poverty rate was reported a poverty level dropping at 9.3 % in 2023 (Reuters, 2024). Although the definitions may influence numbers in both cases, and the results posted can be used as propaganda arguments, a possible deterioration in US social fabric cannot be completely overruled.

The US finds itself in a position difficult to defend vis-à-vis the developments in Gaza Strip: on one hand it claims loud and strong that it does a lot for the Gazans, waving a military pier near Gaza with the declared purpose of helping delivery aid, and at the same time it delivers significant quantities of weapons and munitions to Israel, pushes for Israel’s recognition by Saudi Arabia and sets further traps for the Palestinians through various manoeuvres like for example the United Nations Security Council Resolution proposal rejected by China, Russian Federation and Algeria on March 22, 2024 (Psaledakis & Brunnstrom, 2024). Further potentially risky adventures that expose a relatively new US facet include the Julian Assange affair, a business that easily allows US opponents to make their point on a possible American duality or double standard in treating matters.


The March 2024 attack on the Crocus City Hall represents a clear breach of Russian security. According to the Russians, it emerged amid a perceived blackmail from the Americans, but British flagship BBC published an article claiming that a main cause of the tragedy might have been the focus on the conflict from Ukraine. This study details the background of American-led presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, weaponization of the Mujahideen against USSR as presented by cited sources, as well as subsequent weaponization of other ethnic minorities against the Taliban (like for example the Tajiks). It also determines that in August 2021, it was not only the Western troops that withdrew, but Afghan opponents of the Taliban also took refuge in Central Asian countries, while the US promising training of the “opposition” in Europe and potential support for the resistance against the Taliban.

The study also identifies possible synergies between the alleged attempt of Crocus City Hall perpetrators to flee to Ukraine: both Ukraine and the Russian Federation may have recruited Central Asian mercenaries to fight the other camp. The Crocus terrorist attack might have ruined Russia’s image on short term, but it can also legitimize a possibly stronger Russian aggression in Ukraine, as certain supporters of this archaic type of confrontation, that tragically killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides combined, are looking for options to sustain an idea they do not associate themselves with openly. Continuation of the push towards Russian Federation’s borders represents a more direct threat than Russian operations from Africa, for example, but the presumption that the American-led offensive will be successful as it was towards the end of the Cold War will require, at best, probably millions of deaths to be proven. And the casualties will probably hit mercenaries and allies before they hit the core war supporters, unless decision-makers find a modern way to overcome what Thucydides considered to be a trap repeating itself throughout history. 


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About the author: 

Prof. Ecaterina Matoi is Program Director at the Institute MEPEI from Bucharest, Romania. Her areas of expertise and interests are: National Security, Middle Eastern Studies, SSR in Post-Saddam Iraq, Disinformation, Cultures and civilizations; The Military in 20th Century Middle East Politics; Geopolitics of the Persian Gulf region and nuclear policies in MENA.

Earlier version of the text appeared with the MEPEI Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.

Ljubljana/Bucharest, 28 March 2024

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018 and is the publisher of the international scientific journal “European Perspectives”.