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Opinion: Putin’s glaring mistake

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room” also on Apple and Spotify. He is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

If ISIS was indeed responsible for the attack Friday at a Moscow-area concert venue that killed at least 133 people, it would suggest that, unfortunately, the terror group is making something of a comeback.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack; a US official told CNN the US has no reason to doubt it.

Back in its heyday of 2014 and 2015, ISIS had controlled territory in Iraq and Syria around the size of the United Kingdom and a population of millions of people. During that period, the group also carried out a number of terrorist plots in Europe, including an attack in Paris that killed 130 people in 2015. ISIS had also inspired terrorists in the US, including the gunman who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016 in what was then the most lethal terrorist attack in the US since 9/11.

But between 2017 and 2018, ISIS lost its so-called geographical “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, and it has since devolved into a loosely allied group of ISIS affiliates in Africa and Asia with seemingly scant capabilities to carry out large-scale attacks elsewhere.

One of the most virulent affiliates is ISIS-K in Afghanistan, which killed 13 American service members and some 170 Afghan civilians at Kabul Airport as the Biden administration pulled all US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Yet, the understanding at the time was that ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan and certain African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia were not capable of carrying out major international attacks. But then came a large-scale terrorist attack in Iran in January that killed 84 people at a memorial service commemorating General Qasem Soleimani, one of the most powerful military leaders in Iran who had been killed by a US drone strike in 2020. Through that attack, ISIS-K showed that the group, which is very anti-Shia, could target a hostile state like predominantly Shia Iran.

In March alone, a Russian state news agency said the country had thwarted multiple ISIS-related incidents, including a plan to attack a synagogue in Moscow.

The US embassy in Russia also said on March 7 that it was “monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow,” including concerts. According to a US National Security Council spokesperson, “The US Government also shared this information with Russian authorities in accordance with its longstanding ‘duty to warn’ policy.” But Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the US’ warning as “provocative,” saying, “These actions resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilize our society.”

Taken together, the fact that Russian authorities had detected a number of ISIS-related plots earlier this month and that US authorities were warning of an attack at the same time indicates that there was an active terrorist threat in Moscow from ISIS that was known not only to the US but also to the Russians.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin linked the suspects in Friday’s attack to Ukraine during a five-minute address on Saturday. State news agencies said that authorities arrested the four men suspected of attacking the Moscow-area concert venue while they were trying to cross the border into Ukraine, and that they “had relevant contacts on the Ukrainian side,” according to the FSB.

Ukraine has emphatically denied any role in the attack, and both Ukrainian and American officials expressed concerns that Putin’s comments may be used to justify an escalation in the ongoing war.

ISIS-K certainly has the capability and motive to attack Russia. When it comes to motive, the Russian support for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which helped him remain in power during the Syrian civil war, certainly comes to mind. For ISIS, Assad is a mortal enemy, both because he is a member of a Shia sect and because he has systematically killed Sunnis in Syria. Also, historically, Russia has brutally repressed Muslim minorities like the Chechens. As for capability, the ISIS-K attack in Iran earlier this year demonstrated that the group could carry out a large-scale attack outside of its home base in Afghanistan.

What we do know is that Putin made a glaring mistake by denouncing the US’ warning. And if ISIS-K did attack the concert hall, the Biden administration would have to ask itself some serious questions about whether the decision to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan allowed ISIS to regroup there with the capability to carry out large-scale attacks in other countries. If that were the case, that would be a blow for the Biden administration.

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