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White House Says Early Warning on Moscow Attack Validates US Strategy on ISIS-K

(Bloomberg) -- The White House said intelligence offering an early warning of the deadly Moscow attack vindicated its handling of the Islamic State and affiliated terror groups, saying the US was able to “keep tabs” on emerging threats even after troops withdrew from the Middle East.

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“It was because of the aggressive way which we have been monitoring that system we were able to give the Russians a warning that, in fact, they were heading for a potential terrorist attack,” White House spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday.

The Islamic State Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the mass shooting at a suburban Moscow concert venue that killed 139 people. That attack followed public and private warnings from Washington that terrorists could be plotting a large-scale assault. The US embassy in Russia said on March 7 it was “monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow,” including concerts.

US officials said they shared the intelligence with Russia ahead of the attack as part of their “duty to warn” policy, which requires notifying even geopolitical adversaries of imminent threats. ISIS-K emerged from a region spanning Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan and has increasingly criticized Russia, accusing President Vladimir Putin of oppressing Muslims.

Putin last week dismissed the US warnings as “provocative.” The Russian leader on Monday blamed Islamist militants for the massacre, even as he continued to link it without evidence to Ukraine. Putin had avoided mentioning Islamic groups in his initial statements on the attack.

Four men from Tajikistan were arraigned Sunday night on terrorism charges, according to Russian media.

Earlier: Moscow Attack Suspects Paraded in Court as Two Plead Guilty

The White House said Monday it was not surprised “Putin and his cronies were trying to find a way to pin this on Ukraine.”

“There was no linkage to Ukraine,” Kirby continued. “This was an attack carried out by ISIS-K operatives, period, end of sentence, end of story, no connection to Ukraine. And this is just more Kremlin propaganda.”

The scale of the attack has again fanned questions about President Joe Biden’s 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. The hasty departure was marred by a suicide bombing carried out by ISIS-K that killed 13 US service members.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged it is more difficult to gather intelligence on the group’s plans without US troops on the ground.

Read more: What Is ISIS-K, the Group Blamed for Russia Attack?: QuickTake

Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the Moscow attack a “very dangerous echo of President Biden’s failed withdrawal from Afghanistan” in an interview with Fox News Sunday.

“It’s deeply regrettable that innocent civilians, women and children were killed in Moscow but the next attacks could be against an American embassy in Asia or in Europe, or against say students traveling to Europe on a school trip for spring break,” Cotton said.

Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it remains unclear if there is a direct connection between the US’s exit from Afghanistan and ISIS-K’s rise.

“That eased pressure on ISIS-K, but it increased Taliban pressure on the group, and that has been very effective,” Byman said.

The White House cited its ability to intercept early signals of the possible attack as evidence they had been “very vigilant in monitoring this group’s activities and their planning as best we can.”

“We don’t see any sort of credible threat by ISIS to the American homeland,” Kirby said. “But again, not something we’re taking for granted, and watching very, very close.”

--With assistance from Peter Martin.

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