April 3, 2024

A Failure of Personalised Services: Prioritising Regime Security over Public Safety 

People mourn and bring flowers at the Crocus City Hall concert venue following a terrorist attack in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, Russia, 24 March 2024.
People mourn and bring flowers at the Crocus City Hall concert venue following a terrorist attack in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, Russia, 24 March 2024.

Despite its vigilant security apparatus with extensive surveillance networks, Russia was unable to prevent the terrorist attack on the concert hall close to its capital. The question is why it failed. Why is the Federal Security Service (FSB), tasked with combating terrorism, now downplaying the involvement of the Islamic State? What effect will this tragedy have on Putin’s regime? To address these questions, it is essential to understand Russia’s distinctive approach to counterterrorism.

Initial reports of the mass killing at the Crocus City concert hall evoked a sense of déjà vu among observers familiar with Putin’s methods. The tragic event, resulting in the loss of many innocent lives, harkened back to the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia, which were used to justify the launch of the Second Chechen War and elevate Vladimir Putin, a “former” KGB officer, to a popular presidential candidate. Putin, having ruled Russia for nearly a quarter-century, appears emboldened by his recent “re-election” to further mobilise the nation for the ongoing war against Ukraine, prompting concerns about Moscow’s potential to stage false flag terrorist attacks.

However, immediately following the attack on the concert hall, Putin refrained from publicly calling for an all-out war against Ukraine and the west. The absence of orchestrated blame on Ukrainians by Russian state-sponsored media — as would be expected in a false flag operation — suggests that the Kremlin was caught off guard. They were in a state of confusion, unable to attribute the attack to specific perpetrators due to a lack of guidance from the Kremlin.

Subsequently, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Despite years of counterterrorism intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, the warning issued by the US government regarding terrorist threats at mass gatherings in Moscow, including concerts, was largely disregarded by Russian authorities. On 19 March, speaking at an extended meeting of the FSB, Putin dismissed the western intelligence warnings as “blackmail” to destabilise Russia.

This is not the first terrorist attack that the Russian counterintelligence agency has overlooked. The FSB failed to respond promptly to the St. Petersburg subway bombing in 2017. The systemic failure to counter terrorist attacks in Russia stems from the FSB’s prioritisation of regime security over public safety. Russian legislation defines “terrorism” as targeting government bodies (which can be influenced into decision-making by the “intimidation of civilians and/or other forms of illegal violent actions”). The FSB primarily safeguards the regime rather than the people. In the late 1990s, then-FSB Director Vladimir Putin resurrected the notorious Soviet-era political police as the new Service for Protection of the Constitutionality and the Fight against Terrorism, commonly known as the Second Service. This service amalgamates counterterrorism efforts with political policing of “extremists.” Moreover, as noted by Amnesty International, Russian law and practice confuse “terrorism” with “extremism;” the latter’s broad definition may include any form of peaceful political or social activities and protests, such as Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, youth protest movement “Spring,” Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even LGBT movements. In recent years, “crimes of terrorist direction” (not terrorist acts) and accusations of “justifying terrorism” have been on the rise to suppress those who criticise the government.

It is well known that intelligence products in authoritarian states are susceptible to significant manipulation and distortion, serving as “a mechanism for reinforcing the regime’s misconceptions of the outside world.” Similar to the counterterrorism priorities aimed at preserving the regime’s security, Russia’s collection and analysis efforts are tailored to align with the views of the sole customer, Vladimir Putin. Intelligence analysts (if they still deserve being called that way) deliberately alter their reporting to support Putin’s policy agenda, such as the fight against Ukrainian “Nazis.” Even within the intelligence and security agencies, expressing alternative views is not allowed. Two years ago, three days before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Sergei Naryshkin, foreign intelligence chief, whose view on how to deal with Ukraine differed slightly from Putin’s, was publicly shamed and compelled to revise his stance.

Although initial reports indicated that the suspects of the concert hall attack were arrested near the Russia-Belarus border, the FSB later announced that they were en route to Ukraine. This hastily concocted “intelligence” led to contradictions, with the Belarusian Ambassador in Moscow stating that Belarusian security authorities assisted their Russian counterparts in preventing terrorists from crossing the Belarus-Russia border. Nearly 19 hours after the tragedy, Putin finally broke the silence and addressed the nation, drawing parallels between the terrorists and Ukrainian “Nazis.” Simultaneously, Russian state media started to emphasise “traces” of Ukraine’s involvement in the terrorist attack. However, these assertions were hardly convincing, even among Russia’s political elite.

Attention shifts in Russia’s counterterrorism focus following its full-scale war against Ukraine are obvious. According to the FSB’s public announcements counted by Novaya Gazeta Europe, the focus of the service’s anti-terrorist activities moved from Islamic militants to Ukrainian special services around 2021. FSB watcher Sergei Kanev points out that in November and December last year, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK), overseen by FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, organised various educational seminars across the country, mainly discussing Russia’s “special military operation” and threats posed by Ukraine and its western partners. At the NAK meeting in February, the focus was solely on subversive activities by Ukrainian special services, with no mention of the Islamic State threat.

In democratic countries, the failure to prevent a large-scale terrorist attack would likely lead to the dismissal of top counterintelligence officials. However, in Putin’s Russia, this may not be the case. The FSB’s Second Service, responsible for handling both political dissent and terrorism, will likely be endorsed by Putin as long as it effectively suppresses political dissent and protects the regime. Similar to the failed Prigozhin rebellion last year, Putin has rhetorically linked the terrorist attack with external conspiracies to rally support for the war against Ukraine and justify crackdowns on dissent. By unleashing the security apparatus, Putin will intensify the fight against perceived “extremists” and silence the country’s remaining conscience.