The Moscow Attack Showed Terrorism Is Asia’s Problem Now

The March 22 terrorist attack targeting concertgoers in Moscow, which was later claimed by the Islamic State, was an eerily familiar shock for Russians. In 2002, approximately a year after 9/11, Islamist terrorists claiming allegiance to a separatist movement in Chechnya besieged the crowded Dubrovka Theater in Moscow. More than 130 people were killed in the operation to clear the theater.

Last month’s attack, which killed at least 144 people, opened multiple geopolitical fissures. The Kremlin, having caught—and tortured—at least a few of the suspected perpetrators, claimed that the terrorists were looking to head toward Ukraine, where Russia is embroiled in its own endless war. Online, the story took a life of its own as conspiracy theories overwhelmed facts.

As attention shifted eastward toward the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK), the group’s branch based in Afghanistan, contrarian views, mostly in Russian media but amplified on social media platforms, of this being a false-flag operation designed by the West simultaneously took off.

In between such distractions, the victor was the Islamic State. The group’s spokesperson, known by his nom de guerre Abu Hudhayfah al-Ansari, released a 41-minute audio message a few days after the Moscow attack. Curiously, the message, titled “By God, this religion [Islam] will prevail,” mentioned Russia only in passing. It however congratulated Islamic State ecosystems and wilayas (Arabic for provinces), or offshoots, on a successful 10 years of the caliphate.

The message takes the listener on a world tour of sorts, highlighting the group’s presence across regions from Africa to Southeast Asia, challenging the notion that it is a spent force. Ansari also congratulated the group’s fighters for their campaigns against the Chinese, Russians, Sikhs, and Hindus. It also chastised the very idea of democracy—a long-standing ideological position for most jihadi groups.

Only a few hours prior to this, ISK had released a separate 18-minute propaganda video in Pashto targeting the Afghan Taliban’s outreach with India. This is particularly noteworthy after India facilitated the evacuation of Sikhs and Hindus from the country, specifically after ISK claimed an attack against a Sikh temple in Kabul in 2022. Islamic State propaganda has also long stoked communal divisions in India to instigate Muslims against the state.

The video took the format of a first-person narrative, discussing how the Taliban regime was working with the Indian state, which ISK views as an anti-Muslim institution. This was not the first time either the Islamic State or ISK had targeted India in its propaganda, but interestingly, the latter’s primary aim here was the Taliban’s behavior and not necessarily India, its democracy, or its perceived Hindu-nationalist political bent by itself.

The chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan and subsequent return to power of the Taliban in 2021 was a watershed moment. But the negotiated exit was not a difficult decision for the U.S. government, which was clear in its vision on what it wanted out of leaving, as Washington looked to pivot toward new areas of strategic competition in Asia.

The challenge fell to powers within the region, which were left to deal with an extremist movement in control of a critical neighboring state. For more than 20 years, Afghanistan’s neighbors, including China and Russia, benefited from the expansive U.S. and NATO military umbrella. This allowed them to pursue their own strategic interests such as developing influence within Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions and the power brokers representing these groups without any significant military commitment. On Aug. 30, 2021, then-Maj. Gen. Christopher T. Donahue was the last U.S. soldier to leave the country. Afghanistan was now an Asian problem.

But Russia, China, and Iran—the three primary adversaries of the United States, and by association Western geopolitical constructs—were in fact happy. After two decades, there were no massive U.S. military deployments on Iran’s eastern border at a time when its relations with Washington were at their worst. Tehran’s own history with Afghanistan, and specifically the Taliban, is confrontational.

Throughout the 1990s, the Iranians supported anti-Taliban groups, particularly rebel leaders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance. Tehran was not alone, as others, including India, Russia, and Tajikistan among others, supported these groups against the Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan.

Fast forward to 2021, and Iran decided to go the opposite way. It opened diplomatic and economic channels with the new regime in Kabul and looked to build support in exchange for a healthy level of anti-Western patronage and relative calm on the borders.

Iran’s two other closest allies in Moscow and Beijing followed suit. Iran, Russia, and China have all, in a way, recognized the Taliban as the quasi-official rulers of Afghanistan. Beijing has gone a step beyond, with Chinese President Xi Jinping officially accepting the accreditation of the new Taliban-appointed ambassador to his country.

Russia, still a little wary due to its history of fighting against and losing to the U.S.-backed mujahideen between 1979 and 1989 and more vocal in its criticism, accepted Taliban diplomats in Moscow in 2022 and is now even considering removing the Taliban from its list of banned terrorist organizations.

The stance these three states have adopted is a calculated risk; they see Taliban rule as a more palatable crisis to deal with than an expansive U.S. military presence at a time when great-power competition is once again taking hold of contemporary international relations.

Other countries, such as many of those in Central Asia, have also grudgingly taken the path of engagement with Kabul so as to try to avoid a return of regional conflict and proliferation of extremist ideologies by using the Taliban itself as a buffer as they try to keep one foot in and the other out the proverbial door.

Pakistan, long the Taliban’s patron, is already caught in a lover’s feud with its own protégés in Afghanistan as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan continues a militant campaign against Islamabad. Meanwhile, India has begun to balance between naked strategic interest and the long-term costs of the political normalization of such entities.

A trend of political victories for militant groups such as the Taliban is expanding. In the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, the latter has in many respects come out on top by gaining more legitimacy than it ever expected despite the bloodiness of its attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Hamas has managed to move its own narrative away from being a proscribed terrorist group to being viewed as a revolutionary movement for the liberation of Palestine. Its political leadership, based out of Qatar, even condemned the terrorist attack in Russia.

The spectacle of an Islamist terrorist group publicly condemning another Islamist terrorist group underscores the absurdity of this situation. Hamas leaders, such as Ismail Haniyeh, have visited Iran and Russia to drum up support. Beijing, while asking for a secession of hostilities, has yet to denounce Hamas by name for its actions. At some level, all these states are happy to engage with such militant groups if it aids in the weakening of U.S. power and hegemony.

A significant level of global cooperation against terrorism, which was achieved in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the so-called global war on terrorism, is fast eroding. For example, up until 2015, Moscow had allowed NATO military supply flights meant for Afghanistan to use its airspace. Multilateral forums such as the United Nations are now repeatedly questioned over their purpose and worth.

For groups such as the Islamic State, this is a boon. Even though most of these competing powers see the group as a security threat that requires military solutions, a lack of uniformity creates a tremendous vacuum in which such entities can thrive. And while most of Afghanistan’s neighbors today are forced to view the Taliban as the “good Taliban,” considering its fundamental aversion to the Islamic State and its ideology (due to tension between Deobandis and Salafi jihadis), these new realities will make cohesive and effective global cooperation against terrorism far less likely.

This raises a critical question: Who is going to lead the global counterterrorism push? Militarily, the kind of capacity the United States deploys against terrorist groups remains unchallenged. From the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 to the new Islamic State caliphs being degraded to faceless, often nameless personas, the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria has been effective—and it continues to this day. But the expansion of Islamic State wilayas and their own individual clout, as highlighted by Ansari, challenges these successes.

In Africa, Russia is empowering local warlords and dilettantes to take on the Islamic State while it simultaneously cements its own presence, particularly as Western powers such as the United States and France struggle to hold on to their military footing. Propping up regimes in places such as Mali and Burkina Faso by offering political stability and pushing them to fight groups such as the Islamic State is a model both Russia and China seem to gravitate toward.

As the Moscow attack revealed, an era of increased rivalry between major powers that tolerate terrorist groups that target their adversaries could ultimately spawn a resurgence of Islamist terrorism. This new geopolitical landscape, by default, will give terrorist groups more chances of political compromise through negotiations than ever before.

The popular yet often frowned-on adage of “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” seems to be a winning formula for those who were widely seen as critical threats yesterday but now are aspiring to be the stakeholders of tomorrow.

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