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Why Russia’s vast security services failed in deadly attacks

A day before the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a rare public warning this month about a possible extremist attack on a Russian concert hall, the local CIA station sent a private warning to Russian officials that included at least one more detail: the attack in question An affiliate of the Islamic State called ISIS-K was involved.

American intelligence had closely monitored the group and considered the threat to be credible. Within days, however, President Vladimir V. Putin scorned the warnings, calling them “outright blackmail” and attempts to “intimidate and destabilize our society.”

Three days after his speech, gunmen stormed the Crocus City Hall outside Moscow last Friday evening, killing at least 143 people in the deadliest attack in Russia in nearly two decades. IS quickly claimed responsibility for the massacre with statements, a photo and a propaganda video.

What seemingly made the security breach even more notable was the fact that in the days leading up to the massacre, Russia’s own security agencies had also recognized the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, the so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K.

Internal Russian intelligence reports, most likely circulating at the highest levels of government, warned of the increased likelihood of an attack in Russia by ethnic Tajiks radicalized by ISIS-K, according to information obtained by the Dossier Center, a London research organization, and reviewed by the New York Times.

Russia has determined that the four men suspected of the attack are from Tajikistan.

Now Mr. Putin and his lieutenants are pointing the finger at Ukraine, trying to divert attention from a question that would be central to its policy in any country with independent media and open debate: How did Russia’s vast intelligence and law enforcement apparatus functions? failed, despite clear warnings, to avert one of the country’s largest terrorist attacks in Putin’s nearly quarter century in power?

The full picture is still unclear, and U.S. and European officials and security and counterterrorism experts emphasize that even under the best of circumstances, with highly specific intelligence and well-oiled security services, it is difficult to thwart covert international terrorist attacks.

But they say the failure was most likely due to a combination of factors, chief among them deep mistrust both within the Russian security establishment and in its relationships with other global intelligence agencies.

They also point out that the way Mr. Putin has abused his domestic security apparatus for an ever-expanding political crackdown at home – as well as his focus on a crusade against Ukraine and the West – are considered distractions that are unlikely Have helped.

This report on Russia’s failure to prevent the concert attack is based on interviews with U.S. and European security officials, security experts and analysts specializing in international intelligence capabilities. Many spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence details.

“The problem is actually being able to prevent terrorist attacks. You need a really good and efficient system of information exchange and intelligence gathering,” said Andrei Soldierov, an expert on Russian intelligence services, who stressed that trust is needed within the agency and with agencies of other countries, as well as good coordination. He said, “That’s where you’re in trouble.”

Putin’s definition of what constitutes an extremist began to expand even before his invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

The agency primarily responsible for combating terrorism in Russia is called the Second Service, a division of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. It once focused on Islamist extremists, assassin gangs and domestic neo-Nazi groups.

But as Mr. Putin continued his political crackdown at home, the list of his targets swelled to include opposition figures like Aleksei A. Navalny, who died in a Russian prison last month, and his supporters, as well as LGBTQ activists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, peace activists and other Kremlin critics.

The number of Islamist organizations in the register of extremist organizations of the Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service has decreased since 2013. At the same time, hundreds of organizations linked to Jehovah’s Witnesses have been added, which have their global headquarters in the United States and are viewed with suspicion by the FSB

Security experts said the broadening of focus wasted resources and diverted the attention of senior leaders.

So the head of the Second Service was increasingly active in areas that were far removed from the fight against terrorism; In 2020, he and his FSB branch were involved in the poisoning of Mr Navalny, according to the US government.

“Broadly speaking, the FSB is a political police force and as such it reflects the concerns of the Kremlin,” said Mark Galeotti, a specialist in Russia’s security operations and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Currently, the government is most burdened by political disagreements and Ukrainian sabotage, so they are the priorities of the FSB.”

Russia is a key military backer of the Islamic State’s opponents in the Middle East, including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, making Russian interests a key target of the Islamist extremist group. But as one European security official put it, the Russians were pursuing “fictitious threats” rather than real ones.

Still, U.S. and European officials say the Russian officials tracking Islamist extremists have a dedicated unit within the Second Service, which continues to operate despite the strains on the security services caused by increasing domestic political repression and the war against Ukraine is solidly staffed and financed.

The failure to prevent the attack was likely the result of a combination of other factors, including fatigue after being “particularly vigilant” in the period leading up to Russia’s recent presidential election, said a European security official who tracks Russian intelligence activities .

There are also indications that Russian authorities responded to the warnings this month, at least initially.

On March 7, a day after the CIA broadcaster’s private warning to the Russians, the FSB announced that it had killed two Kazakhs southwest of Moscow, foiling an ISIS-K attack on a synagogue in the capital. U.S. officials believed the raid may have been a sign that Russian authorities were taking action.

Iosif Prigozhin, a well-known Russian music producer, recalled that in early March he and his wife, Russian pop star Valeriya, who performed at Crocus City Hall this month, noticed how security had increased at the venue; Security guards checked people’s bags and cosmetic cases and took other measures he had never seen there before, he said.

“I even called the general manager and said, ‘Listen, what’s going on? Are you expecting high-ranking guests?’” Mr. Prigozhin said in an interview. “He said, ‘Iosif, I’ll tell you later.’ He didn’t say anything on the phone. He said it was necessary – and that was it.”

Around the same time, venue staff were warned about the possibility of a terrorist attack and instructed on what to do in such an event, Islam Khalilov, a 15-year-old student who was working in the cloakroom on the evening of the attack, said in an interview published on YouTube.

One of Putin’s favorite singers, Grigory Leps, performed there on March 8. Shaman, a singer whose pro-Kremlin jingoism has catapulted him to popularity amid war fervor, was scheduled to take the stage a day later.

But tightened security measures failed to locate one of the attackers, Shamsidin Fariduni. Music hall employees, speaking to Russian media, recalled seeing Mr. Fariduni at the concert venue on March 7. A photo of him wearing a light brown coat at the venue, confirmed by The Times, circulated in the Russian press.

Aleksandr V. Bortnikov, the director of the FSB, emphasized in public comments on Tuesday that the information provided by the United States was “of a general nature.”

“We, of course, responded to this information and took appropriate action,” he said, noting that the measures taken by the FSB to follow up on the tip did not confirm this.

The adversarial relationship between Washington and Moscow prevented U.S. officials from sharing information about the plot beyond what was necessary for fear that Russian authorities would learn their intelligence sources or methods.

In its public warning on March 7, the US Embassy said that the risk of an attack on a concert hall in Moscow was acute in the next 48 hours. U.S. officials believe it is possible that Russian authorities forcefully shortened the 48-hour warning period but later became more relaxed and suspicious when an attack did not occur.

It is unclear whether U.S. intelligence misjudged the timing of the attack or whether the extremists delayed their plan when they saw increased security.

In the days that followed, internal Russian intelligence reports – which, according to the Dossier Center, reached the Russian National Security Council – explicitly warned of the threat that Tajiks radicalized by ISIS-K posed to Russia. The reporting pointed to Tajik involvement in foiled plots in Europe and attacks in Iran and Istanbul in recent months. The Western warnings or a possible Moscow attack were not mentioned in the reporting.

The Dossier Center was founded in 2010 by exiled Russian tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, a longtime opponent of Mr. Putin. The authenticity of his report could not be independently verified.

But by now, skepticism about the conspiracy had grown within the Russian government, and Putin felt comfortable mocking the public warnings in a speech to top FSB officers and seizing the opportunity to launch a renewed attack on the West.

“Because the FSB — and Putin — see the world through the prism that the United States is targeting Russia, any information that does not fit that framework is easily dismissed,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who previously led U.S. intelligence analysis on Russia.

She said: “This dynamic could have led to an intelligence failure with devastating consequences.”

When the CIA privately informed Russia of the possible terrorist attack, it followed 2015 guidelines known as “duty alert” guidelines, which require intelligence agencies to notify “U.S. and non-U.S. persons” of specific threats inform about “intentional homicide, grievous bodily harm and kidnapping.”

Such orders are relatively rare, but the United States is obligated to issue them to adversaries and has done so last year to both the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Iranian government. The warnings are typically not made public unless U.S. authorities believe the threat could affect American citizens, which was the case in Moscow.

Mr. Putin thanked the U.S. government in both 2017 and 2019 for providing information that helped Russia thwart terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg. But analysts say a similar gesture would be impossible in the bitter environment he has created since invading Ukraine.

The United States has been closely monitoring ISIS-K’s activities in recent months, senior officials said. Over the course of the surveillance, which included electronic intercepts, human informants and other means, American agents collected fairly specific information about the Moscow plot, officials said.

Experts said Russia’s intelligence services have traditionally focused on domestic terrorist threats posed by separatist and religious extremist groups in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Major terrorist attacks on Russian soil attributed to international groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda have been rare, and the country’s domestic security services have less experience tracking these threats and are less adept at penetrating Central Asian extremist cells.

In the days since the attack, Moscow retaliated for Washington’s provision of the tip-off, claiming its warning should be seen as evidence of possible American complicity.

Mr Bortnikov, the FSB director, said on Tuesday that Islamist extremists alone could not possibly have carried out the attack. He blamed the USA, among others, for this.

Oleg Matsnev, Safak Timur And Aric Toler contributed to the reporting.

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