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Who are ISIS-K? Ruthless terror group claiming they are behind Moscow concert hall attack

ISIS-K are an affiliate group of the Islamic State militants pictured here in Syria  (Alamy )
ISIS-K are an affiliate group of the Islamic State militants pictured here in Syria (Alamy )

Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, has claimed responsibility for the deadly shooting attack at a concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow on Friday which killed at least 143 people.

Attackers dressed in military fatigues stormed the foyer and then theatre of Crocus City Hall as concert-goers were waiting to hear a performance from a rock band.

Videos posted on Russian social media showed the gunmen shooting people, while others fled as a fire engulfed the building, with thick smoke billowing into the sky.

Russian president Vladimir Putin attempted to link the attack to Ukraine, despite ISIS-K claiming responsibility for the attack in a statement on Friday evening. Ukraine has denied any involvement.

US intelligence services also confirmed the group was responsible for the attack, which has left Russians in mourning.

Here is everything we know about ISIS-K.

Who are ISIS-K?

Islamic State Khorasan, named after an old term for the region that included parts of Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, emerged in eastern Afghanistan in late 2014 and quickly established a reputation for extreme brutality.

One of the most active regional affiliates of the Islamic State militant group, ISIS-K has seen its membership decline after peaking in around 2018.

ISIS fighters holding the Al-Qaeda flag with ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ written on it. ISIS-K are an affiliate of the group (Alamy)
ISIS fighters holding the Al-Qaeda flag with ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ written on it. ISIS-K are an affiliate of the group (Alamy)

At its peak it had around 3,000 members but suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Taliban and US coalition forces. It is located in the Nangarhar region in Afghanistan and typically recruits both Afghan and Pakistani jihadists.

The United States has said its ability to develop intelligence against extremist groups in Afghanistan such as ISIS-K has been reduced since the withdrawal of US troops from the country in 2021.

Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan two years ago the group has undergone a resurgence and in its weekly newsletter, Al Naba, has claimed 238 attacks, killing at least 670 people and injuring 1,200 others, CNN reported.

Human rights charities have said the group has specifically targeted the Hazari group, a religious minority that has faced persecution in Afghanistan for years.

“Since the Taliban takeover, ISIS-linked fighters have committed numerous brutal attacks against members of the Hazara community as they go to school, to work, or to pray, without a serious response from the Taliban authorities,” said Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.

ISIS rebel militant soldiers on the frontline.  ISIS-K are an affiliate of the group (Alamy)
ISIS rebel militant soldiers on the frontline. ISIS-K are an affiliate of the group (Alamy)

The group is reportedly led by warlord Shahab al-Muhajir, a former member of the Taliban’s al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, who took power in April 2020 after Abdullah Orokzai, the previous leader, was captured by Afghan forces.

There were reports in June last year that al-Muhajir had been killed by Taliban security forces. However a UN report soon after said the information “remains to be confirmed”.

What attacks has the group carried out?

ISIS-K has a history of attacks, including against mosques, both inside and outside Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, the US intercepted communications confirming the group carried out twin bombings in Iran that killed nearly 100 people.

In September 2022, ISIS-K militants claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul.

The group was responsible for an attack on Kabul’s international airport in 2021 that killed 13 US troops and scores of civilians during the chaotic US evacuation from the country.

It has also struck inside Pakistan, targeting government forces as well as members of the country’s Sufi minority. ISIS affiliates were responsible for the worst-ever terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, when eight suicide bombers carried out a series of coordinated attacks that killed over 250 people in April 2019.

Earlier this month, the top US general in the Middle East said ISIS-K could attack U.S. and Western interests outside of Afghanistan “in as little as six months and with little to no warning”.

Why would they attack Russia?

While the attack by ISIS-K in Russia on Friday was a dramatic escalation, experts said the group has opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years.

“ISIS-K has been fixated on Russia for the past two years, frequently criticizing Putin in its propaganda,” said Colin Clarke of Soufan Center, a Washington-based research group.

Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Center said that ISIS-K “sees Russia as being complicit in activities that regularly oppress Muslims”.

He added the group also counts as members a number of Central Asian militants with their own grievances against Moscow.

Additional reporting by news agencies