Disrupted plots show that security forces likely to limit scale of Islamic State threat
The Federal Security Service (FSB) has disrupted two major jihadist plots in recent weeks, thwarting an attempt to bomb celebrations in Moscow on New Year’s Eve and a separate plan to strike Saint Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral. Both apparent plots involved jihadists from Central Asia, lending credibility to claims by the authorities that the attacks were being planned in coordination with Islamic State (IS). IS has attracted a large number of recruits from the former Soviet Union and many continue to fight with the group in the Middle East, as well as remotely support plots in their native countries.
The scale of the thwarted attacks may have been overstated by the authorities, not least because the Kremlin will have been keen to emphasise that the US had provided intelligence that helped identify the IS cell in Saint Petersburg. The Kremlin views cooperation on counter-terrorism as a key way to repair relations with the West and thereby secure sanctions relief. Moscow therefore has an incentive to inflate the level of the joint intelligence operation.
Nonetheless, IS aspires to carry out violence in Russia in response to the leading role Moscow has played in the military campaign against it in Syria, and the group will look to plan additional attacks where it can. Putin announced the end of active Russian operations against IS on 11 December. Yet, this was largely intended to ease domestic concerns about a long-standing military campaign ahead of next year’s elections. Indeed, Russian jets continue to strike rebels in Syria and a full military drawdown is unlikely, as Moscow sees victory for the Assad regime as a core regional objective.
We consequently believe IS will continue to attempt violence in Russia, with New Year celebrations, March’s presidential elections and next summer’s World Cup tournament likely to be prominent targets. Despite this, the FSB is well positioned to disrupt most plots given it has well developed intelligence capabilities in the North Caucasus – the traditional source of the jihadist threat – and is increasingly monitoring Central Asian migrants with suspected ties to IS.