Suspects in the Crocus City Hall shooting are escorted inside...

Suspects in the Crocus City Hall shooting are escorted inside the Russian Investigative Committee headquarters in Moscow in this photo provided by Russian authorities. Credit: AP

In some ways, last week’s horrific attack on the Crocus City Hall concert venue in a Moscow suburb, apparently by Islamist extremists, was reminiscent of terror attacks in other countries — above all, the 2015 Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris. But the differences are far more startling — and they are a stark reminder that Russia in 2024 is not only a brutally authoritarian state but one that is terrifyingly lawless and caught up in the fake reality of its own propaganda.

On March 22, just before the start of a sold-out concert by a popular rock band, four masked gunmen in military fatigues entered the building. Concertgoers were shot with Kalashnikov rifles. Explosives were set off, causing dozens of people who sought refuge in bathrooms to suffocate from the smoke. The death toll now stands at 143, with more than 350 injured. ISIS-K, a branch of the Islamic State terrorist army, has taken responsibility for the attack; the actual alleged perpetrators were migrants from Tajikistan, apparently recruited online.

Among independent Russian commentators — these days, mostly in exile — a question foremost on many people’s minds was: How does this kind of attack, which required extensive planning, happen in a police state where surveillance is pervasive? Were security agencies too busy hunting down anti-war protesters and gay rights activists? 

The question is all the more baffling because the United States warned Russia about an impending ISIS attack, based on clues picked up by intelligence. Just three days before the attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed those warnings in a public televised meeting with security officials as an attempt at intimidation.

In a democracy, a president who dropped the ball that badly would likely have faced calls for resignation, or at least for major explanations. Of course, nothing of the sort has happened in Russia, where some of Putin’s propagandists are claiming that the warning is a clue the U.S., along with Ukraine, is party to the attack.

Almost from the start, Russian officials, including Putin himself, started talking about a “Ukrainian footprint” while producing no evidence other than the fact that the four suspects may have been headed toward the Ukrainian border when they were apprehended. Yet Russia-friendly Belarusian authorities have said that the suspects were planning to cross into Belarus, not Ukraine.

The propagandists’ calls for vengeance divert attention from the fact that Russia’s security services and law enforcement have been horrendously incompetent (unless one believes, as some do, that they deliberately staged the attack as a false flag operation). The police delay in storming the building almost certainly exacerbated the death toll: Paramedics and firefighters had to wait for about an hour and a half to go in. Given the speed with which anti-war protesters usually get arrested, some dissident commentators have made the grim joke that perhaps survivors in the building should have tried chanting “Stop the war” — then the cops would have charged in right away.

While the alleged terrorists weren’t stopped in advance, they were, apparently, beaten and tortured after their capture; video clips of the torture soon turned up, and the four men’s battered and bloodied look in the courtroom told the rest of the story.

There’s a common view that most Russians support Putin’s autocracy because they like a “strong hand” at the helm of the state. Now, it turns out that the “strong hand” offers no protection — only savage retribution toward alleged culprits and conspiracy theories blaming the regime’s enemies.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

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