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Putin must now realise he’s been fighting the wrong war

Russian President Vladimir Putin may have convinced himself that Russia’s main enemy lies in the West. But the deadly attack on a Moscow concert hall carried out by an offshoot of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) demonstrates that Islamist terrorists pose a far more deadly threat to his country’s well-being.

The Kremlin has a long and bloody history of fighting Islamist extremism, from Russia’s brutal military campaign in Chechnya – Putin’s first war after becoming president – to Moscow’s more recent military intervention in Syria, where Russian forces were involved in eliminating Isil’s self-declared caliphate in Raqqa.

It is worth remembering that Putin’s primary justification for deploying Russian forces to Syria in 2015 was to target the Islamist militants who had seized control of large swathes of the country, even if his main motivation was to keep the Assad regime, long-standing allies of Moscow, in power.

Explaining his decision to intervene in Syria in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2015, Putin made a rousing call for an international coalition to fight global terrorism, comparing the campaign to defeat Isil to allied efforts to defeat the Nazis during the Second World War.

These days, Putin has adopted an entirely different approach, one where confronting the West, not Islamist extremism, has become his main priority. Many of the Russian forces that fought Isil in Syria are now mired in a brutal conflict in Ukraine.

After the devastating attack on Moscow’s Crocus City concert hall, where at least 115 people were gunned down by a group of Islamist terrorists, Putin may well reflect that, by concentrating his military focus on Ukraine, he now finds himself fighting the wrong war.

After the destruction of Isil’s caliphate in Syria in 2017, there has been a worrying tendency, both in Moscow and the West, to believe the threat posed by Islamist militants is on the wane.

That was certainly the thinking that informed the Biden administration’s disastrous decision to withdraw US-led coalition forces from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, handing control of the country over to the Taliban, Isil’s ideological soulmates. Putin even made a rare public declaration in support of the decision. It’s a judgment he may well come to regret following reports that the group responsible for the concert hall attack was based in Afghanistan and operating under the Taliban’s protection.

While most world leaders regard the Taliban regime in Kabul as relatively benign, that is not the view of the Western intelligence community which, on the contrary, believes Afghanistan has once again become a safe haven for Islamist terror networks. Moreover, one of the more calamitous consequences of the 2021 withdrawal was the complete destruction of the West’s intelligence-gathering network there.

This has eroded our ability to confront the Islamist threat, and at a time when terrorist organisations like Hamas – which adheres to the same Islamist creed as the Taliban – are increasing their capacity to carry out large-scale operations such as that of October 7. The tactics used by the terror group responsible for the Moscow attack were disturbingly similar to those that Hamas used in its assault on Israeli civilians.

In such circumstances Putin, instead of escalating his confrontation with the West, would be better advised to give his backing to an international effort to combat the modern menace of Islamist-inspired terrorism.

A good place to start would be at the UN where Moscow could concentrate its efforts on tackling the disturbing rise of Islamist terrorism. That could prove far more effective at keeping Russia’s citizens safe than persisting with his unwinnable war in Ukraine.


Con Coughlin’s latest book, ‘Assad: The Triumph of Tyranny’, is published by Picador

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