Despite receiving advance warnings from the US about a potential attack weeks before the Crocus City Hall massacre, the Kremlin may have disregarded the CIA’s intelligence due to geopolitical tensions and suspicions towards Western sources.

T he attack on the Crocus City concert hall in the Moscow suburbs, which left 137 people dead, has again raised questions about the effectiveness of intelligence in identifying and preventing massive acts of terrorism.

Intelligence about such events is rarely precise. Often it is made up of fragments of information or hearsay, spread across policing and intelligence agencies and across international boundaries. Intelligence analysis is how agencies bring all of these threads together into a picture that makes sense and that allows officials to respond.

Intelligence analysis relies on good and timely information, open minds and officials using it in the right way. As such, it should be surprising that more attacks do not occur.

At the start of March, the US issued a warning about the imminent threat of a mass casualty terrorist attack against large gatherings including concerts, and warned its citizens to avoid such places for the following 48 hours. US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said information about such a planned attack had also been shared with Russian authorities.

A warning from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with its extensive access to communications and human intelligence, is highly credible. While it was not for exactly the same date, the warning that the US issued is close enough to the date of the Crocus City attack to be considered relevant. It also mentioned Moscow and an entertainment venue as targets.


CNN also said it had reports from two sources that since November there had been a steady stream of intelligence that Isis-K was determined to attack Russia.

But the Russian government currently feels like it is in a state of war with the West. They also know that the CIA is heavily involved in providing the Ukrainians with military intelligence.

In this context it is difficult for the Kremlin to take US warnings seriously, and even to admit to having received them. Dimitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, argued that Russia does not need American intelligence. He told a press conference:

“Our security services are working on their own, no assistance is currently on the table.”

— Dimitri Peskov, Kremlin spokesman

Five eyes better than one

Given that intelligence is all about gathering and keeping secrets, it might sound odd to learn that intelligence agencies routinely share secrets. Within a country, policing and intelligence agencies share intelligence about individuals, threats and risks.

The main frictions in doing so are incompatible systems and processes, secrecy laws, the protection of tradecraft (how the information was arrived at), the protection of sources and the risks of secret information being surfaced in court (known as disclosure).

Friendly countries also share intelligence, through established processes and procedures. The best known of these is the Five Eyes alliance, made up of the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. These are the core members, but there are now associate members, who enjoy restricted access to shared intelligence.

These sorts of alliances work because of established and sound protocols, some shared training, operational experience and ultimately trust. But the recent conviction of Canadian spy chief Cameron Ortis for selling secrets to suspected criminals, highlights the vulnerability of systems dependent upon trust.

Countries who do not enjoy wholly friendly relations also share secrets, on a selective basis. There is – for example – a long history of Western intelligence liaison (the term used for intelligence sharing) by the UK and US with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for example.

— The Crocus City Hall, Moscow, before the terrorist attack.

Russia and the West have also shared intelligence around terrorist groups – at least they did prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

International intelligence has often formed a kind of parallel diplomatic system of nations being able to talk more openly free from public gaze and public diplomacy. Sharing important intelligence has also helped to improve relationships between hostile nations or helped to open up a back channel to begin talking more openly and cordially about tensions.

The CIA might well have shared a warning about the theatre plot as a means by which to show a desire to start to normalise their relationship with Russia again. They probably would have wanted to avoid having Ukraine blamed for the attack, which has subsequently happened.

So, what possible motives does the Kremlin have for rejecting the evidence, at least at first, that a regional Islamic State (IS) group (known as Isis-K) committed this atrocity? The key context is the ongoing war in Ukraine.

It will be politically convenient for Moscow to claim that Ukraine played a helping hand in this attack. The deputy head of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, has said that all those implicated in the plot “must be tracked down and killed without mercy, including officials of the state that committed such outrage.”


The idea that the attack was sponsored or assisted by Ukraine helps to fuel the dominant anti-Kyiv narratives being produced by the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin has accepted IS’s role in the attack but also accused Ukraine of being involved or even ultimately responsible.

A golden lesson of intelligence is to focus on what is there, not what you would like to be there. The simplest and most plausible explanation that IS terrorists, who appear fixated by Russia, have mounted a high-risk, low-probability-of-success attack on Moscow, and evaded Moscow’s surveillance state through arriving and attacking quickly.

That Moscow’s security apparatus may have ignored any warnings from the CIA is explicable and unsurprising in the context of the war. It remains the case, however, that a city’s chances of avoiding large-scale terrorist attacks partly rest on the effective coordination and sharing of timely and accurate intelligence. The sad case of Crocus City concert hall, is the most recent case in point.

PUBLIC SQUARE UK



Sources:

▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 25 March 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Shutterstock/Guo Feizhou.



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