The Russians blamed Ukraine for the massacre of people gathered at a concert hall in Moscow on Saturday, even though ISIS has claimed responsibility.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said that if Ukraine’s involvement was proven, all those involved “must be tracked down and killed without mercy, including officials of the State that committed such outrage.”

But Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied Ukraine’s involvement. “Ukraine has never resorted to the use of terrorist methods,” he posted on X. “Everything in this war will be decided only on the battlefield,” he added.

The ISIS statement said that it was an attack targeting Christians. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on ISIS told the ‘Associated Press (AP)’ that the attack reflected ISIS's strategy of “striking wherever they can as part of a global fight against infidels and apostates everywhere.”

United States’ officials told ‘AP’ that the Afghanistan-based ISIS was responsible, and that they had prior intelligence about it and had even warned Moscow. Earlier in March the US Embassy in Moscow had urged Americans to avoid crowded places in view of “imminent” plans by extremists to target large gatherings in the Russian capital, including concerts. The warning was repeated by several other Western embassies.

The US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that the US government shared the information with Russian authorities. However, Moscow dismissed it as being part of American psyops to weaken the morale of Russians.

Some commentators contend that the blame should be put at the door of the US, as ISIS was born in the crucible of the 2003 US war on Iraq. During his first bid for the US Presidency, Donald Trump said that Barack Obama had created ISIS.

But what is lost sight of in the on-going blame game is that Moscow has been in constant conflict with the Muslim majority constituents of the Russian Federation in the North Caucasus, namely, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.

After the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, trouble arose in the Muslim majority areas of North Caucasus as they wanted independence. In 1995-1996, the Chechens took hundreds of hostages in a hospital in Dagestan.

In October 2002, Chechen militants took about 800 people hostage at a Moscow theatre. Two days later, Russian special forces stormed the building and 129 hostages and 41 Chechen fighters were killed.

In September 2004, about 30 Chechen militants seized a school in Beslan in southern Russia taking hundreds of hostages. The siege ended in a bloodbath two days later and more than 330 people, about half of them children, were killed.

In 2010, Russia alleged that Dagestani rebel Magomed Vagabov was behind the suicide attack in the Moscow Metro, and killed him. Between 2007 and 2017, Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus led to clashes with Russian forces.

In October 2015, a bomb planted by ISIS downed a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, killing all 224 people on board, most of them Russian vacation-goers returning from Egypt.

In 2022, clashes erupted in Dagestan against Russia’s attempt to recruit locals for its war in Ukraine. The protesters expressed anger over the death of a large number of Dagestani soldiers in the Ukraine war.

In Chechnya, resistance to Russian rule dates back at least two centuries. Rebels there began agitating for independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Russia unleashed a major invasion marked by relentless airstrikes and salvos of heavy artillery. Thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of Chechen civilians were killed. The Chechen capital, Grozny, was laid waste.

Having failed to crush the rebellion, President Boris Yeltsin, in 1996, signed a peace treaty with Chechnya, removed all Russian troops from the territory and granted broad autonomy, though not formal independence.

But three years later, Yeltsin’s new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, began the campaign to bring Chechnya firmly under Russian control.

Putin resumed the bombing of Chechen rebels. The second Chechen war was also brutal, though this time the Russians were on top. Russian forces took control of the breakaway republic after just a few months.

Putin installed a Kremlin-friendly leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, to strengthen his hold on the territory. When Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov took over.

Writing in the journal ‘Dirasat’ in 2018 on “Managing Muslim Minorities in Russia”, historian Prof Elmira Akhmetova, of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, says that the Global War on Terror following 9/11, badly affected the security of Russia’s Muslims.

The Russian government became suspicious about Russian Muslims’ relations with the Muslim world, particularly with the oil-rich countries of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. Donations coming from Saudi Arabia were blocked, and Saudi-funded institutions were banned to stem “Wahhabism”.

Religious pamphlets and books (mostly translations into Russian) published in Saudi Arabia were ruled as “extremist” and “dangerous for national security.”

Russia’s Muslims were socially marginalised. Extensive media attention on the transgressions carried out by ISIS had a major impact on the traditional image of Muslims in Russia as a law abiding people. The presence of Russia’s Muslims, mainly from the regions of Chechnya and the North Caucasus, in the ranks of ISIS further aggravated the fears.

In September 2013, Sergey Smirnov, Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), declared the presence in Syria and Iraq of around 300–400 militants of Russian origin.

Consequently, cases of arrests of Muslims on allegations of being involved in terrorist activities significantly increased. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) faced more harassment and reprisals under the “foreign agents” law, while their access to foreign funding was further restricted by a new law banning “undesirable” organisations.

Consequently, local Muslims, who expressed their sympathy towards the Crimean Tatars’ strong anti-Russian position or criticised Russian policies toward Ukraine, were arrested.

Prof. Elmira Akhmetova suggests in her paper that since the main damage to the religious freedom of Russian citizens emanates from the 2002 “Extremist Law” its articles should be reconsidered.

The process of banning religious literature, organisations, and societies should be placed strictly under the direct control of the Russian government and subject to the supervision of impartial unbiased scholars and qualified religious experts, Prof Akhmetova says. Local officials tend to be very biassed, she believes.

“The federal system of providing financial support to regional administration and security forces to combat religious extremism, which allows corrupt officials to gain financial benefits under the pretext of fighting such extremism, should be re-evaluated by adding more layers of transparency and accountability,” the Professor suggests.

More importantly she added that, “The authorities should recognise that Russia’s Muslims are living in their native lands, that they are free to move from one region to another, and that their presence in the country is not temporary.”

Therefore, “Authorities in the regions inhabited by Muslims have to accept and practice ethnic and religious equality as promoted by the constitution.”

The Russian constitution is secular and non-discriminatory and that should not be lost sight of, Prof Akhmetova says.

Tolerance and respect toward Muslims and other citizens of the country must be instilled in the general population, she demands as most Russian Muslims see themselves as belonging to Russia. Their isolation and ghettoization will only hamper Russia’s economic growth and political stability, she warns.