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Moscow terror attack: who are IS-KP?

On Friday, March 22nd, the deadliest terror attack on Russian soil in decades unfolded at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall, moments prior to a performance by Soviet-era rock band, Picnic. 

Armed assailants dressed in camouflage uniforms burst into the concert hall, opening fire on the crowd before setting the venue on fire with explosives. At least 137 people were killed in the attack.

On both Friday and Saturday, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the mass shooting, describing it as part of “the natural framework” of their ongoing campaign against perceived enemies of Islam. Confirming this claim, US officials believe the group’s regional affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP), carried out the attack.

IS-KP was formed in 2014, and operates primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan – although it maintains a presence throughout the historical Khorasan region, which also includes Iran and other Central Asian countries. 

The group emerged out of a collective of defectors from other outfits including Al Qaeda, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Taliban fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who pledged allegiance to the then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. IS formally announced its expansion into Afghanistan and Pakistan a year later.

In line with its parent organisation, IS-KP follows an extreme interpretation of Islam, framing secular governments, non-Muslims, and Muslim minority populations as legitimate targets in their campaign to establish a caliphate in the region.

Russia has long been cast as an adversary of IS-KP, and IS more broadly, stemming from its historical interventions in Muslim majority regions, including Chechnya and Afghanistan; Russian cooperation with the Taliban, with whom IS-KP remains in a theological and territorial dispute; and Russia’s military presence in Syria, where it supports the Syrian regime in the campaign against IS. IS-KP has reportedly been focused on Russia for some years, accusing Putin of changing the course of the war in Syria.

IS-KP is one of the most active IS regional chapters, reportedly responsible for the third most deaths worldwide after IS and Al Shabaab in 2022, according to the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT). In 2021, they carried out a suicide attack on Kabul’s international airport during the US military withdrawal, killing 13 US soldiers as well as scores of civilians. A year later, they claimed responsibility for an attack on the Russian embassy in Kabul, which killed six people and injured 10 others. In January of this year, they killed up to 100 people when they targeted a memorial ceremony for Qassem Soleimani, a Revolutionary Guard commander killed in a US drone strike in 2020.

Between 2015 and 2023, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) recorded 136 incidents of explosive weapons use by this IS chapter across Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have resulted in at least 6,096 civilian casualties (1,986 killed), and 533 armed actor casualties (282 killed). Afghanistan seems to be the worst affected country of the two, accounting for 86% (117) of incidents and 74% (4,537) of civilian casualties.

The vast majority of IS-KP attacks – some 90% (123) – were carried out using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), weapons which caused 88% (5,336) of civilian casualties. 10 attacks using ground-launched weapons (including grenades, mortars, and rockets) killed and injured 195 civilians, and three attacks using multiple types of explosive weapons caused 565 civilian casualties. 

Suicide bombings account for 62% (84) of IS-KP attacks, and 89% (5,411) of civilian casualties (1,833 killed). This means an average of 64 civilians were harmed per IS-KP suicide attack, and 23 killed. 

Places of worship are both the locations where AOAV recorded the most IS-KP attacks, 18% (25), and the majority of civilian casualties, 38% (2,295). Other affected locations for civilian harm are public gatherings (1,360 civilian casualties), public buildings (665), transport-related infrastructure (496), roads (294), and schools (245). 

21 IS-KP attacks were recorded in public buildings, 18 on roads, 14 on public gatherings, and 14 in urban residential areas. The patterns reported here illustrate the threat IS-KP pose to civilians: the most frequently targeted locations are almost exclusively civilian targets.

With reported IS-KP attacks expanding outside Afghanistan and Pakistan this year, the group is demonstrating the ability and willingness to target civilians and government actors beyond its borders.

AOAV’s casualty figures represent the lowest of estimations in terms of the number of people killed and injured by explosive weapon use. In an effort to quantify the explicit harm caused by specific explosive weapons, AOAV solely records incident-specific casualty figures, as reported in English-language media.

AOAV condemns the use of violence against civilians and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. All actors should stop using explosive weapons with wide-area effects where there is likely to be a high concentration of civilians.