Perspectives on European Domestic Security after the Crocus city hall attack in Moscow

May 2024

Davide Dell’Isola

Lecturer at the University of Groningen
The Crocus City Hall Terrorist Attack

On the night of March 22nd, an ISIS-led commando opened fire on the crowd gathered at the Crocus City Hall theatre in Moscow, shortly before the concert of the Russian rock band Picnic was supposed to take place. The attack killed 145 people and injured more than 500 (BBC, 2024). The responsibility for the attack was officially claimed by the group ISIS-K, the main Afghan branch of the organization.

This attack is a reminder of the capability of the terrorist groups in terms of being able to strike outside of the Middle East, with repercussions on domestic security also of European states, which were repeatedly targeted by large-scale terrorist attacks of a similar kind between 2013 and 2017 (most notably with the attacks on Paris on November 13th, 2015). The Kremlin tried to shift responsibility for the Crocus City Hall attacks claiming a logistical involvement of the Ukrainian government backed by the “West” in an attempt to weaken Russia.

Yet, these claims appear to be inaccurate: the United States warned the Kremlin of the possibility of such an attack taking place at the beginning of the month, both privately in a warning sent to the Kremlin and also through a public alert warning where the US governments asked American citizens to avoid large gatherings. The note of the US Embassy in Russia on March 8th also specifically mentioned to stay away from “concerts” (as stated by official US government press release, (US Embassy in Russia, 2024), although it should be noted that the US intelligence though the attack would have taken place before March 10th).

Additionally, the relationship between the government of Russia and extremists Islamist groups has always been a conflictual one, both at home (for instance in territories such as Chechnya), but also abroad. The active involvement of Russia in the several crises of the Middle East resulted in heightened tensions and conflicts between ISIS or ISIS-affiliated groups and the Kremlin, particularly after Russia officially declared its participation in the Syrian civil War on the side of the Syrian government in 2015, whilst ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other groups are fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar-Al-Assad. In fact, the attack on the Crocus City Hall can also be read along similar lines as a retaliation by the Afghan branch of ISIS towards Russia’s support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

The ways in which the attack was carried out also has all the marks of an ISIS-led operation: The intention to strike civilians in large gatherings and the targeting of places representing a lifestyle perceived as immoral by those groups (such as a rock concert) are often two characteristics that can be found in similar attacks (in Paris, this was the case for the concert of the Eagles of Death Metals at the Bataclan theater, but also for several brasseries in the city center). The Crocus City Hall attack further underlines contrasts between these groups and the Kremlin, even though ISIS and its affiliated branches are also at open war with European countries and the “West” at large.

The attack in Moscow then highlights two main elements: 1) These groups do not buy into the “West vs East narrative” even after the war in Ukraine completely reshaped the International alliances scenario and International dynamics more in general 2) Relevantly for European countries, this attack show that ISIS still has the capability of organizing large-scale terrorist attacks targeting civilians at mass gatherings, a fact that the general public had forgotten since the last attacks of this kind took place in 2017 (with the attacks on the ramblas in Barcelona in August and the bombing of the Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester in May, although it should be noted that smaller-scale terrorist attacks never really stopped).

Implications for Europe: High Alert for Terrorist Operations

Why did this kind of terrorist attacks stop in Europe? And should we expect a resurgence of this kind of attack in European countries now? The first question is probably linked to two main factors: First, back then ISIS was not only an organization but also a group in control of large portions of territory in Syria and Iraq, where it was attracting high numbers of so-called “foreign fighters” from Europe, making the logistical organizations and planning of those attacks easier. The territorial ambitions of ISIS as a state have since then been defeated almost entirely after the defeat of the group in the Iraqi civil war in 2017.

The Crocus City Hall attack, however, shows that controlling a territory is not necessary to carry out terrorist plots. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq in 2017 had the effect of making large-scale attack unlikely in the short term, but the pandemic also had a decisive effect in prolonging this safety for European countries as large gatherings were banned for several years in the European continent.

However, with large gatherings now back in full effect, and heightened tensions in countries where ISIS constitutes a large presence, the level of security alerts for European countries are considerably higher after the attack in Moscow. Although documents on specific security plans are confidential, we can still see that there is a rise in the alert level of European countries by official declarations of law enforcement agencies and governments.

For instance, France raised the level of terrorist strike risks to its maximum level of alert after the attack in Moscow (French Ministry of Internal Affairs, 2024) and this is of particular relevance since Paris is hosting the Summer Olympics, the largest event in the country in a long time. The opening ceremony schedule on July 26th should take place in the form of a boat parade on the Seine, but the French organizers and the government indicated they have five “fallback plans” if security concerns will make the parade too dangerous.

The Crocus City Hall attack, however, shows that controlling a territory is not necessary to carry out terrorist plots

The Links between Radicalization Process and Grievances of Discriminated Minorities 

The plans regarding the prevention of terrorist attacks in European countries have so far been heavily focused on a heavily “militarized” approach (i.e., military raids by special forces targeting suspects) and on the work of intelligence agencies across Europe. This strategy has surely been successful in preventing several terrorist attacks and in dismantling terrorist cells around Europe.

However, a key aspect of the several attacks suffered by European countries in the period between 2013 and 2017 is the involvement of so-called “home-grown terrorists”, meaning people either born or raised in the European countries where the attacks took place, or at least having spent a significant portion of their lives in Europe before becoming terrorists. Most notably, Salah Abdeslam, one of the perpetrators of the November attacks in Paris, was born in Brussels (Davis, 2016), but the same also applies to many other terrorists involved in the ISIS plots.

This key element certainly complicates issues of prevention of terrorist attacks because it begs the question of why this demographic chooses to join terrorist organizations. Through specific cell-targeting and military prevention of these attacks, European countries were often (although not always) able to prevent terrorism, but this kind of operation does not address the root causes of why people born in Europe or lived in Europe for several years then decide to become terrorists. Often, this group of people has a background of coming from a second-generation of immigration in the country and lives in poorer and segregated neighborhoods and was often involved in petty crimes or drug dealing before joining terrorist organizations.

Indeed, despite the narrative of some populist parties at the European level, it has never been the case that wannabe terrorist “exploit” the illegal routes to enter Europe (for instance through the boats along the Mediterranean route from Libya or Tunisia to Italy). It can be empirically observed as radicalization processes take place in Europe, and almost never before (some of the perpetrators are born in Europe, for instance). I argue that the role of discrimination against Muslim minorities plays a central role in the so-called radicalization dynamics, and it is the root causes that allows the logistics of several terrorist attacks since discrimination causes a backlash against the authorities, resulting in an increase of these “radicalization” processes. A prevention strategy should then address the specific root causes and not only the most immediate threats.

In fact, at times prevention strategies had the opposite effect and increased the risk of discrimination. For instance, the British “Prevent” doctrine, the official doctrine to prevent terrorist attacks elaborated by the British government, is based on a number of practices that risk further ostracizing the religious minorities in the country, particularly Muslims.

The idea behind this doctrine is that “suspicious” individuals should be reported to the authority. Although at face value this would seem a sensible strategy, it also requires people with no training (such as teachers or employers) to report “suspicious” behavior to the authorities. The people that are then reported on are generally people belonging to a minority or begin more religious, and in almost all cases they are not white, and get reported for things that have nothing to do with national security. Just a few days ago, in fact, Amnesty International published a detailed report addressing how the UK Prevent doctrine clearly violates human rights (Amnesty International, 2024).

Instead, the source of long-standing grievances playing a large part in these processes has not been addressed at all, resulting in discrimination against Muslim minorities across European countries and creating a fertile ground for the radicalization of a small portions of the discriminated community. This discrimination can take several forms: Banning minarets in Switzerland or banning traditional religious clothing such as the hijab in France very clear examples of laws that can go against the principles of religious freedom that European countries claim to support. However, this discrimination can also take place on a more indirect and invisible level, creating segregated urban spaces that look different from the rest of the country on all the statistical indicators, from level of unemployment to crime rates several other societal aspects.

For instance, the neighborhood of Molenbeek, in Brussels, is a multicultural and ethnic neighborhood which hosts a large Muslim community, and where unemployment rates are skyrocketing, and all the other general indicators make it look quite different from the rest of Belgium. Incidentally, Molenbeek is also the place where many of the terrorist groups from the Bataclan attacks (and the Brussels airport bombing) lived. These two elements cannot be separated from each other. In fact, people often join this kind of cell because of the backlash caused by grievances, as grievances make people more likely to be receptive to the jihadist propaganda and recruiters.

In this sense, integration of minorities and absence of discriminatory policies is not just a matter of ethics, but also of national security. Tackling these issues is of course not the role of intelligence agencies, but it is rather the role of policymakers and governments, particularly when it comes to stop the approval of Islamophobic or xenophobic laws. The political actors in charge of lawmaking and decision-making should carefully tackle issues of discrimination to reduce them and facilitate the integration of marginalized communities.

This takeaway should be of relevance also to conservative parties, which often run on a platform of national security but also on a strongly anti-Islam program, sometimes bordering Islamophobia. This combination of factors can push discrimination dynamics further, therefore also reducing national security overall. Instead, framing the debates through lenses pairing national security and integration dynamics would hopefully facilitate collaboration across different ideological lines to start addressing the root causes of those grievances which have been overlooked for too long in European countries, whilst at the same reducing the risk of terrorist attacks.


Amnesty International (2024, May 22), The prevent duty and its chilling effect on human rights,,

BBC (2024, April 9), What we know about attack on a Moscow concert hall,,

Davis, Avi (2016, March 19), Salah Abdeslam: From petty crime to IS group terrorism,,

French Ministry of Internal Affairs (2024, March 25), Plan Vigipirate : Niveau urgence attentat déclaré,,

US Embassy in Russia (2024, March 8) Security Alert: Avoid Large Gatherings over the Next 48 Hours,,


Bio: Davide Dell’Isola is a lecturer at the IRIO department at the University of Groningen. He holds a PhD in Security Studies from the University of Central Florida (UCF) and a MA in International Relations from Università degli Studi di Roma Tre in Rome, Italy. His research covers several aspects related to terrorism and security issues in Europe, particularly the links between discrimination against religious minorities, secularist policies and radicalization dynamics. He delves into the importance of focusing on the roots of the social and political grievances related to discrimination against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, in European countries, and on the limits of addressing prevention of terrorist attacks exclusively from an intelligence perspective. He explores issues of integration of immigrants in the European context and its links with secularist policies, as well as the role of political parties in Europe in shaping the discourses related to secularism and religious freedom.

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