What Is Islamic State-Khorasan, Group Blamed For Moscow Concert Attack? – Analysis


By Frud Bezhan

(RFE/RL) — Scores of people were killed after gunmen stormed a concert venue in the Moscow region in what was the deadliest attack in Russia in decades.

The March 22 attack was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group. U.S. officials said a regional branch of IS — Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) — was behind the incident.

Based in Afghanistan, IS-K has previously targeted the Russian Embassy in Kabul and threatened to carry out attacks inside Russia.

When Did IS-K First Emerge? 

IS-K was founded in Afghanistan in late 2014, the same year that IS overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria and declared a self-styled caliphate, or a state governed by Islamic law. IS was later defeated by a U.S.-led coalition.

IS-K initially captured small pockets of territory in eastern and northern Afghanistan as part of IS’s broader aim of expansion throughout South and Central Asia. Khorasan refers to a historical region that comprised parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia.

But IS-K began withdrawing from its territorial strongholds in Afghanistan around 2019 after coming under increasing fire from Afghan and foreign forces as well as the Taliban, a rival militant group. IS-K then embarked on a new strategy of urban warfare.

Where Are IS-K Fighters From?

IS-K was founded by disgruntled members of the Afghan Taliban, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and Al-Qaeda who declared allegiance to IS.

Over the years, IS-K’s ranks have been further boosted by local recruits and foreign fighters, particularly those from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

In a report published in June 2023, the UN Security Council said IS-K fighters included citizens of Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and a small number of Arab fighters from Syria who had traveled to Afghanistan.

The UN Security Council said the number of IS-K militants in Afghanistan ranges “from 4,000 to 6,000,” including family members. Some experts estimate that the number is much lower.

What Attacks Has IS-K Carried Out?

IS-K has carried out attacks against Afghan and international forces as well as the Taliban. It has also targeted Afghanistan’s religious minorities.

The group carried out one of its most high-profile attacks — the killing of 170 Afghan civilians and 13 members of the U.S. military at Kabul’s international airport — in August 2021 as foreign troops pulled out of Afghanistan.

After the Taliban seized power that month, IS-K has since targeted Taliban officials, foreign nationals and embassies, Afghanistan’s Shi’a Hazara community, and others it considers incompatible with its own extreme interpretation of Islam.

On March 21, IS-K claimed responsibility for an attack outside a bank in Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar that killed at least 21 people, most of them Taliban employees.

The group has also launched cross-border attacks. In January, IS-K was blamed for killing more than 90 people in Iran’s southern city of Kerman, the deadliest attack in the Islamic republic in decades.

Experts said IS-K has remained a resilient force despite hundreds of its fighters being arrested or killed by the Taliban since 2021.

“IS-K is probably the most active and potent of all of the regional affiliates of Islamic State today,” said Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson’s Center in Washington.

Why Would IS-K Attack Russia?

In September 2022, IS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside the Russian Embassy in Kabul that killed at least six people, including two employees of the embassy.

The attack did not surprise observers, who said IS had long threatened to carry out attacks inside Russia.

Lucas Webber, co-founder and editor of MilitantWire.com, said IS had named Russia alongside the United States early on as a primary enemy.

“This was only intensified in 2015 when Russia intervened militarily in Syria to support the government,” he said, referring to Moscow’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

“And it continued to intensify after Russia’s various military and private military contractor interventions across Africa,” during which IS fighters were targeted, he added.

Experts said Moscow’s support of the Taliban could have also motivated the attack.

Russia, like the rest of the international community, does not recognize the Taliban government and officially considers the hard-line Islamist group to be a terrorist organization. But Moscow on multiple occasions has hosted Taliban officials and maintained an embassy in Kabul.

Reid Standish and Neil Bowdler contributed to this report.

  • Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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