In Russia, fingers point anywhere but at Islamic State after attack

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Bodies were recovered, flowers were laid and fingers were pointed Sunday as competing narratives took shape over who was behind the terrorist attack on a Russian concert hall where at least 137 people out to enjoy an evening of music were killed.

President Vladimir Putin has hinted that Ukraine was behind the Friday attack. He stopped short of accusing Ukraine directly, but on Sunday, some of his allies showed no such compunction.

U.S. officials have said that the attack appeared to be the work of an offshoot of the Islamic State group, and that there is no evidence connecting Ukraine to it. But many Russian nationalist commentators and ultraconservative hawks are pushing the idea that Ukraine is the obvious culprit.

A pro-Kremlin analyst who is a regular on Russian state television, Sergei Markov, wrote in a post on Telegram that the Kremlin must work at isolating the Ukrainian leadership by “connecting the terrorist act not with ISIS but with the Ukrainian government as much as possible,” using an alternative name for Islamic State group.

Russian state news outlets barely mentioned that the Islamic State group itself claimed that the Islamic State group Khorasan was responsible for the attack at Crocus City Hall, a concert venue in the outskirts of Moscow. The group, which is known as ISIS-K, has been active in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

On Sunday, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that the West was pointing at ISIS-K to shift the blame away from Ukraine. Russia has not presented any evidence of Ukraine’s involvement, and Ukrainian officials have dismissed the accusations.

So has the Biden administration.

“There is no, whatsoever, any evidence — and, in fact, what we know to be the case is that ISIS-K is actually by all accounts responsible for what happened,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Reactions to the attack reflect in part the state of anxiety that Russia has been living in since its forces invaded Ukraine.

For the past two years, propaganda outlets have been competing to advance one narrative, conspiracy theory or bit of speculation after another, and now some analysts and Kremlin critics say that Putin might falsely pin the attack on Ukraine to justify another escalation in his war.

On Saturday, Putin pledged to punish the perpetrators — “whoever they may be, whoever may have sent them.” He made no mention of ISIS-K.

Russia was observing a national day of mourning Sunday for victims of the fiery attack.

Under a gray sky, stunned Russians came to lay flowers and light candles at a memorial outside the concert hall. Scores of people waited in a long line for their turn, many clutching red bouquets, as work continued inside the hall to dismantle the remains of the stage. Flags were lowered to half-staff at buildings across the country, and state media released a video of Putin lighting a memorial candle in a church.

A top Russian law enforcement body, the Investigative Committee, said Sunday that 137 bodies had been recovered from the charred premises, including those of three children. It said that 62 victims had been identified so far and that genetic testing was underway to identify the rest. Many of the more than 100 people wounded in the attack were in critical condition.

Authorities have said they have the four main suspects in custody, but initially disclosed little about them other than that they are foreign citizens. The state news media has shown what it described as footage of an interrogation of a suspect who spoke in Tajik. And the Investigative Committee released video of suspects being led, blindfolded, into its headquarters Sunday.

Authorities have begun identifying the suspects as they appear in court. The first two suspects were identified as Dalerdzhon Mirzoyev and Saidakrami Rachabalizoda, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. Both have been charged with committing a terrorist act and face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

In a Russia shaken by the worst terrorist attack to hit it in more than two decades, it was not just Ukraine that was coming under scrutiny. Some commentators did criticize Russian security services for failing to prevent the tragedy, and there were open questions about whether Russia had adequately followed up on a warning from the United States about the threat of an attack.

Conspiracy theories abounded.

Hard-line anti-Kremlin activists, speaking from abroad, speculated that the Russian state could have orchestrated the attack so that it could blame Ukraine or further tighten the screws of repression inside the country.

Some lawmakers in parliament were arguing that the government needed to get tough on migrants. Lawmakers also pledged to discuss whether capital punishment should be introduced in Russia.

Alexei Venediktov, a Russian journalist and commentator and the former editor of the influential Ekho Moskvy radio station, said that “different political forces are starting to use” the attack. “The Kremlin, most of all,” he said in an interview broadcast on YouTube. “But others too, who say that it was all organized by the Kremlin.”

Some nationalist activists said that disorientation could have been the attackers’ ultimate goal.

Yegor Kholmogorov, a Russian nationalist commentator, wrote in his blog on the Telegram messaging app that Russian society was “strongly united by the war and President Vladimir V. Putin’s victory in the election” before the attack. Now, he lamented, Russia has turned into a “society that is split.”

As Russia mourned, the war in Ukraine continued.

Ukraine’s air force said it had shot down 43 of 57 Russian missiles and drones launched overnight against different parts of the country. And Ukraine’s military said it had struck two large landing ships that were part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. there was no immediate comment from Russia military officials.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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