Monday briefing: Why Vladimir Putin won’t link Islamic State to Moscow terror attack | Moscow concert hall attack

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Good morning. The terrorist attack at a concert venue near Moscow on Friday was the worst perpetrated in Russia for 20 years. Yesterday, the country observed a day of mourning, with thousands bringing flowers to the Crocus City Hall to remember the victims. One mourner told the Associated Press: “It is a tragedy that has affected our entire country.”

Around the world, politicians condemned the attack as an atrocity – and in that they agreed with Vladimir Putin, who called it “a bloody, barbaric terrorist act”. But that is the extent of any consensus over its significance, and what the consequences should be.

Four suspects were charged last night and pleaded guilty. They were officially identified as citizens of Tajikistan, where Islamic State has recruited heavily. But despite strong evidence supporting Islamic State’s claim of responsibility, Russian state media is airing unevidenced claims that Ukraine played a part – with Putin hinting at the same thing. With little discussion in Moscow of the apparent security failures that made the attack possible, there are fears that it will instead be used as a way to drum up support for Putin’s war.

Today’s newsletter explains what we know about who was responsible, and where this horrifying story could go next. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. NHS | Almost 9,000 foreign nurses a year are leaving the UK to work abroad, amid a sudden surge in nurses quitting the understaffed NHS. The vast majority are heading to the US, New Zealand or Australia, where nurses are paid up to almost double what they are in the UK.

  2. Cyber-attacks | The personal details of millions of voters are believed to have been accessed in an attack by China on the Electoral Commission, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden will say on Monday. Dowden is also expected to set out details of cyber-attacks on MPs and peers including members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

  3. Catherine, Princess of Wales | Speculation about the Princess of Wales’s health before she disclosed her cancer diagnosis was “the worst I’ve ever seen”, her former spokesperson has said. Paddy Harverson told the BBC the speculation was “an absolute doom loop” but that it would not have affected the timing of Kate’s announcement.

  4. Ireland | Simon Harris will become Ireland’s youngest prime minister after the leadership race in Fine Gael ended without any other candidates coming forward. Harris, who succeeds Leo Varadkar as taoiseach after his surprise resignation, told his party the job was “the absolute honour of my life” and said his priorities were law and order, making work pay, and supporting farmers.

  5. Protest | The former director of public prosecutions for England and Wales has warned against the risk of creating “thought crimes” amid the recent clampdown on protest. In an interview with the Guardian, Max Hill KC said it was imperative to protect free speech when setting limits on demonstrations.

In depth: ‘A catastrophic security failure’

People mourn and bring flowers at the Crocus City Hall concert venue. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA

The death toll from the attack on Crocus City Hall now stands at 137, with at least 154 more wounded and the building left in ruins. This piece from Saturday relates the horrific toll on civilians who were in the music venue, with Yulia Kharitonova, who was shot in the shoulder, telling the Astra Telegram channel: “A cheerful woman was selling tickets at the entrance, and when we ran away she was lying with these tickets with a bullet in her head. I still have this picture in front of my eyes.”

Central to what happens next will be the question of responsibility, and whether Vladimir Putin acknowledges the strong evidence that the attack was carried out by Islamic State – or uses it as a tool to heighten public hostility to Ukraine.


Who has claimed responsibility?

Soon after the attack took place, Islamic State’s news agency Amaq published a statement on Telegram in which the terrorist group claimed responsibility. US security officials and other analysts said that they believed the attack to have been the work of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.

The initial claim came without evidence. But later, Amaq released a photo said to be of the four attackers. Their clothing appeared to match that worn by the perpetrators. Further corroboration for the Islamic State claim came on Sunday, when Amaq released new videos of the attack filmed by the gunmen.

Dalerdjon Barotovich Mirzoyev, one of those charged with the attack on Crocus City Hall. Photograph: Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images

Russian news reports identified four detained suspects as citizens of Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan and where many people also hold Russian citizenship, the Associated Press reported. In interrogation videos circulated online – some of which appear to show the suspects being tortured, with one appearing to have his ear cut off – at least one of the men speaks Tajik. One of the men appeared in court with a badly swollen face (above); another had a bandaged ear.

In this piece published last night, Jason Burke notes recent western intelligence observing a major Islamic State recruitment drive in Tajikistan and other central Asian countries last year. A report put out last week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy tracking Islamic State activity noted that operatives from Tajikistan “have become key nodes in [ISKP’s] terrorist nexus” and were involved in six of 21 reported plots and attacks over the last year.


Who are ISKP?

Khorasan refers to a region covering parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this piece examining claims of ISKP’s responsibility and the group’s motives and modus operandi, Jason Burke explains that the term is used “by some local Islamic rulers and so explicitly rejects modern national frontiers while evoking what its members consider the lost glory and power of Muslim empires”.

ISKP was formed in 2015, and drew Taliban fighters and other militants in Pakistan attracted by Islamic State’s resources and extremist methods. The group was initially focused on local targets but has recently carried out attacks beyond Afghanistan, with US intelligence suggesting that it was responsible for a double bombing in Iran in January that killed almost 100 people.

ISKP has targeted Russia and Russian interests repeatedly in recent years, including in a suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul. Russia is viewed by ISKP and Islamic State more widely as “a crusading power against Muslims”, Kabir Taneja from the independent global thinktank the Observer Research Foundation told Al Jazeera.

That is partly because of a view that Muslims in Russia are oppressed by the government and the history of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the brutal wars against separatists in the Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s. Another factor is Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, when Russian military support helped Bashar al-Assad secure victory over the anti-government opposition and Islamic State.


What is Russia saying?

Russian state media has made almost no reference to Islamic State’s claims of responsibility; nor have they been mentioned by Putin. Instead, there has been a focus on claims that Ukraine was either responsible or ready to harbour the perpetrators.

Meduza, an independent Russian-language site based in Latvia, reported state media employees saying that there had been an order to emphasise “traces” of Ukrainian involvement. Putin himself stopped short of directly accusing Kyiv, but said that the suspects were arrested in the western Bryansk region “where, according to preliminary data, a window was prepared for them on the Ukrainian side to cross the border”.

There is no publicly available evidence for these claims, and they have been strongly denied by Kyiv and dismissed by the US. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said “Ukraine certainly has nothing to do with” the attacks. Ukraine also claimed on Friday that the attack was “a planned and deliberate provocation by Russian special services at the behest of Putin” as “another pretext for increasing aggression”. There is no evidence for that claim either, but independent analysts have noted that Moscow is already using the attack as a tool for bolstering its case for war.


Was the attack a security failure?

On 7 March, the US issued a public warning to its citizens in Russia that said “extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow”, including concerts. That warning was also shared with Russian authorities, the US said.

On Saturday, CNN reported sources saying the US was acting on a “a steady stream of intelligence” since November “that ISIS-K … was determined to attack Russia”. But Putin dismissed the warning as “provocative” and said that “these actions resemble outright blackmail and the intention to intimidate and destabilise our society”.

In this analysis piece, Shaun Walker, Pjotr Sauer and Andrew Roth set out signs of “a catastrophic security failure on the part of Russian authorities”. They note a slow police response to the attack and claims that the FSB, the federal security service, has been largely focused on domestic opposition and potential threats from Kyiv, with thousands of security officials sent to occupied Ukraine. Another factor they cite is a view that the threat from Islamist terrorism had subsided in recent years.

It is unlikely that these concerns will be aired in Russia in the coming days. Andrei Soldatov, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, argues in this piece that this is part of a deeply ingrained culture, instigated by Putin, of protecting the security agencies at all costs and ensuring the FSB is “completely immune to any criticism”.

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The FSB is expert at “killing and torture” and “investigating attacks after the event”, he writes. “But these are not the qualities that help to prevent attacks happening, and time and again, the FSB has failed.”

What else we’ve been reading

Fit forever – Can I live to 100? Composite: Guardian Design – Alicia Canter
  • Phil Daoust (above) is 60, and he wants to live to 100. Come to this feature for the entertaining pictures of him drinking on a beach and eating a bacon-filled doughnut in his less-healthy past, stay for his thoughtful reflections on what fitness means as we age. Archie

  • For this week’s How We Survive, Annie Kelly interviewed Antonio Salazar-Hobson, a trailblazing labour lawyer whose childhood was upended when he was kidnapped and sex trafficked at the age of four. Though Salazar-Hobson endured horrors that are almost impossible to comprehend, he spoke to Kelly about how he built a life for himself based on compassion and justice. Nimo

  • In February temperatures soared to 50C in some parts of west Africa, a troubling sign for the times ahead. Damian Carrington finds out how people are able to survive in this unexpected blistering heat. Nimo

  • Nesrine Malik’s column about the risk that normalisation and fatigue will mean that horror at the war in Gaza will fade is a perceptive, distressing account of how “perpetrators and abettors count on” exactly that. But, she adds, there are reasons to think that public scrutiny will persist against the odds. Archie

  • Eva Wiseman spoke with Gillian Anderson ahead of her new Netflix series Scoop, where she portrays journalist Emily Maitlis and how she secured that now infamous interview with Prince Andrew. The pair discuss her portrayals of famous women and where the various pivots in her career have landed her. Nimo

Sport

Chelsea players celebrate during their match against West Ham. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Chelsea FC/Getty Images

Women’s Super League | Chelsea (above) punished a resilient West Ham for their profligacy in the final third to take a 2-0 win and return to the top of the league. In other fixtures, Arsenal beat Aston Villa 3-1, Tottenham beat Bristol City 1-0, Brighton beat Leicester 3-2, and the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool finished in a dull 0-0 draw.

Formula One | Lewis Hamilton described the worst Formula One season start of his career as tough on the spirit after he and Mercedes endured a dismal weekend at the Australian Grand Prix. Hamilton was forced to retire – as was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, handing Carlos Sainz and Ferrari victory and denying the world champion his tenth straight win.

Rugby union | The Rugby Football Union says there will be a review after a possible case of foul play was ignored by match officials on the grounds that TV pundit Austin Healey had spotted it first. The television match official at Saturday’s Saracens v Harlequins game said “the problem I have got now is that it looks like Austin has instigated it” as he declined to review the incident.

The front pages

“Suspects appear in court accused of Moscow attack that left 137 dead” is the Guardian’s print lead this morning. “China and Russia ‘behind slurs on Princess’” is the top story in the Daily Telegraph. “Royals ‘will come back stronger’” says the Daily Mail, while the Daily Express throws forward to what it says will be “King’s Easter message of unity and hope to nation”. “Russell Group gets most of its fees from overseas” – that’s the Times on the self-selected grouping of UK universities. The Financial Times has “US and Japan plan security pact upgrade to resist China”. “£14 billion United Kind-dom” – that’s the Metro on Britons’ charitable giving. “Pubs call time at 8am” – the Daily Mirror says costs are too high and patronage too low for landlords to do otherwise. The i has “UK’s nuclear defence boost to protect against Putin”.

Today in Focus

Photograph: Tim Knox

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Vice Media is laying off hundreds of workers and no longer publishing journalism on its website. Sirin Kale and Sam Wolfson discuss their time at the company

Cartoon of the day | Ella Baron

Illustration: Ella Baron/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Trees along Edgar’s Creek, which was once a wasteland of weeds. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

The climate crisis can seem insurmountably big to face as an individual. What can I do about a problem that is existential to all of humanity? Stephen Northey, an environmental advocate in Melbourne, decided to start small. Northey is one of many Australians who are taking part in tree planting and urban revegetation initiatives. Not only has planting trees allowed him foster a much-needed connection with his local area, it has also significantly restored degraded ecosystems. Along the Edgar’s Creek corridor indigenous bushland and a wetland habitat was successfully reintroduced over industrial wasteland, preventing the area from being sold to developers after a concerted community campaign.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.

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