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Malcolm Nance: 'Always Listen To A Terrorist Group And Believe Them When They Confess'

In this image grab taken from video footage, armed gunmen move past bodies of victims toward the doors of the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, on March 22. At least 140 people were killed in the attack.
In this image grab taken from video footage, armed gunmen move past bodies of victims toward the doors of the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, on March 22. At least 140 people were killed in the attack.

Malcolm Nance is an expert in terrorism, extremism, and insurgency and a best-selling author of several books, including Defeating ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Believe. He previously served in the U.S. Navy as a naval cryptologist, participating in antiterrorism and intelligence operations.

In April 2022, two months after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Nance joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, a unit made up of foreign volunteers.

Malcolm Nance
Malcolm Nance

In the interview, Nance discusses the Kremlin's response to the March 22 attack on the Crocus City Hall that has been claimed by the Islamic State (IS) designated terrorist group and has killed at least 143 people and wounded more than 120. Nance pours water on Russia's claims of Ukrainian involvement and says the Kremlin doesn't care whether it's telling the truth or not.

RFE/RL: Let's start with your verdict over what happened in Moscow, the terror in the Crocus City Hall, as there is still so much confusion around it. Many people at first were claiming it was a false-flag attack. Then IS claimed responsibility. And it was all crowned by Russian President Vladimir Putin coming out and blaming Ukraine.

Malcolm Nance: I wrote a New York Times bestseller called Defeating ISIS. It was an encyclopedia of every [IS] province and terror cell at the time between 2014 and 2017. There is an [IS] element that carries out terrorist operations in Russia. It was depleted over time -- that was the Islamic State-Caucasus Province. And its roles and missions were taken over by Islamic State-Khorasan Province.

That's the [IS] element that is now acting as the skeletal headquarters out of eastern Afghanistan in the Asadabad area. They carry out terrorist attacks against the Afghans, they carry out terrorist attacks against Iran, and they've carried out terrorist attacks against Russia. They view that any place that has a Muslim diaspora, such as Russia, and which carries out activities against Muslims [is a legitimate target for] Islamic State.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

Always listen to a terrorist group and believe them when they confess -- that's the first thing. Islamic State not only put out an official message from [its official] agency, it showed live-streamed video from the actual terrorists in the attack. A lot of people want to use what they seemingly think are intelligent phrases like false-flag attack. Russia didn't have to do this to themselves; the Islamic State terrorist group is more than capable of it.

But there is a factor which could show some Russian culpability. This is where Russia gained a lot of intelligence from the United States -- which we got upstream, which means somewhere near the headquarters of Islamic State -- [indicating] that there would be an attack somewhere in an open venue sometime in March. What the United States didn't have [was] the specific intelligence that only the terrorists' team leader would know: Who was in the group, how many weapons, what's the exact venue. The Russians were warned of this attack.

But one of the things that intelligence agencies, [and] the former KGB director that runs Russia, could do is what we call a pass-through attack, where they gain the information, they know when the attack is coming. [And] they let the attack happen for political or domestic purposes. I'm not saying that's what happened here. I'm giving Islamic State the credit that they are due, because they are a murderous terrorist group.

RFE/RL: It's ironic that, perhaps for the first time in its existence, Islamic State is trying to convince the world that it was them that was behind the attack.

Nance: It's telling of the information environment that we're living in now: that a horrible, brutal dictatorship run by Vladimir Putin can use its information agencies and the soft power of disinformation through social media weapons systems like Twitter and Telegram to actually hijack the message of a very well-established mass-murdering terrorist group.

[They can] literally turn it on its head to where there are people right now -- I fight with them every day -- who refuse to believe that [IS] would carry out a terrorist attack in Russia, that it must be the United States, it must be Ukraine. That is how the information environment that we live in today has been so corrupted.

RFE/RL: Having failed to prevent the attack, that wouldn't stop Putin from exploiting it now, right? So what are some of the key areas where the Kremlin will try to capitalize on it and use it for its own purposes?

Nance: The first thing they'll want to do is to harness the outrage of the Russian people. This is a pain-and-suffering situation where real people have died…. There are going to be families that are grieving, there will be funerals, there will be outrage.

In a dictatorial police state, which is what Russia is, you can harness that outrage, you can harness that grief, you can broadcast it on a very, very wide scale using national TV channels, which essentially are run by the Kremlin. You can try to use that to stoke outrage to get the next mobilization, the 100,000 men, the multiple new divisions that Russia is calling for, to essentially harness a little bit of whatever patriotic feeling they have, to essentially get the people who would have been reluctant to want to help Mother Russia, to actually want to stand up and take part and attack an enemy that has nothing to do with it.

RFE/RL: What would be the reaction from the government in a Western country as opposed to what we're seeing in Russia?

A Western country would have immediately tried to contain the situation. They would have handled the law enforcement aspects of this within laws, without abuse, without [allegedly] cutting off a prisoner's ear…. You can see [on the attack suspects] obvious, clear, open signs of torture.

Shaun Pinner (a former British soldier who joined the Ukrainian military in 2018 and has fought against Russian forces), himself a prisoner of war, said that they use plastic bags over the head as torture as a routine way of handling you, and the prisoner was brought [into court] with the actual plastic bag over his head.

Western nations don't do this…for the most part. We've seen abuses in the past, of course, you know, the French in Algeria, the United States in Iraq, Vietnam. But as we develop, we work within those laws and we want to actually prosecute these individuals. In Russia, they're using an exploitation routine in which they show the brutality, because their own citizenry wants to see that brutality in response to this attack.

RFE/RL: There is also a question of taking responsibility at a domestic level, right? Would it be fair to assume, if this had happened in any Western country, at least the head of the security service would have resigned by now and quite possibly the president or the prime minister of the country. With that in mind, will Putin be in any way blamed for the attack in Russia?

Nance: No, not at all. No one will blame them for it. And [from] the swift way that they caught [the suspected attackers] -- if these four Tajiks are the actual perpetrators; they look like it, they match the videos, they match the language -- this is going to be a trial and a summary execution and Vladimir Putin is going to want to exploit this as much as possible.

RFE/RL: Regarding blaming Ukraine for the attack. Do the Russian claims hold water? Putin himself claimed these attackers were moving toward the Ukrainian border, which would mean hiking through the most densely mined forest in the world. How watertight is the Russian claim?

Nance: It's a colander, right? It's more than Swiss cheese. It's literally a spaghetti strainer and [water] just flows out of it.

There are different types of cover stories that an intelligence agency can give, or a leader like Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB officer, can give. They can try to create one which is opaque as possible, which [plays on] the nebulousness of the way terrorist groups act. Or the way Russia is doing it now, which is what we call a Saran wrap. It is completely clear. They wrap it around [everything], [and] they don't care that you can actually see the falseness of the story.

RFE/RL: You mentioned that the apprehended suspects were tortured and we've seen some footage suggesting that might be the case. When you're tortured like that, surely you will say anything that they want you to say? You will say that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself came to you and knocked on your door in Tajikistan and [asked] you to do this.

Nance: The first signs that I thought I saw of torture was not [the signs of beatings] we could obviously see when these guys were captured. It was the immediate confession, in which they said the reason they carried out this attack was for money, like 5 million rubles ($54,062), some ridiculously small amount.

If there's anything that my decades of working against Islamic terrorists have taught me, it is that they don't do any of this for money. They do this for the love of God; they do this to punish you. They literally were saying this during the attack: We are here killing the [infidels].

What that showed me is that they had already been guided into what they were going to be saying. Then we started seeing the physical signs of torture.

I taught an entire school, I ran a school, on how to survive a hostage [situation] and terrorist captivity. The first thing we teach you is that when you are tortured, you will open your mouth, you will say something. We teach our people what to say, right?

What happens with someone who is not prepared for this is that every person reaches a breaking point. As you said, you will say that Volodymyr Zelenskiy dispatched Mickey Mouse with an envelope of 5 million rubles to your home. You will say any ridiculous thing that is put in your mouth for the sake of stopping the torture.

RFE/RL: You say they never do it for money. They also don't usually let themselves be captured. So why did these four suspects?

Nance: This is another very, very strange component of this. This is why people start leaning into conspiracy theories.

With Islamic State, there is no exit on a terrorist operation. A key part of it is not surviving so that you reach martyrdom. Martyrdom is the goal of many of these missions. You don't want to die a martyr until you brought many of the infidels' deaths and have improved the world for the advancement of Islam, or Al-Qaeda and [IS's] corrupt cult-like variant of Islam.

I was quite surprised that they had an escape plan, got back into the same van [with] Belarusian plates, and started driving back in the direction of Belarus. A good terrorist commander who wants to sustain a campaign will do what we call, withdraw, rearm, restrike. So go back to the safe house, go back to the van, get more ammunition, go to a second venue -- but the goal is to reach God.

RFE/RL: They obviously have not reached that goal.

Nance: No, and this is where you start to wonder. I'm telling you as a professional with over some 30-odd years of intelligence activities and background. It's quite possible that it was a real Islamic State mission with real Islamic State handling. But it's not implausible that it was allowed to pass through and be carried out but was actually handled by an officer of a foreign intelligence agency like [Russia's Federal Security Service], where they corrupted their orders.

Your orders would have been go in, kill, go die, you know, in holy jihad, in holy martyrdom, and maybe your intermediate handler was working for another state agency and said: Withdraw and start driving away to Belarus so we can capture you. It's Byzantine.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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