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Amy Knight’s new book, The Kremlin’s Noose: Putin’s Bitter Feud With The Oligarch Who Made Him Ruler of Russia, will appear next month.

The Kremlin had plenty of advance warning that the March 22 terrorist attack at the Crocus City Hall concert venue, which left more than 140 dead, would occur. Several days earlier, Russia’s Security Council was reportedly told of a threat from the Islamic terrorist group ISIS-K, whose activities Russian intelligence agencies had been closely monitoring. On March 6, American intelligence warned Russian officials privately about ISIS-K, which later claimed responsibility for the assault. And the next day, the U.S. embassy issued a warning about an “imminent” attack in Moscow, specifically mentioning concerts.

Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin dismiss the American warning as “outright blackmail,” instead of enlisting his security services to prevent the attack? Some attribute the failure to Russia’s deep distrust of its Western counterparts; others say that preoccupation with the Ukraine conflict and its crackdown on domestic freedoms distracted the security services.

Another possible explanation is that Mr. Putin saw an opportunity to implicate Ukraine and its Western enemies in terrorism by accusing them of complicity with radical Islamists in the attack. Despite his landslide victory in the presidential election, Mr. Putin knows that he could lose the support of his war-weary public if the Russian military fails to achieve further success in Ukraine. What better way to persuade his people to back the war unconditionally than to convince them that they are fighting real terrorists – and at the same time, raising further doubts in the U.S. about providing military aid to Ukraine?

If this was a false flag operation by the Kremlin, the horrific September, 1999, apartment bombings in Russia, which many attribute to the Federal Security Service (FSB), was a precedent. During the summer of 1999, several respected journalists reported that an act of terrorism in Moscow was imminent, and in late August, a bomb exploded at a Moscow shopping centre, injuring dozens. Yet the FSB announced that heightened security measures were not necessary. A week later a bomb exploded in a Moscow apartment building, killing 100 people and injuring more than 600. Two more such attacks occurred within days. Mr. Putin, then the newly appointed prime minister, blamed Chechen rebels and used the attacks to gain public support for the brutal war in Chechnya. His approval ratings soared.

The circumstances surrounding the March 22 attack suggest that the FSB may have enabled the terrorists. At 6:54 p.m. four men drove up to the concert hall in a white Renault filed with firearms and waited there for more than an hour. No one questioned their presence, although a video posted on Telegram showed they were parked in front of a police van. At 7:58 p.m. they left the car and started firing at people on the street, after which they entered the concert hall, shooting everyone in sight. They then doused the premises with gasoline and set it on fire. By 8:11 p.m., they were racing to their car.

How did these four migrants from Tajikistan, at least one of whom was unemployed, manage to inflict such carnage in just 13 minutes? One of the accused men said he was recruited by the anonymous mastermind on Telegram for 500,000 rubles ($7,329). But it is unlikely that ISIS would use Telegram because it is too risky. Also, ISIS typically recruits Islamic religious fanatics; these men, according to their relatives, were not practising Muslims.

And why did the terrorists encounter no resistance? There were no armed security personnel at the event, attended by more than 4,000 people. And the Special Rapid Reaction Squad of the National Guard, located just three kilometres from the venue, inexplicably took almost an hour to arrive on the scene. As for the regular police – whose headquarters are in the building next to Crocus City Hall and who regularly patrol the area – they were nowhere to be seen.

As evidence of Ukrainian involvement, Mr. Putin claimed that the attackers were arrested near the Ukrainian border, where they were to gain entry into Ukraine. (Russian authorities made no attempt to seize the men earlier, although their Renault was caught speeding on traffic cameras several times.) But Mr. Putin’s claim was contradicted by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who told journalists that the terrorists first drove to his country’s border, and after they were rejected, they “turned around and went to the Russian-Ukrainian border.”

Russian authorities have announced that the accused men will be tried in secret, as was the case with the defendants in the 1999 bombings. The facts surrounding this terrorist incident may never be known. But the Kremlin’s narrative has so many holes that even gullible Russians might begin to question it.

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