Vladimir Putin’s Massive Confirmation Bias

What Russia’s response to a deadly terror attack in Moscow says about Putin’s regime.

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School

On March 22nd the Islamic State in Khorasan — known more colloquially as ISIS-K — launched a brutal terrorist attack on the Crocus City Hall theater near the outskirts of Moscow, killing at least 143 people

There are several reasons why observers can say with high confidence that ISIS-K was responsible for the attack:

  1. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack;
  2. ISIS-K released bodycam footage from the attackers;
  3. U.S. intelligence provided multiple warnings to Russian officials in the weeks prior to the attack — as did European governments. 

That all seems like pretty solid evidence! But as Vox’s Joshua Keating noted a few days after the attack, Russian authorities were reluctant to attribute the attack to ISIS-K. Instead, they insisted the terrorists were in cahoots with Ukraine, because… well, Russia has provided no real supporting evidence beyond the disputable claim that the terrorists were heading to Ukraine after the attack. Even after Putin finally acknowledged that radical Islamists were responsible, he still tried to connect the attack to Ukraine.1

The Financial Times’ Anastasia Stognei notes that official propaganda placing the onus on Ukraine was having the predicted effect on Russian public opinion: “polling carried out soon after the attack shows most Russians believe Kyiv was behind it…. More than 50 percent blamed the Ukrainian leadership and only 27 percent pointed to Isis, according to polling data by OpenMinds.”

Now, given the current state of Russian-American relations one could argue that Russian authorities would naturally discount any U.S. warnings. That makes this Reuters report by Parisa Hafezi super-awkward, however, because Russia’s friends were sending Moscow the very same warnings: 

Iran tipped off Russia about the possibility of a major “terrorist operation” on its soil ahead of the concert hall massacre near Moscow last month, three sources familiar with the matter said….

“Days before the attack in Russia, Tehran shared information with Moscow about a possible big terrorist attack inside Russia that was acquired during interrogations of those arrested in connection with deadly bombings in Iran,” one of the sources told Reuters.

Iran arrested 35 people in January, including a commander of Islamic State’s Afghanistan-based branch ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), who it said were linked to twin bombings on Jan. 3 in the city of Kerman that killed nearly 100 people….

A second source, who also requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the information Tehran provided to Moscow about an impending attack had lacked specific details regarding timing and the exact target.

“They (the members of ISIS-K) were instructed to prepare for a significant operation in Russia… One of the terrorists (arrested in Iran) said some members of the group had already travelled to Russia,” the second source said.

A third source, a senior security official, said: “As Iran has been a victim of terror attacks for years, Iranian authorities fulfilled their obligation to alert Moscow based on information acquired from those arrested terrorists.”

Asked about the Reuters report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday: “I do not know anything about this.”

This all raises an obvious question: if Russia was receiving so many warnings from different intelligence agencies that an attack was coming, why did the actual attack leave them flat-footed?

The New York Times’ Paul Sonne, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schwirtz offers up some reasonable answers: 

What made the security lapse seemingly even more notable was that in the days before the massacre Russia’s own security establishment had also acknowledged the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, called Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K….

The full picture is still unclear, and U.S. and European officials, as well as security and counterterrorism experts, emphasize that even in the best of circumstances, with highly specific information and well-oiled security services, disrupting covert international terror plots is difficult.

But they say the failure most likely resulted from a combination of factors, paramount among them the deep levels of distrust, both within the Russian security establishment and in its relations with other global intelligence agencies….

The number of Islamist-related organizations on the register of extremist organizations listed by Russian Federal Service for Financial Monitoring has declined since 2013. At the same time, hundreds of organizations have been added related to Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has its worldwide headquarters in the United States and is viewed with suspicion by the F.S.B.

Security experts said the expanding focus wasted resources and diverted the attention of senior leaders.

This echoes the Washington Post assessment by Catherine Belton and Robyn Dixon, which includes these additional nuggets:

The gruesome videos of the attackers with automatic weapons coldly killing innocent concertgoers and setting ablaze one of the Russian capital’s most popular entertainment venues smashed through Putin’s efforts to present Russia as strong, united and resilient.

The strike occurred just five days after his triumphant claim of a new six-year termin an election that was heavily controlled by the Kremlin and widely denounced abroad as failing to meet democratic standards….

A Russian academic with close ties to senior Moscow diplomats offered a similar assessment of Russia’s failure to prevent Friday night’s attack. “It’s clear that we will search for Ukrainian fingerprints and possibly those of Western security services,” the academic said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Putin’s regime often retaliates against critics. “But probably any investigation will find failures by our security services.” 

As the Wilson Center’s Ekaterina Kotrikadze blogged, these attacks and Russia’s peculiar response suggest two things. First, Russia remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Second, Putin cannot publicly acknowledge that threat because it makes him look weak despite his recent “re-election”:

Putin never admits mistakes—his own or his security agencies’. Failures, such as inability to avoid massive casualties from previous acts of terror, are consistently erased from the history of Putin’s presidency. Normally, Putin does not attend memorial events dedicated to the victims of terrorist attacks. Grieving and remembering his brutally murdered fellow citizens is not Putin’s style. We already know that the Crocus City Hall arena will be rebuilt. No plan for a memorial site has been discussed so far.  

Back in December 2017, Putin announced the final victory over ISIS. He now needs to explain the revival of the group. No official explanation is likely because the Kremlin’s priority in situations like this is to point out the culprit. Many politicians do attempt to shift responsibility to others in critical situations, but Putin has built a career on playing victim in the face of real emergencies or consequences of his own blunders.…

The Kremlin follows its old playbook. Putin’s political managers seek to offshore any terrorist attacks, to the point of the head of state not acknowledging the obvious and inventing “cues” that justify further repression against those whom the Kremlin labels as its enemies, not action against those who actually threaten Russian society. 

Moscow is already facing asymmetric threats from Ukraine and Ukrainian-backed militias inside Russia’s borders. What this terrorist attack highlights is how Russia is not only hampered in its counterterrorism practices, but that it lacks any self-correction mechanism to improve its intelligence gathering and analysis. Instead, the intelligence seems to follow wherever Vladimir Putin’s confirmation bias leads. 

1 As Keating notes, the Ukrainian response was to claim that the attack was a Russian “false flag” operation designed to justify a large-scale mobilization against Ukraine. To date there is no evidence for this conspiracy theory either.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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