U.S. Told Russia That Crocus City Hall Was Possible Target of Attack

REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
A view shows the burnt-out Crocus City Hall following a deadly attack on the concert venue outside Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2024.

More than two weeks before terrorists staged a bloody attack in the suburbs of Moscow, the U.S. government told Russian officials that Crocus City Hall, a popular concert venue, was a potential target, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The high degree of specificity conveyed in the warning underscores Washington’s confidence that the Islamic State was preparing an attack that threatened large numbers of civilians, and it directly contradicts Moscow’s claims that the U.S. warnings were too general to help preempt the assault.

The U.S. identification of the Crocus concert hall as a potential target – a fact that has not been previously reported – raises new questions about why Russian authorities failed to take stronger measures to protect the venue, where gunmen killed more than 140 people and set fire to the building. A branch of the Islamic State has taken credit for the attack, the deadliest in Russia in 20 years. U.S. officials have publicly said the group, known as Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, “bears sole responsibility,” but Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to pin the blame on Ukraine.

The attack has further dented the image of strength and security that the Russian leader seeks to convey and exposed fundamental weaknesses in the nation’s security apparatus, which has been consumed by more than two years of war in Ukraine. Domestically, Putin’s operatives appear more concerned with silencing political dissent and opposition to the president than rooting out terrorist plots, according to analysts and observers of Russian politics.

The Russian leader himself publicly dismissed U.S. warnings just three days before the March 22 attack, calling them “outright blackmail” and attempts to “intimidate and destabilize our society.”

The U.S. officials familiar with the information that Washington shared with Moscow spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations and intelligence. A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment for this story. Previously, the NSC has acknowledged that the United States conveyed information “about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow” but did not say that Crocus City Hall was named as a possible target.

A Kremlin spokesperson did not respond to questions from The Washington Post about the Crocus City Hall warning. But on Tuesday, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, told reporters in Moscow that the information the United States shared was “too general and did not allow us to fully identify those who committed this terrible crime,” according to the state-run Interfax news agency.

Naryshkin said that in response to the U.S. intelligence, Russia “took appropriate measures to prevent” an attack. But video from the scene of the slaughter shows the gunmen facing no significant resistance. Russian media have reported that specialized police units did not arrive until more than an hour after the shooting started, and then waited more than 30 minutes before entering the building, at which point the assailants had already escaped.

While Washington routinely shares information about possible terrorist attacks with foreign countries, under a policy known as the “duty to warn,” it is unusual to give information about specific targets to an adversary, officials and experts said. Doing so risks revealing how the United States obtained the intelligence, potentially putting clandestine surveillance activities or human sources at risk.

But the information that pointed to an attack on the concert hall also pointed at a potential danger for Americans in Russia. On March 7, the U.S. Embassy publicly announced that it was “monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, to include concerts,” and advised U.S. citizens “to avoid large gatherings over the next 48 hours.”

The United States shared its information with Russia the day before that public warning, according to people familiar with the matter. Naryshkin said “U.S. intelligence agencies” gave the information to the FSB, Russia’s state security service.

Under the duty to warn policy, the United States has also recently shared terrorism information with another adversary – Iran. In January, U.S. officials warned that the Islamic State was planning to carry out attacks in the country, according to U.S. officials, who said the intelligence was specific enough that it might have helped Iranian authorities disrupt twin suicide bombings that killed at least 95 people in the city of Kerman. The Islamic State, which views Iran’s majority Shiite Muslim population as apostates, attacked a gathering of thousands of mourners as they commemorated the fourth anniversary of the death of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in 2020.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the U.S. warning to Iran.

Despite the lack of effective security at Crocus City Hall, there are indications that the Russian government, at least initially, took seriously Washington’s warning – which included information about Islamic State plans to attack a synagogue, according to one U.S. official. The day after Moscow received that information, the FSB announced that it had prevented an Islamic State attack on a synagogue in Moscow.

Islam Khalilov, 15, who said he was working in the concert hall’s coat check on the night of the attack, said that Crocus staff had been told about the possibility of a terrorist attack, not long after the March 7 public warning. “[W]e were warned there could be terrorist attacks and we were instructed in what to do and where to take people,” Khalilov said in an interview with Dmitry Yegorov, a well-known Russian sports journalist, that was posted on YouTube. Khalilov said there had been stricter security checks at the venue, including with trained dogs.

Why security wasn’t increased and sustained after the initial warning remains unclear. It’s possible that Russian security services, seeing no attack materialize in the days soon after March 7, assumed the U.S. information was incorrect and let their guard down, some of the U.S. officials speculated.

Putin publicly ridiculed terrorism warnings from what he deemed “a number of official Western structures” during a meeting with top FSB officials on March 19. “You are well aware of them, so I will not go into details at this point,” Putin said, according to an official Kremlin transcript.

Putin emphasized that the FSB’s most important job was in Ukraine, as part of what he euphemistically called Russia’s “special military operation.” Putin equated Ukrainian forces with terrorists and suggested that they posed a direct threat to Russia. “The neo-Nazi Kyiv regime has also switched to terrorist tactics,” Putin said, including “attempts to recruit perpetrators of subversive and terrorist attacks targeting critical infrastructure and public spaces in Russia.”

After Russian authorities apprehended suspects in the Crocus City Hall attack, Putin and other senior leaders claimed that Kyiv had hired the operatives and made plans for them to escape to Ukraine, allegations that U.S. and Ukrainian officials have rejected.

Russia has gratefully accepted assistance from the United States in the past. Twice during the administration of President Donald Trump, Putin thanked the Americans for sharing information that helped disrupt terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg, in 2017 and 2019.