vladimir putin caricature flickr cc
According to the BBC gunmen opened fire at a world heritage site in the mostly Muslim North Caucasus region. At least one person was killed and eleven more wounded. A message was issued by ISIS claiming responsibility for the attack and saying they had targeted Russian intelligence officers. And, it is reported that the person killed was either a border patrol guard or an FSB (formerly known as KGB) agent.

In October, a Russian civil airliner was brought down over the Sinai by a bomb. The Russians denied any hostile attack on the plane for some time. Eventually they did admit the cause and unleashed a very telegenic series of bombing runs on ISIS targets in Syria.

This attack in interesting from two perspectives.

How much more will Vladimir Putin take?

It will be interesting to see how Putin reacts to this provocation. For all intents and purposes, Putin is allied with ISIS. ISIS and Assad essentially have a truce and there is trade between the areas controlled by those two sides. Putin’s only reason to be in Syria is to prop up a long time client state and to be seen doing so. Russian airstrikes, like ISIS attacks, are nearly exclusively targeted on the US supported rebels who want to overthrow Assad. Putin has no interest in unleashing a significant attack on ISIS, and thereby expand Russia’s highly visible but relatively small presence in Syria. On the other hand, he can’t very well let an attack go unanswered.

Has ISIS changed its strategy?

For its part, the ISIS downing of the Russian airliner seemed to indicate that ISIS would like nothing better than to provoke a significant Russian attack and use that attack to renew the radical Islam that has kept the Russian Caucasus region in a turmoil since the early 1990s.

This is a departure from what we’ve come to expect of ISIS. The target was a UNESCO world heritage site. It had tourists and it wasn’t heavily defended. Ordinarily, we would have expected ISIS to attack tourists and rack up a body count that would gain headlines. And, in this case, it would have been a stick in Putin’s eye: an attack on foreigners on his turf. But they didn’t. If reports are accurate they targeted Russian security forces. So what was their objective? Are they signaling that they will attack targets in Russia but limit those attacks to military targets? Or did it have nothing at all to do with ISIS and they are simply taking credit?

Nothing to date suggests ISIS is changing its style from random terror, like Paris and San Bernardino, to tactical hits. The training level is not there. The command and control system to enforce that kind of discipline doesn’t exist. To think that this attack was directed by ISIS would mean that they are acting like a nation-state and observing rules of conduct not previously adhered to. This, to me, seems very unlikely.