Warning: Readers are advised that this report includes graphic photographs and video.

The Islamic State took credit for a deadly attack on Christians worshiping in an Orthodox church in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim region located between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. While the authenticity of the statement posted on a website associated with ISIS cannot be ascertained, it is frequently utilized by the Muslim terrorist group to post its statements. The notice on the website claimed that an ISIS operative had carried out an attack on a “Christian temple.”

On Monday, Russian authorities said that they are looking into all leads in order to determine the motivations of the attack that took the lives of five women. According to a TASS news report, Russian Investigative Committee spokesperson Svetlana Petrenko said, "Investigators are looking at various theories of the incident, trying to find out the attacker’s motives."

The presumed murderer has been identified as Khalil Khalilov, 22. Khalilov was shot dead by local police. His wife is being held for questioning. Russian government spokesperson Petrenko said that terrorism is among the motivations her agency is investigating. Khalilov was known by his nom de guerre Khalil al-Dagestani, who ISIS proclaimed as one of its “zealous soldiers of Islam.”

Khalilov is believed to have unleashed fire on Sunday from what appeared to be a hunting rifle or shotgun while worshippers were leaving the Church of Georgi Pobedonostsa in Kizlyar, Dagestan. Orthodox Christians are marking the beginning of Lent in Russia, which is known as Maslenitsa. Surveillance video posted by Russian REN-TV television station showed Khalilov walking on the streets of Kizlyar with a gun in his hands. with the gun along main streets of the city.

At the scene of the crime, four women were killed outright. A fifth woman died of her injuries in hospital. Four others, including police and National Guard officers, were wounded according to TASS. "The victims remain in the same condition, two women are seriously injured, and they are in intensive care," Dr. Kazanfar Kurbanov of the Dagestani emergency medicine center, according to TASS. All of the victims suffered gunshot wounds, while one of the wounded women has had an arm amputated. 

According to eyewitnesses, Khalilov started firing when worshippers closed the church doors to prevent him from entering. Father Pavel Kalikin, the pastor at the church, told Russian television, “There were 50 or 60 people inside the church, including children and pregnant women.”

Poverty-stricken Dagestan is where Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two Boston Marathon bombers, visited in January 2012 before the deadly attack in Massachusetts. Russian authorities had him under surveillance at the time. The unstable region has suffered a spill-over of Islamist violence that originated in the two Muslim jihads in neighboring Chechnya. It has proved to be a recruiting ground for Muslim extremism: ISIS established an affiliate there in 2015 and has claimed responsibility for violent attacks. 

According to the U.S.-based Soufan Group, about 3,417 combatants from Russia had joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with the majority of recruits coming from the North Caucasus region.

On Monday, spokesman Dmitri Peskov said for the Kremlin that Russia is investigating any possible links between the attack at the church in Kizlyar and extremist organizations in Dagestan. “It is true that a number of such organisations, including those with connections to international terrorism, are pushing ahead with their destructive activity,” Peskov told Tass. “As you know our law enforcement agencies have been working vigorously to quash them.”

In statement following the attack, authorities of the Russian Christian Orthodox Church denounced the attack in Kizlyar as a “monstrous crime” that was a “provocation designed to stoke religious tensions between Orthodox Christians and Muslims” in Dagestan.

On December 16, Russian national guard units using armored vehicles and heavy weapons after negotiations with three Muslim terrorists proved to be fruitless. Special forces moved in on the terrorists early in the morning in the town of Gubden, Dagestan, killing three.

Tourist visa to terrorist

Anzor Tsarnaev arrived in 2002 on a tourist visa in the United States, bringing his sons Tamerlan,and Dzhokhar who were 15 and 8 years old, respectively, at the time. In time, the Tsarnaev family obtained asylum in the country. Dzhokhar became an American citizen. In 2013, the two younger Tsarnaevs unleashed to homemade bombs during the annual Boston Marathon that killed three persons outright and injured dozens of others. The also shot to death a MIT police officer and then had a shootout in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts, where they severely wounded to officers. One of them died of his injuries a year later. Tamerlan died during a shootout and Dzhokhar has been sentenced to death. Their parents have returned to Dagestan.



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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