Amid the frenzy of speculation about the Chechen roots of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, I was reminded of a meeting Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, and I had with Vladimir Putin two years before 9/11 in New Zealand.
Putin’s chief of staff, Igor Sechin, and I were milling around waiting for the meeting to start. My pager buzzed with a message from the White House Situation Room about a bombing at an apartment building in suburban Moscow that had killed more than 100 people. I relayed the shocking news to Sechin and expressed my condolences. He ran off to find Putin, who was then Russia’s prime minister. The four of us sat down about 20 minutes later. Berger’s first comment was to stress the emerging threat al Qaeda and similar groups posed both to the United States and Russia. The U.S., Berger continued, was open to doing everything possible with the Russians to target Osama bin Laden and his network. Putin said he was game.
Intervening events made it hard to follow up. Blaming Chechen rebels for the bombings, Russian troops invaded Chechnya just days later, and U.S.-Russian relations quickly went downhill. Western governments condemned Moscow’s scorched-earth tactics and human rights abuses but had little or no leverage over its behavior. Shortly after the Auckland meeting Putin famously declared, “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere. Forgive me, but if we find them in the toilet, we will rub them out in the outhouse.” Putin’s take-no-prisoners attitude helped propel him into the Kremlin by year’s end. (Unanswered questions and conspiracy theories about the apartment bombings persist to this day.)
Without much success, the Russian government tried to justify its actions in Chechnya as part of a crackdown on global terrorism. I recall participating in one particularly dismal meeting during this period between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the director of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Nikolai Patrushev, who presented a dossier of “evidence” outlining the connections between the Chechen rebels and international terrorist groups. Then as now, most outsiders were inclined to portray the Chechen conflict as part of a grudge match between Moscow and a restive and largely Muslim region in the North Caucasus that stretched back to the 19th century.
Still, as is sometimes the case in such situations, there actually was a grain of truth underlying the Russian allegations. While the facts were quite hazy at the time, the global jihadist movement was funneling limited quantities of funding, men, and materiel to the Chechen separatists. After 9/11 The Wall Street Journal reported that the current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been arrested in neighboring Dagestan and held by the FSB for six months in 1997 during a failed trip to Chechnya. (Al-Zawahiri eventually made his way to Afghanistan, where he forged an alliance with bin Laden.) Among the military commanders on the Chechen side were a handful of figures with connections to the international jihadist movement. These included a flamboyant veteran of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan named Ibn al-Khattab. A bearded man of Jordanian or Saudi origin, Khattab was a pre-Internet publicity hound who led a small brigade of international volunteers during both Chechen wars. His prominence was cemented by an appearance in a video of a tank ambush that killed hundreds of Russian soldiers in 1996.
U.S.-Russian cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda’s inroads into the North Caucasus and beyond during the pre-9/11 period never really got off the ground. The two countries shared threat information and held working group meetings, but these efforts were largely routine and unexceptional. Other considerations made the situation even more complicated. As is now widely known thanks to the 9/11 Commission report, the Clinton administration secretly authorized CIA-led efforts throughout 1999 and 2000 against bin Laden and al Qaeda’s network, and enlisted support from the Northern Alliance in the fight against the Taliban. These programs were held extremely tightly inside the U.S. government at the time, placing unavoidable constraints on U.S.-Russian cooperation.
All of this was briefly turned on its head by the full-throated offer of Russian cooperation that Putin conveyed immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Putin’s offer came with one major condition—an end to constant U.S. criticism about Russia’s behavior in the North Caucasus. The Bush 43 administration quibbled for a moment or two but quickly seized on Putin’s acquiescence in the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia.
At that point, the floodgates of U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation opened, but only for a short time. The U.S. stepped up work to cut outside financial flows to the Chechen separatists, and the two governments worked on countering the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. When suspected Chechen terrorists launched deadly attacks on crowded subway stations, airports, civilian airliners, or high-speed trains in Russia, U.S. public condemnations carefully drew parallels to our own struggle against terrorism. On occasion, when the Russians acted with particular brutality or incompetence—as was the case in botched rescue attempts at a besieged theater in Moscow in October 2002 and an elementary school in Beslan in September 2004—U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, tried to put things in in the most positive light.
Unfortunately, since 9/11, the ups and downs in U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation have mirrored the unsteady relationship between the two countries. Until the attack in Boston, the dizzying array of seemingly insoluble, overlapping conflicts in the North Caucasus has not been a major concern for Western policymakers. With only limited U.S. interests at stake, dialogue with the Russians on the situation has basically boiled down to: “We know that you have a real mess on your hands, but what we really don’t like are your tactics.” The Russian response has been just as predictable: “Butt out.”
Based on what little we know at this point, it is impossible to say exactly what motivated the Tsarnaev brothers or whether stepped-up U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation might have helped thwart the Boston attack. We do know that the FBI investigated and questioned one of the bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, at the request of a foreign government, reportedly Russia, which was worried about his radicalization and ties to “unspecified underground groups.” To their credit, U.S. and Russian intelligence professionals appear to have been sharing information and doing their jobs faithfully. But intelligence and law enforcement officials in both countries now need to account for what they knew about Tamerlan and when they knew it.
At the same time, it will be much harder for the Obama administration and other Western governments to ignore the corrosive forces of violence and radicalism that are chipping away at Russia’s hold on the North Caucasus. With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics less than a year away, the spotlight on this region is bound to intensify. Washington and Moscow must recognize that the status quo in bilateral counterterrorism activities no longer serves either side.
Still, efforts to cooperate narrowly around one target or region are bound to fail. As we have seen repeatedly, they may get swept aside by broader political shifts. Such limited, focused efforts also ignore the way loose networks or individuals united by violence, kinship networks, and religious beliefs in regional hot spots may never stay in a single channel. U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation shouldn’t either.