Russia's Double Game with Islamic Terror
It is an article of faith among the many critics of the current Russian government that, however unpleasant Vladimir Putin may be, he is still a necessary partner in one crucial field of U.S. foreign policy: cooperation in the war on Islamic terrorism.
Proof, if it were needed, for how valued this cooperation is among U.S. policymakers came in the conspicuous absence of Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, from sanctions levied by the Treasury Department against Russian officials. The sanctions targeted bureaucrats involved in both the invasion and occupation of Crimea and the unacknowledged maskirovka war that Moscow is still waging in eastern Ukraine—a war that has drawn amply on the resources of the FSB and has included several “former” FSB officers on the battlefield. Not only was Bortnikov not sanctioned, he was invited by the White House last February as a guest to President Obama’s three-day conference on “countering violent extremism,” whereas the current FBI director, James Comey, was not.
That conference was held principally because of the international threat posed by ISIS and the coalition war against it in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the Chechen identity of the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings. Bortnikov’s presence was a mutual recognition by the U.S. and Russia that fighting jihadism is a shared challenge between two countries now embroiled in a pitched standoff over the fate of Europe and much else.
Yet a recent investigation conducted by Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent newspapers left in Russia, complicates this cozy tale of counterterrorist cooperation. Based on extensive fieldwork in one village in the North Caucasus, reporter Elena Milashina has concluded that the “Russian special services have controlled” the flow of jihadists into Syria, where they have lately joined up not only with ISIS but other radical Islamist factions. In other words, Russian officials are adding to the ranks of terrorists which the Russian government has deemed a collective threat to the security and longevity of its dictatorial ally on the Mediterranean, Bashar al-Assad.
It may sound paradoxical—helping the enemy of your friend—but the logic is actually straightforward: Better the terrorists go abroad and fight in Syria than blow things up in Russia. Penetrating and co-opting terrorism also has a long, well-attested history in the annals of Chekist tradecraft.
Milashina makes her case study the village of Novosasitili in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district. Since 2011, nearly 1 percent of the total population of Novosasitili has gone to Syria—22 out of 2,500 residents. Of that figure, five were killed and five have returned home. But they didn’t leave Russia without outside help. The FSB established a “green corridor” to allow them to migrate first to Turkey, and then to Syria. (Russians, including those living in the North Caucasus, can catch any of the daily non-stop flights to Istanbul and visit Turkey without a visa.)
“I know someone who has been at war for 15 years,” Akhyad Abdullaev, head of the village, tells Milashina. “He fought in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Syria. He surely cannot live peacefully. If such people go off to war, it’s no loss. In our village there is a person, a negotiator. He, together with the FSB, brought several leaders out of the underground and sent them off abroad on jihad. The underground resistance has been weakened, we’re well off. They want to fight—let them fight, just not here.”
Milashina next interviews the “negotiator” Abdullaev mentions. He tells her of his role as an intermediary between the FSB and local militants in arranging the latter’s departure to the Levant. In 2012, for instance, he helped arrange for a man known as the “emir of the northern sector”—a “very dangerous man,” believed by the FSB to have been behind several terrorist bombings—to go to Turkey if he agreed to quit jihadism in Dagestan. The FSB gave the emir a passport and acted as his travel agent. The condition was that he’d deal exclusively with the FSB and not inform any of his confederates of his true sponsor. The emir has since been killed in Syria, but the “negotiator” tells the journalist that he’s subsequently brought another five militants to the FSB who benefited from the same quid pro quo arrangement. “This was in 2012,” he says. “Just before the Syrian path opened up. More precisely, [the FSB] opened it.”
So far the tactic of encouraging hijrah, or jihadist emigration, has appeared to help the Russian government pacify its decades-long insurgency in the North Caucasus. Akhmet Yarlya, a researcher at Moscow State Institute of International Relations’s Center of the Problems of the Caucasus and Regional Security, a group attached to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, has estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. By all accounts, the result has been great for counterterrorism officials, who are now able to claim direct credit for seeing terrorist violence in the region halved since the Syria crisis kicked off.
Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast that while she can neither confirm nor deny the allegations put forward in Novaya Gazeta, “It is also evident that [Russian] law enforcement and security agencies are proud of the fact that the number of casualties in armed clashes between insurgent forces and security has declined very significantly by some 50 percent. Officials attribute it to the success of the government in fighting the insurgency; in reality, it seems the drop derives from the fact that all the aggressive, competent fighters are no longer fighting in Dagestan but are in Syria as part of ISIS.”
Mike Rogers, a former U.S. representative and the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the FSB might be turning a “blind eye” to jihadist outflow to Syria. “The only reason I say that is that they could alert Assad’s folks to get them once they’re in Syria. But for me, the idea of getting them out of town doesn’t make sense because they know they get combat training and come back home.”
According to a former CIA operative who has liaised with the FSB in Tajikistan, such concerns wouldn’t necessarily stop a clandestine conveyor belt of extremists out of Russia, which is hardly unique to Putin’s regime. “It’s perfectly conceivable that the FSB would take their most violent types and say, ‘Yeah, you want your caliphate? Go set it up in Raqqa,’" the source said. "The Saudis did this in the ’80s with the Afghans. It’s sort of tried and true. We could do the same thing. Of course, we’re not.”
“What’s the most significant policy decision we made to bring down the Soviet Union?” asked Glen Howard, the president of the Jamestown Foundation and a specialist on the Caucasus and Central Asia. “Us sending foreign fighters into Afghanistan. This is the perfect form of payback. Create a quagmire in Syria, get us bogged down—all the while, offer your cooperation in helping to root out terrorism.”
Where it doesn’t kill or capture militants, Russian authorities encourage them to run away through a systematic campaign of harassment. Suspects are put on Salafist watchlists, interrogated, photographed, and fingerprinted repeatedly. Some have to submit DNA samples. “All the ones I spoke to,” Lokshina said, “say that once you’re on the watchlist, you no longer have a normal life. It’s as if law enforcement and the security officials are trying to push them out into the forest.” One man in his 40s, Lokshina remembered, who didn’t support violence, was stopped in Dagestan and taken into custody by an official who asked him, “Hey, how come you’re not in the woods yet? Your cousin is already with the insurgents, all these people you know are with them and yet how come you’re not?”
If there is indeed a cynical FSB plot to push jihadists into ISIS, then Lokshina thinks it’s occurring at the local rather than national level, as a way for field agents in the North Caucasus to impress their higher-ups back in Moscow with improved security quotas. “This is something members of the police force told me off the record: If you have 10 people registered this month, then there is pressure for you to register 12 next month. It’s all about numbers.”
Andrei Soldatov, a journalist specializing in the Russian security services, agrees. “To me, it looks like a desperate attempt in Dagestan where the FSB tried everything to support radical Islamists to try and pacify the situation,” Soldatov said. “It doesn’t look like a well-thought-out campaign to steer trouble away from the North Caucasus into Syria.”
Nevertheless, trouble has been conveniently steered away from Russia and into the Middle East, leaving many analysts to wonder at how even well-known clerics under 24-hour surveillance managed to slip the watchful eye of the FSB.
Joanna Paraszczuk is a blogger with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who covers the Russian contingent of ISIS fighters, which she believes is in the “hundreds,” not thousands, based on documentary evidence she has examined including videos and social media usage. “Many are youngish boys who get recruited in Russia or Dagestan and then go to Istanbul. Then they get taken to ISIS territory, usually Raqqa. Are they on watch lists? How’d they get passports to leave the country? Here’s the weird thing: Some of the radical preachers from Dagestan are turning up in the ‘caliphate,’ too.”
One of these is Nadir Abu Khalid, who was under house arrest in Dagestan but has suddenly “popped up” in Iraq with another insurgent called Abu Jihad, a close friend of Abu Umar al-Shishani, the Chechen field commander for ISIS in Aleppo. “What we have right now is a growing number of Dagestani preachers who are forming the core group of recruiters in Iraq,” Paraszczuk said.
And for all Putin’s tough-on-terror rhetoric, this displacement actually suits his interests quite nicely. In June 2015, some members of the Caucasus Emirate, the leading jihadist insurgency in Russia, pledged allegiance to ISIS, giving al-Baghdadi’s army a nominal “province" in a major Eurasian country.” That fact ought to be terrifying to Moscow. Except that it isn’t. “Russia is very happy about this because it means that it can now blame the local insurgency on ISIS—‘an international group created by the West’—rather than on local problems in the Caucasus,” Paraszczuk said.
In July, Chechnya’s warlord “president” Ramzan Kadyrov took to his favorite social media platform, Instagram, to claim that ISIS was an invention of “Western intelligence agencies… Everyone knows that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is also fed by the USA CIA, and was recruited by Gen. David Petraeus during al-Baghdadi’s time as a POW in Camp Bucca in Iraq.”
Jamestown’s Glen Howard thinks that Moscow is using the startling success of this transnational terrorist organization to feed the monster of anti-American conspiracies in the Muslim world. How else could ISIS conquer so much territory in so short a time unless it had a powerful but silent state patron? “I was in Baghdad a year and a half ago," Howard said. "At the al-Rasheed Hotel I saw all sorts of Russians running around with the Iraqi government officials. Iraqis kept repeating to me conspiracy theories about how America created ISIS. Did anyone in Washington ever stop to ask if maybe the Russians are helping that conspiracy theory along in Iraq?”
Not that tactical coordination between Russian intelligence and terrorism is anything new. During the Cold War, the KGB financed and suborned all manner of Third World insurgencies for use against Western -- mainly U.S. -- interests around the world. Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who once headed Moscow’s counterintelligence First Chief Directorate, told The Daily Beast that not only is the Novaya Gazeta story plausible, it’s likely. “I’m pretty sure that what has been reported did in fact happen,” he said. Kalugin noted that Russian intelligence has a long, ignominious history of “pushing forward the more extremist elements and use their facilities to do the most damage to a local population.”
This was the strategy, after all, during the early 90's when insurgents such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Russia’s military intelligence (GRU) in order to vitiate the secular or democratic Chechen movement. Basayev was a useful tool for the Kremlin—at least until the FSB (probably) assassinated him in 2006—because he wasn’t really interested in secession from the Russian Federation; he wanted to establish an “emirate” in the Caucasus. His carnage accomplished two things at once: It cast a pall on the legitimate separatist struggle and offered a wag-the-dog national security justification for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency, which did nothing short of level Grozny.
Anatoly Kulikov, the former chairman of the Russian Interior Ministry and a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, attested in the weekly newspaper Argumenty i Fakty in 2002 that he had a “great deal of evidence” to suggest that Boris Berezovsky, then the most powerful oligarch in Russia and a key political adviser to the Yeltsin administration, was using the Russian Security Council to finance Chechen extremists, Basayev included. Much of the money paid was to buy back hostages taken by Basyev’s forces, including journalists who worked for Berezovsky’s media empire. Many observers of this period say that there was an ulterior motive of trying to split the opposition and strengthen the extremist Chechen elements at the expense of moderates.
Even one of Berezovsky’s closest friends and allies, Alex Goldfarb, conceded that by 1999, the goal in Moscow had become even more subversive than that: to prompt a guerrilla incursion into Dagestan, which would then green-light a short but popular Russian invasion of the top third of Chechnya, down to the Terek River. A state of emergency would then be declared and national elections in Russia would be postponed in the wake of a cataclysmic financial crash.
In the Russian intelligence playbook, such a gambit is known as provokatsiya. As former NSA analyst John Schindler defines it, the technique “simply means taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you.” The czar’s Okhrana used it against the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary socialist factions; Lenin and Stalin’s intelligence services used it against the West; and Putin has used it to remarkable effect in Ukraine.
Berezovsky would later be granted asylum in London and would turn into one the most prominent exiled critics of Putin, whose rise to power he was largely responsible for. Even before he left Russia, Berezovsky had used his ORT television network to report honestly on the horrors of the Second Chechen War. Putin retaliated by taking ORT away from the oligarch and turning it into a state-run channel. From London, Berezovsky later denounced Putin for working with Chechen extremists—an allegation thrown right back at him by the new master of the Kremlin.
Whatever the truth, there is no denying that Chechnya is today ruled in blood-brutal fashion by a former insurgent, Kadyrov, who excels beyond the standards of most post-Soviet dictators by personally torturing his victims. Kadyrov has his own intelligence service and his own guerrilla paramilitary, so-called Kadyrovtsky, battalions of which he has copped to dispatching to the Donbas to fight on behalf of the anti-Kiev (and Moscow-backed) rebellion in Ukraine. There is also widespread suspicion of how his regime both monitors and works with Islamic extremists. Some of Kadyrov’s musclebound henchmen, who have been accused of murder and rape in Moscow, have been arrested only to be let go—on the orders of the FSB brass, and much to the chagrin of subordinate investigating officers.
“Kadyrov is getting money from two sources: the Kremlin and Arab countries,” said Yuri Felshtinsky, a historian who writes about the Russian security services. “The Chechen Republic for all practical purposes is an Islamist republic. What we have there is what we had in Afghanistan; it started with a fight against Russian occupation and ended with extremists taking power.” The problem, according to Felshtinsky, is that it is near impossible to say just how localized any funny business is between jihadism and the intelligence organs; does it begin and end with Kadyrov, who runs his fief semi-autonomously, or does it extend all the way back to Moscow?
Andrei Soldatov, the Russian journalist, believes that the FSB relies on Kadyrov for actionable intelligence as to the whereabouts and goings-on of Caucasian jihadists—including those who’ve run off to Syria. “All my contacts inside the FSB and Interior Ministry tell me that it’s extremely difficult to penetrate militant groups. In the mid-2000s, they set up big detention centers in Chechnya to process as many Chechens as possible, to recruit them in prison and release them as informants. We had only a few real examples of successful penetration.” The eventual killing of Basyev, he said, was done by using agents recruited by the FSB.
By 2005, after an attack on state security buildings in Nalchik, in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic in southern Russia, the FSB began cultivating diasporas to establish contact with Islamist militants abroad. “They had a diaspora of Circassians they used to try to make contact with Zarqawi,” Soldatov said, referring to the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s first incarnation. “Well, the first thing they needed to start with was a list of those who trained and studied Islam abroad. But the FSB didn’t have such a list. So this raised the profile of Kadyrov; he was able to use his connections inside Chechnya and among the diaspora to become indispensable to Moscow.”
For other analysts, it beggars belief that the central Russian government is unaware of this dirty nexus between the regional officialdom and the state’s most radical opponents. “The Russian government has several aims and they’re mixed together and it’s very difficult to say which one applies in any particular case,” Paul Goble, an expert on Russia’s ethnic minorities and a former adviser to both the U.S. State Department and the CIA, told The Daily Beast. “First, the Russians are not idiots. They’ve thoroughly penetrated militant groups in the North Caucasus. These aren’t ‘controlled’ by Moscow, but they’re wholly penetrated. The easiest way to garner intelligence is to get these militants to go to Syria posing as freedom fighters. Second, Moscow is running out of money to buy off the North Caucasus and needs a new way to oppress the opposition there. Well, the best way to oppress it is to exile it. Better that they should be fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq than fighting Russian government in Dagestan or Ingushetia.
“It’s like Victor Serge’s Comrade Tulayev,” Goble said, referring to the 1948 novel based on the assassination of a Stalinist official Sergei Kirov and the consequent dragnet of paranoiac purges that swept the Soviet Union. “Moscow comes up with a broad prescription and you get all sorts of people coming up with ways to implement it.”
David Satter has written extensively on Russian security organs’ double-game with terrorism and, just before the Sochi Winter Olympics last year, became the first American journalist to be banned from Russia since the end of the Cold War. “No sooner did Chechnya emerge as a quasi-independent state than there appeared Islamists who demanded that the population only submit to the laws of Allah and not to the government,” he said. “This is something people in the West have a very hard time understanding. Russian authorities and particularly the FSB don’t react to acts of terror with the horror that people in the West do. They just see it as one more tactic that can be used by a regime to advance its aims. It can be used against foreigners and it can be used against its own people.”
Satter’s Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State deals at length with the charge that the FSB had used Islamic terror to its own ends, specifically with September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk, in Dagestan, and Volgodonsk, in Rostov, which collectively killed 300 Russian civilians and wounded hundreds more. Today, a bevy of credible observers, both within and without Russia, believe that these operations were actually orchestrated by the FSB and blamed on Chechen jihadists as a pretext for launching the retaliatory invasion which, in the event, got underway three weeks later. “They also served to propel a little-known retired lieutenant colonel in the secret police, who had been appointed by President Yeltsin to the post of acting prime minister a month previously, into the Russian presidency,” in the words of John B. Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution, who has published his own monograph on the mysterious apartment immolations. “Three-and-a-half months after the Moscow bombings took place,” Dunlop wrote, “Putin was elected president of the country in March of 2000.”
Putin had served as FSB director right up until the bombings, when he was appointed prime minister in August 1999. This more or less coincided with an Islamist militant incursion into western Dagestan from Chechnya, led by Basayev—an incursion many believe was quietly planned and unwritten by the Kremlin as the ultimate form of provokatsiya. A week and a half after the second apartment bombing, of a building on the Kashirskoye Highway in Moscow, Putin used a locution that would be remembered both for its borrowing from the Russian criminal argot and for catapulting him, a once obscure Yeltsin silovik, into national prominence and power. “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he declared. “If they are in an airport, then, in an airport, and, forgive me, if we catch them in the toilet, then we’ll rub them out in the crapper in the final analysis.”
The strongest evidence to date that the agency Putin had headed just weeks earlier was in fact behind the attacks he vowed ultimate vengeance for—attacks which would have required months of planning—is the bomb that failed to go off.
Not long after 9 p.m. on September 22, 1999, residents of an apartment building in Ryazan, a city southeast of Moscow, reported three suspicious people leaving their basement and driving off in the same car. The residents went into the basement and discovered several large sacks typically used to carry sugar rigged with wiring and an electrical device. Ryazan police were called; the head of the local bomb squad declared the sacks were in fact a “live bomb.” They also tested positive for hexogen, a highly combustible agent that is both extremely difficult to obtain in Russia given its status as regulated by Russia’s “power ministries” (i.e. the police, intelligence, and military). It was also the same substance used in the previous apartment bombings. The detonator for the Ryazan bomb was set to activate at 5:30 a.m. Had it gone off, all 250 residents of the building would have likely been killed.
On September 23, a day later, an operator connected a call to Moscow from a public telephone designed for inter-city communication and said that the voice on the receiving end told the caller: “Split up and each of you make your own way out.” The operator alerted the police, who traced the number and found that it belonged to the FSB. “A short time later,” Satter wrote (PDF), “with the help of tips from the population, the police arrested two terrorists. They produced identification from the FSB and were released on orders from Moscow.”
On September 24, a day and a half after the abortive attack, Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s successor as FSB director, claimed that the Ryazan bomb had been a fake and the entire plot nothing more than a “training exercise” designed to test the vigilance of local communities in detecting terrorist activity. The stuff tested positively as hexogen? It was just sugar, according to Patrushev, contradicting what every Ryazan first-responder had claimed, not to mention Putin and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, both of whom were on record in deeming the explosive all too real.
If it was just a training exercise, then why were some 30,000 residents of the city made to stand out on the street all night when the nothing-to-see-here reality of the operation could have been disclosed immediately? The sapper who defused it months later told Pavel Voloshin, a reporter with with Novaya Gazeta, that the detonator had been military-grade and clearly designed by a professional.
Subsequent efforts for a parliamentary inquiry were blocked by Unity, the pro-Kremlin party under whose banner Putin would run for, and win, the presidency shortly before the party was dissolved in 2001. As journalist Maxim Glinkin observed in 2002, reflecting on the terrible spate of atrocities that led to Putin’s political ascendance, “The authorities are conducting themselves like criminals in an Agatha Christie novel who have been almost caught out by Hercule Poirot.”
Among those who at least share the theory that the FSB was behind the bombings were two former FSB agents, both of whom became targets after airing their allegations. One was Mikhail Trepashkin, like Putin a former lieutenant colonel, assigned to the Protection Administration of the FSB, which is tasked with keeping fellow officers and their families safe. Trepashkin had in the mid-’90s uncovered evidence that Russian law enforcement, including the FSB, had connived with Chechen extremists and criminal elements in Moscow. He would even be awarded a medal of valor for his efforts but was later marginalized in the Protection Administration after clashing with its then-commander—Nikolai Patrushev.
Trepashkin claimed to have uncovered the “Mohammed Atta” of the Moscow apartment bombings, a man called Vladimir Romanovich, who was both an FSB agent and a mob boss—hardly a redundancy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 2003 on the charge of possession of illegal weapons he insists were planted in his car. Trepashkin was sentenced to four years of hard labor on a second count of disclosing a state secret. Amnesty International found the entire case against him had been politicized, using fabricated evidence. He was released from prison in November 2007 after suffering an extreme illness, for which he was never properly treated. (The Daily Beast tried unsuccessfully to reach him for comment on this story.)
The other FSB officer to accuse his employer of perpetrating state terrorism against the Russian people was Alexander Litvinenko, who had worked for the economic crimes division of the service and had exposed the collusion between law enforcement and organized crime. Litvinenko fled Russia for London in 2000 and became an informant and spy for the British security services, briefing EU countries on the infiltration of Russian gangsters (and Russian intelligence assets) on their soil. Along with Yuri Felshtinsky, he wrote Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within, arguing that the apartment bombings were false-flag operations intended to precipitate the Second Chechen War and therefore platform the grey blur that was Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor. Litvinenko was poisoned to death at a London hotel in 2006 after Polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, was poured into his tea. The perpetrators of that assassination, according to Scotland Yard, are almost certainly Dmitri Kovtun, a former Soviet army officer, and Andrei Lugovoi, a former FSB officer and now a much be-medaled Duma deputy. The Russian state, the British government has concluded, “is likely to have been the sponsor of this plot” because of its desire to see Litvinenko silenced for good.
In 2011, to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the apartment bombings, journalist Anton Orekh called them “a key moment in our most recent history. Because if those bombings were not accidental in the sequence of events which followed: if, to put it bluntly, they were the work of our authorities—then everything will once and forever take its proper place. Then there is not and cannot be an iota of illusion about the [nature of] those who rule us. Then those people are not minor or large-scale swindlers and thieves. Then they are among the most terrible criminals.”
After the Boston Marathon bombing, American counterterrorism officials queried the failure to follow up on a lead provided by the FSB about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two terrorists responsible for the attack, which was sent first to the FBI and then to the CIA. In April 2014, an unclassified summary of a 168-page classified assessment prepared on the marathon bombings by the Inspectors General for the CIA, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security was released to the public. It found that in March 2011, the FSB sent a memo, in Russian, to the FBI Legal Attache in Moscow concerning Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva.
“According to the English translation used by the FBI,” the unclassified summary read, “the memorandum alleged that both were adherents of radical Islam, and that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was preparing to travel to Russia to join unspecified ‘bandit underground groups’ in Dagestan and Chechnya and had considered changing his last name to ‘Tsarni.’ The Russian authorities provided personal information about both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, including their telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, and requested that the FBI provide the FSB with specific information about them, including possible travel by Tsarnaev to Russia.”
The FSB memorandum gave two incorrect birthdates for Tamerlan: October 21, 1987, and the same calendar date in 1988. Also, because of likely owing to the variability of transliteration from Cyrillic into English, the surnames were spelled differently—Tsarnayev and Tsarnayeva—from how Tamerlan and Zubeidat spelled them in America (minus the “y”). The FBI Legal Attache replied to the FSB acknowledging receipt of the memorandum and “requesting that it keep the bureau informed of any details it developed” on mother and son. Whether or not any additional details were ever dispatched to the FBI is not disclosed in the unclassified summary. All that is mentioned is that in September 2011, the FSB sent a near-identical memorandum to the CIA.
Most of the Inspector Generals’ assessment of the bombing focused on the FBI-led Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force’s failure to query Tamerlan about his travel plans to Russia when it interviewed him and his parents, and on its failure to respond to an alert it was sent once he flew from New York to Moscow in January 2012, a year after he’d been added to a terrorism watchlist. Tamerlan returned to New York from Moscow around six months later, in July 2012. Yet, the assessment found that all U.S. agencies under scrutiny had “followed procedures appropriately” given the information available to them at the time.
Nevertheless, Massachusetts Representative Bill Keating, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, was scathing about the lack of forthrightness shown after the marathon attacks by American law enforcement. “I got more information from Russia than I did from our own FBI,” Keating told Boston Public Radio in August 2013.
Did the FSB really try to help the U.S. in surveilling or apprehending a dangerous jihadist? “On the Tsarnaev brothers, they did tell us once, and then they stopped,” said Mike Rogers, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee. “When the FBI made further inquiries, they stopped cooperating. I thought that was really interesting because clearly they knew the Tsarnaevs were being radicalized.”
There is evidence that the FSB also sat on more than it had disclosed in its dual memoranda to the two U.S. agencies. It had intercepted telephone calls made by and between Tamerlan and Zubeidat. In one, the son discussed jihad and the possibility of going to Palestine. In another, the mother spoke to someone in the Caucasus who was under FBI investigation. But how did Tamerlan manage to arrive at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport in January 2012, then proceed to Dagestan, after the FSB was obviously aware of his purported plans to join “bandit underground groups”?
Still another Novaya Gazeta reporter, Irina Gordienko, found that Tamerlan had in fact tried to join the Caucasian underground and that officials from the Republic of Dagestan Center for Combating Extremism (RDCCE), a body run out of the Russian Interior Ministry, had put him on a surveillance list after he caught their attention in April 2012, four months after his trip to Russia. He’d been associating with Makhmud Mansur Nidal, an 18-year-old suspected of acting as a jihadist recruiter.
Gordienko found that Tamerlan had only stayed in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where his father lived, save for a brief trip to Chechnya in March 2012. Yet in May, Russian special forces killed Nidal in a raid in Makhachkala, after which Tamerlan moved out of his father’s apartment and stayed with other relatives in the city.
In her investigation, Gordienko also disclosed that in 2011, the FSB requested information from the FBI on Tamerlan because his name had come up after the detention and interrogation (which likely involved torture) of William Plotnikov, a 21-year-old Russian-Canadian convert to Islam, who traveled to Dagestan. Plotnikov had reportedly been in touch with Tamerlan via Islamic social media outlets. Plotnikov was released due to a lack of criminal evidence; then in July 2012, he, too, was killed in another raid, this one near the village of Utamysh in Kayakent District.
After the death of his second jihadist contact, Tamerlan apparently disappeared from the Russian authorities’ sight. “The police came to visit his father, but the father claimed that everything was fine, that his son had returned to the USA,” Gordienko wrote. “They didn’t believe his father, and supposed that Tsarnaev had gone off to the forest. They were made cautious by the fact that Tamerlan left without waiting to pick up his passport, the documents for which he had submitted at the end of June 2012.” The FSB then sent a second inquiry, this one to the CIA, seeking more information on the elder Tsarnaev brother. That one never got answered either.
In 2013, Dagestan’s police chief denied that Tamerlan was recruited to the “bandit underground” or had any contact with members of it; although the same police chief also (erroneously) insisted that Tamerlan was in Makhachkala for only a few days, relying on testimony from the boy’s father. So assuming Gordienko’s reporting is accurate, the questions arise: How did Tamerlan get from Makhachkala to Moscow, then board a plane back to New York, if he was wanted for questioning by the Russian security services? And did the FSB, in seeking information from the CIA, ever alert it to the fact that Tamerlan had now vanished from its purview in a hotbed of fundamentalist insurgency?
It was not the first time a terrorist had gone into the wind in Dagestan. In 1996, Ayman al-Zawahiri, today the leader of al-Qaeda, was arrested in Dagestan where he’d gone to scout Chechnya as a possible safe haven for Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the terrorist organization he headed before joining bin Laden’s franchise and which was made world-famous for its role in assassinating Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Zawahiri posed as a Sudanese businessman named Abdullah Imam Mohammed Amin who claimed to work for an Azeri trading firm and carried with him $6,400 in cash, in multiple foreign currencies, a laptop, and other communication devices. He traveled with two Islamic Jihad members, who also used phony names and passports. They were grabbed by Russian police within hours of reaching Dagestan, interrogated, then moved to a remote prison near Makhachkala.
The FSB sent Zawahiri’s laptop to Moscow for analysis. Even still, the Russians claimed that they never knew who they had in their midst and were dumbfounded by the outpouring of Muslim and Islamist support for the three “businessmen.” At their trial, Zawahiri told the judge, “We wanted to find out the price of leather, medicine and other goods.” (He’d later write that “God blinded them to our identities.”)
The three jihadists ended up doing six months in jail, at the end of which they got their laptop back. Had the FSB, which hardly lacks for expert Arabic speakers, not gone through the files it contained, or did “Mr. Amin” and company cover their tracks digitally, too? More than 20 years on, the history of this bizarre interlude in the curriculum vitae of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists has never been established.
Once released, Zawahiri spent another 10 days meeting Islamists in Dagestan before repairing to Afghanistan. “Every Ivan Ivanovich KGB and GRU officer who served in Egypt in the late ’70s and 1980s knew who Zawahiri was because of his involvement in the Sadat assassination,” said Jamestown’s Glen Howard. “They’d have seen his pictures on Egyptian TV in a massive cage broadcast live following his arrest and trial. So for Moscow to arrest him in Dagestan in 1996 and hold him for six months in a Dagestani jail cell and claim they never knew who he was—well, this is pure nonsense.”
Howard and Satter both believe that the FSB is likely sitting on more than it will ever share with the Americans about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s half-year in Dagestan, too. Both, though, are keen to also note that the Kremlin has used every opportunity to exploit the Boston atrocity in two contradictory ways.
First, it has amplified the importance of counterterrorism cooperation between two post-Cold War rivals, now at odds again. Bortnikov’s RSVP to Obama’s summit on violent extremism was a major propaganda coup for the FSB, as was his sudden stature boost in the U.S. intelligence establishment after the marathon bombings. “Bortnikov has been playing up for three years his raised international profile,” said Soldatov. “For him, this is a huge success because it’s kept him off the U.S. sanctions list.”
Second, while proffering the hand of friendship in Washington, the siloviki have wasted no effort slandering their intelligence counterparts in the CIA for creating the very terrorism unleashed on American soil, chiefly by propagating all manner of conspiracy theories as to how Tamerlan became radicalized. And here, Howard’s own organization has been conscripted in a hysterical propaganda campaign.
In April 2013, two months after the Boston attacks, Russia’s state-owned newspaper Izvestiya ran an article alleging that while he lived in Dagestan, Tamerlan had attended “events and seminars” put on jointly by the Caucasian Fund, a Georgian NGO, and the Jamestown Foundation. “Izvestia has obtained some documents from the Georgian Interior Ministry’s Department of Counter-intelligence which confirms that the Georgian organization Caucasian Fund is collaborating with the American non-profit organization Jamestown Foundation (Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. foreign policy ideologue, was formerly on Jamestown’s board of directors),” the piece stated, laying it on with a trowel, “and has been recruiting residents of the North Caucasus to work in the interests of the United States in Georgia.” Russians are apparently “recruited at these seminars and trained for terrorist attacks.”
The Jamestown Foundation rejected the allegation as absurd. The Georgian Ministry of the Interior added that the Georgian Colonel Grigor Chanturia, the lynchpin of Izvestia’s supposed reporting, wasn’t a real person. No matter. The Kremlin’s English-language propaganda mill RT picked up the story uncritically, as did InfoWars.com, the feverish website run by Alex Jones, which has not yet encountered a conspiracy theory it didn’t like.
In general, counterterrorism cooperation between Russia and the U.S. is more a comforting legend of the post-Cold War order, something mouthed perfunctorily by both sides while being given little credence by the intelligence professionals whose job it is to talk to foreign counterparts. Kalugin, the former KGB counterintelligence official, thinks there is “lots of talk but little action” when it comes to constructing a mutual bulwark against Islamic terrorism. The former CIA operative who liaised with the FSB in Tajikistan remembers the Russians sharing nothing of substance with him. “They never talked about the Tajik opposition or the pre-al Qaeda types coming across. They never discussed the politics of Central Asia, the roots of terrorism. It was always generalities.”
Several analysts consulted for this story also pointed out that even if the FSB wanted to work in good faith with the U.S., systemic corruption and incompetence in the ranks, the sort of dysfunction bred of an authoritarian regime that promotes loyalists and cronies at the expense of adept professionals, would hamper any attempt at bilateral rehabilitation. “You want to stamp out bearded nut jobs together, OK—first Russia has to stamp out bribery which lets them slip in and out of the country or board planes to blow them up,” said one analyst.
There’s another problem in ushering in a new dawn of transnational police work. Despite the happy talk, America and Russia just don’t trust each other. “To say that Russia is our partner is a significant overstatement,” Mike Rogers, the former congressman and House Intelligence Committee chair, said. “There are some relationships, but the FSB doesn’t like to cooperate with the FBI and the FBI has a natural suspicion of the FSB. Principally this is because the FBI is also busy trying to catch Russian spies in America. They’re not our friends and they’re not our partners.”
“At the political level, the White House will say we’re cooperating on terrorism, but that doesn’t mean anything,” the former CIA operative groused. “So if the FSB is now sending jihadists to Syria so that they can die at the hands of the Americans rather than the Russians, should we be surprised? We’re just so goddamn ignorant.”