Last week this blog reported the remarkable case of two Iranian spies in Sarajevo who had been ordered to leave Bosnia by the end of April yet who simply had not done as ordered by Bosnian authorities. My detailed post on the matter sparked some interest in the case and resulted in some laudable press coverage.
Bosnians – like many people – tend to take action when foreigners notice their shenanigans. My post called for Western assistance with this case and perhaps that helped too in the aftermath of some sunlight being cast on this revealing episode which Bosnia’s Islamists would prefer to stay in the shadows.
Therefore I am happy to report that the Bosnian Ministry of Security has announced that the two Iranian “diplomats” in question, Hamzeh Doolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab, have now left the territory of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Dnevni avaz, the Sarajevo daily that has reported on the case, today has pictures demonstrating that the Iranians have indeed left, as ordered, though the report does not provide much additional detail.
Being gone is enough. This was a rare and overdue loss for Iranian intelligence in the Balkans. Kudos to the Ministry of Security and its officers, some of whom I am proud to call friends, who made the politically tough call and did the right thing. Bosnia, a poor country with vast problems, has no need for spies from Tehran who foment terrorism and extremism across the region. Let’s hope this is the start of a trend.
Inconveniently close to Orthodox Easter, the Serbian Orthodox Church has been rocked by a salacious and disturbing scandal involving one of its more prominent senior clerics. In late April it was revealed that 75 year-old Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda of the Tuzla-Zvornik diocese in Bosnia was resigning due to a torrent of sexual abuse claims. Kacavenda was already a notorious figure in certain circles for his close ties with hardline Serbian nationalists. The Serbian Orthodox Church has always been partial to nationalism, but Kacavenda was a standout in all respects, endorsing violence against Muslims, including civilians, during the Bosnian war of 1992-95, and hanging around a lot with friends like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
The bishop was also well known for living in a manner not normally associated with the celibate clergy from which Orthodoxy draws its leadership. Kacavenda’s episcopal residence in Bijelijna in northeastern Bosnia, where he lived since 1992, is pimped out in full bling-bling regalia. Valued at $1.3 million, a vast fortune in impoverished Bosnia, the bishop’s palace includes a “golden salon” which cost nearly $400,000 to outfit, including a gilded mirror valued at $26,000. There’s also a fabulous sound system with thousands of jazz records, a point of pride for Kacavenda. Tony Montana would love the place.
Since the bishop’s lifestyle seemed notably sumptuous, even decadent, it’s no surprise that for years there had been whispers – not soft ones either – that the hedonism extended beyond matters of interior design. Accounts of sexual excess, even orgies, at the bishop’s pleasure palace, were hardly a well kept secret in Orthodox circles in Bosnia. However, the story broke wide open in April when two Orthodox priests announced they were suing their bishop for his sexual advances on them. Then the dam broke, and several people came out of the woodwork with alarmingly similar stories of sexual abuse at the hands of Bishop Vasilije. While the usual caveat must be applied that Kacavenda has yet to be convicted of anything, the number of claims is so large, and they seem so similar, that it can be assumed that Vasilije is probably every bit the monster his detractors now paint him as.
The sexual excesses include not just orgies involving children as young as 10 (you can find most disturbing video clips thanks to Google, which this blog will not be posting) with the participation of local notables and clergy, but also the frequent coercion of teenaged seminarians into the bishop’s stable of bedmates. Then there is the mysterious death of a young priest who repeatedly rebuffed the bishop’s sexual advances. It’s clear that for decades Vasilije used his clerical authority to habitually rape minors, and he made surprisingly little effort to hide what was going on. Orthodox bishops in my experience do not normally pose for pictures with male strippers.
Kacavenda said, of course, that he would fight the slanderous allegations against him, but he then announced his resignation as bishop on 22 April, which was accepted immediately. It’s clear that the Serbian Orthodox Church wants this to all go away as quickly as possible, but that’s unlikely to happen, not least because Vasilije may be facing a giant raft of criminal charges going back many years. This scandal comes at a particularly awkward time for the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has put a great deal of public effort in recent years fighting the “gay lifestyle,” a campaign that now looks a tad shaky given what Kacavenda was up to with at least some knowledge on the part of the church’s top leadership.
Then, in a development which was sadly predictable, it’s emerged that Kacavenda was an informant for Yugoslavia’s Communist secret police for decades. Tito’s state security, known as UDBA, followed clerical matters with great and invasive interest; just like the KGB in the Soviet Union, UDBA recruited informants among the clergy to keep tabs on the church and to stymie the growth of anti-regime movements. UDBA recruited the young priest Vasilije as an informant in 1960, having found him in a compromising position (given later events, it’s not difficult to guess what that was about). Thus began a secret espionage career which lasted for three decades, down to the collapse of Yugoslavia, with agent PABLO, as UDBA called Vasilije in its reports, proving a highly productive source on the inner-workings of the Orthodox Church.
Kacavenda regularly reported, via the UDBA office in Tuzla, on the political views and personal foibles of fellow clergy and even parishioners. PABLO was one of several Orthodox priests reporting to the Tuzla office, averaging six or seven at any given time, thus allowing UDBA to keep the church “under control” as Tito’s spies liked to say. All religious movements in Yugoslavia – Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim – were spied on heavily by UDBA, and all their clergies were riddled with informants like Kacavenda. But UDBA’s successes against the Serbian Orthodox Church were particularly noteworthy, and the secret police proved adept at manipulating an institution that they suspected was deeply anti-regime in its bones. Among UDBA’s big wins was the forging of a schism between the Serbian Orthodox Church and much of its diaspora, particularly in the United States, thanks to the work of agents like Kacavenda who caused dissent inside the church to aid the Communist regime.
Kacavenda’s rise to a bishop’s seat in 1978 at a relatively young age no doubt was facilitated by UDBA, which liked to have church leaders who were not only secretly loyal to the Titoist system, but also people on whom the secret police had large files of compromising materials. Thus the church wound up saddled with a leadership filled with morally compromised clergy with big personal secrets they were eager to keep hidden. This has had long-lasting implications for the Orthodox Church not just in the former Yugoslavia but across Eastern Europe, as Communist secret police agencies played the same insidious game everywhere. The Russian Orthodox Church, too, has had to contend awkwardly with the ramifications of the cynical games the KGB played with the clergy for decades.
The terrible Kacavenda case, where a truly evil man was placed in a position of church leadership under regime sponsorship and allowed to act out his ravenous instincts for decades, offers the church a chance to reflect on how this happened. Just as important, it gives all the peoples in the former Yugoslavia an opportunity to discuss the continuing baleful impacts of UDBA tradecraft on their societies. That’s an important discussion that few in Southeastern Europe have been particularly eager to have, since collaboration with the secret police touched every corner of society, but the sordid story of Bishop Vasilije demonstrates that, per the cliche, late is better than never.
Last week I did a long report on what Russian intelligence knew about Tamerlan Tsarnayev, based on Irina Gordiyenko’s report in Novaya Gazeta, which is pretty much Russia’s last investigative newspaper. Not surprisingly, Gordiyenko’s account, which derived heavily from Dagestan-based sources of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), was rather different than the version of Tamerlan’s activities that’s been given by US intelligence. Moscow has been at pains to make clear that they gave Washington, DC, two specific warnings about the increasingly radical young man, to no apparent avail.
This week Ms Gordiyenko has followed up with another report, again based heavily on FSB sources, which makes clearer that the FSB and US intelligence, especially the FBI, are engaged in mutual buck-passing in the Tsarnayev case. “Where’s the hotbed of terrorists?” demonstrates that Moscow is sticking hard to their version of events, that the FSB gave the Americans warnings about Tamerlan in early 2011 and again in mid-2012, significantly after Tamerlan had visited Dagestan for a half-year (and where, perhaps not coincidentally, the visitor’s cousin is a prominent Islamist). While Washington, DC, has never denied that these messages were sent and received, the FBI has downplayed their significance and faulted their lack of actionable information. Which is just what I would expect them to say.
The FSB version of events, more or less channeled by Gordiyenko, has it that Tamerlan came to Dagestan to join the Islamist resistance there, in a manner whose details remains unclear but which were clearly linked to William Plotnikov, Tamerlan’s weird Canadian doppelganger: another young immigrant made-bad from Russia who, having failed to become a world-class boxer, turned to radical Islam and eventually jihad. After Plotnikov’s death in July 2012 at the hands of Russian security forces, Tamerlan’s doorway to the resistance closed and he quickly returned to the USA … and we know the rest.
The FSB believes that Tamerlan’s essential radicalization occurred in America, not Russia, and Russian security sources steadfastly maintain that they never uncovered any evidence that the young man underwent anything like bona fide terrorist training during his six months in Dagestan hanging around his dad’s apartment trolling jihadist websites. While the FSB may be wrong about this – and it surely fits their version better if Tamerlan became a murderous radical on someone else’s watch – it needs to be conceded that the FSB looked closer into the young man than the FBI ever did. The FSB’s counterterrorism center in Dagestan, which knows a thing or two about radicalization, did not find much evidence of ties to terrorism in Tamerlan by mid-2012: enough to be concerned about, hence the multiple warnings to US intelligence, not enough to do anything substantial about themselves. To be fair to the FSB, they have their hands full in Dagestan with many people who do a lot more than engage in web-based fantasy jihad.
That said, the FSB has not been as forthcoming about the Tsarnayevs as reporters would like, a point which Gordiyenko makes clearly. Per usual, they are feeding journalists their version of events … but so is the FBI. It’s what intelligence services do, particularly when they have a debacle on their hands. And it must be said that it would seem the FBI and US intelligence have more to hide than the FSB here, since the catastrophe happened on US soil, on their watch. I suspect there’s more to the Russian version than we’re getting here, and I’m skeptical we may ever know the full story of what the FSB knew about Tamerlan. But it remains significant that US intelligence did so little effective in the wake of FSB warnings about a dangerous young man living in Cambridge, where he seems to have been getting more radical by the day, perfecting bomb-making in the kitchen.
More as it develops …
[As always, the author's opinions are his alone and unrepresentative of any institution he has ever worked for.]
Last month, Bosnia-Hercegovina worked up its courage and told two Iranian spies serving as “diplomats” at their embassy in Sarajevo to leave the country by the end of April. Given the worrying extent of Iranian subversion and espionage in Bosnia, including direct links to terrorism – these are not new, as readers of this blog are well aware – this was unquestionably a long overdue step in the right direction. Sarajevo had done nothing of substance to diminish Iranian espionage and support for terrorism in Bosnia since the mid-1990s, and even that consisted of half-measures.
Bosnia’s security minister Fahrudin Radoncic (a Muslim, in case you’re wondering) is the first person in that job to take Iran’s misdeeds seriously. He seems to have been pushed to action by revelations that Iranian “diplomats” in Sarajevo were making regular trips to known mujahidin camps in the country, bringing cash and best wishes. The Ministry of Security’s order, conveyed to Tehran through Foreign Ministry channels, stated that Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab, the second and the third secretaries in the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Sarajevo, were to leave Bosnia by 30 April, or would be officially declared persona non grata and expelled. Ahmad and Sohrab had been identified as Iranian intelligence officers by Bosnian security officials beyond any reasonable doubt, with connections to known extremists in Bosnia.
However the 30 April deadline came and went, and as of this writing, the two “diplomats” are still in the country. The Banja Luka daily Glas Srpske explained on 3 May that the Bosnian Foreign Ministry, which had received no response from Iran to its directive, confirmed that Ahmad and Sohrab remain in Sarajevo. According to Glas Srpske, Mohamed Ebrahim Taherian, the first Iranian ambassador to Bosnia some 20 years ago, met with Husein ef. Kavazovic, the head of Bosnia’s Islamic Community, seeking his help in allowing the Iranian “diplomats” to remain in the country. Glas Srpske’s investigation also learned that Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim member of the country’s joint Presidency, likewise interceded on the Iranians’ behalf. One day after the Bosnian Foreign Ministry sent its deportation request to the Iranian embassy, Taherian met with Izetbegovic, who is a personal friend, and conveyed his assurances that Radoncic’s spy accusations against the two Iranians were not true.
None of this exactly surprises, as longtime observers of Bosnia know well that Iran has a great deal of influence in the country’s Muslim clerical and political circles, some of whose members will cover up even overt Iranian support for terrorism and extremism – whether out of conviction or for a price is difficult to determine. Since Bakir Izetbegovic’s father Alija, Bosnia’s first president, invited Iranian spies and foreign mujahidin into the country over 20 years ago, the son merely seems to be carrying on a family tradition. Fahrudin Radoncic and all Bosnians who have warned for years and even decades about the malign influence of Iran in their country and all Southeastern Europe deserve the support of the West in this struggle, since it remains as clear as ever that Bosnia cannot save itself.
Today is Holy Saturday, the end of Lent and the last day before Pascha, the term Orthodox Christians use for Easter. As a shout-out to my brothers and sisters in Christ on this very special weekend, I give you a pretty awesome video out of Russia.
The public embrace of Orthodoxy by V.V. Putin and the Kremlin in recent years has been hard to miss. While the Russian Orthodox Church is not the state religion, in has a great deal of support in the power ministries, including the “special services” (what Moscow calls the intelligence agencies) and the military. As part of that, the Russian Defense Ministry has been adding Orthodox chaplains to its units to meet the spiritual needs of the troops.
Most recently, the MoD has trained Orthodox priests to be chaplains to the elite Airborne Forces (VDV). As I’ve written recently, Russia’s special forces, including the VDV, are getting a lot of attention in Moscow’s military modernization efforts. VDV chaplains have to be jump-qualified, of course, and as you can see in this clip, the long-bearded volunteers, clad in full Airborne garb, do their best. Once safely on the ground, they then set up a remarkable inflatable chapel, complete with portable icons.
The Airborne Forces were established in the 1930s, during the worst of Stalinist repressions. I can’t help but a find a bit of tasty irony in the fact that, having survived the Bolshevik nightmare, the Orthodox Church is back in the field, among the Russian military, doing what it has done for two thousand years.
One of the key questions in the investigation into the brothers Tsarnayev is what intelligence agencies knew about them, especially Tamerlan, before the Boston attack on 15 April. There are lots of rumors swirling around, and it’s clear that the relationship between US intelligence and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, the main successor to the KGB) was fraught with mistrust and worse. Which should surprise no one who has ever dealt with a frenemy service.
What the FSB actually knew about Tamerlan “left of boom” is a vital matter, above and beyond what Moscow was willing to share with the Americans. As usual, the FSB is being pretty tight-lipped about it all, but the best picture we have so far is a long and detailed report in Novaya Gazeta by Irina Gordiyenko on 27 April, digging into the “Boston fuze,” which was based heavily on FSB sources. Given known FSB practices it’s always good to view any media reports with skepticism (e.g. efforts last week by Izvestiya to find a Georgian link to Tamerlan, which have been vehemently denied by Tbilisi), but it bears noting that Novaya Gazeta is pretty much the last real investigative newspaper left in Russia, and it publishes lots of stories that are critical of the FSB and the Kremlin generally. So Gordiyenko’s scoop bears serious examination. It’s been referenced in a lot of places around the world, but I’m providing here the fullest version – not a translation but a gist with a few of my comments. Make of this what you will, it’s quite the counterintelligence story, one that rings true to anyone versed in Russian espionage tradecraft and counterterrorism practices.
According to information obtained by Novaya Gazeta, Tamerlan Tsarnayev attempted to join the Islamist resistance in the Caucasus, which brought him to the attention of the FSB’s Dagestan Anti-Extremism Center (TsEPE, the regional office that tracks suspected extremists), which opened a file on him in 2012.
An officer from Dagestan’s TsEPE told Novaya Gazeta that Tamerlan Tsarnayev came onto his office’s radar in April 2012. Police agents had repeatedly spotted him together with Mahmoud Mansur Nidal, an 18 year-old half-Kumyk (a local Turkic people) and half-Palestinian young man who had been known to the Dagestan TsEPE for about a year at that point. Counterterrorism officers considered Nidal to be a liaison man charged with recruiting new members of the Islamist resistance. The FSB watched him closely, along with those Nidal came in contact with.
The FSB soon learned that the tall, muscular young man was Tamerlan Tsarnayev, who had come to Dagestan from the USA, where he was a permanent resident. An initial look into him (phone, internet activities) revealed little derogatory information about Tamerlan, but a check in the files revealed that this was not the first time he had appeared on the FSB’s CT radar. In early 2011, TsEPE learned, the FBI and FSB had communicated about the young man. Tamerlan appeared in the FSB investigation of the Canadian citizen William Plotnikov, a known radical Islamist, who was detained by the service in Dagestan; they asked to be sent related information about Tamerlan, who associated with Plotnikov.
Plotnikov, a 21 year-old Russian who converted to Islam in Canada, was arrested in December 2010 in the city of Izberbash on suspicion of ties to the Islamist resistance. He was interrogated first by TsEPE officers, then by officers of the Dagestan FSB. The interrogation was intense, and the CT officers learned that Plotnikov had come to Dagestan from Toronto, where he had lived for over six years with his parents; he had come alone to Dagestan to study Islam. He gave the FSB a list of names of persons from the North Caucasus living in Europe and America with whom he had been in contact online. TsEPE officers ran the names around social networks, and found among them one Tamerlan Tsarnayev “from Dagestan.” Plotnikov had communicated actively with Tsarnayev on a popular Islamic social network, the World Association of Muslim Youth (WAMY), which Tamerlan visited frequently via his YouTube page. [JRS: I've been following WAMY badness since the mid-1990s in the Balkans; this pretty overt AQ front had a US office in Herndon, VA until after 9/11.] FSB officers analyzed Tsarnayev’s YourTube page and requested data on his colleagues abroad. But the FSB never got any response, so Tamerlan’s name disappeared into the archives.
Plotnikov, however, had to be let go. He had not committed any obvious crime and his father in Toronto had begun make inquiries into his son’s whereabouts. William Plotnikov had told his parents nothing about his jihad tourism in Dagestan, so his parents panicked and asked Russian authorities to help find their son. Before his arrest and after he was released from FSB custody, Plotnikov lived for about six months in the village of Utamysh. Local residents clearly remembered a “quiet, kindly, and very religious Russian boy” who lived for several months in the village and who “was interested in nothing but fasting and prayer.”
It appears very likely that Tsarnayev and Plotnikov were well acquainted. Both were active and competitive boxers. Both grew an intense interest in Islam in 2009, which both their families confirmed. It seems that in 2009 Tamerlan attended a boxing competition in Canada, where his aunt lives, and it is very possible that he and Plotnikov met each other there. Tamerlan subsequently visited his aunt several times in Toronto, where Plotnikov and his parents lived too. Where and how they met later in Dagestan remains unclear.
“After Tsarnayev had come into our field of vision in Dagestan, the TsEPE officer explained, “we opened a current file on him. We pay special attention to ‘foreigners’ or Russians who have recently espoused Islam: they are high-strung and psychologically more vulnerable, they are more easily convinced to do whatever you want, even suicide bombing.”
Tamerlan had come to Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital, at the end of January 2012 to update his Russian passport; he had no return ticket. During his stay in Dagestan, Tamerlan lived the whole time in Makhachkala at his father’s apartment, and in March he briefly visited Chechnya to visit relatives in the Tsarnayevs’ native village of Chiri-Yurt.
His friend Mahmoud Nidal was killed on 19 May 2012 in Makhachkala, during combat with Russian special forces. A witness explained about the events: “First Nidal agreed to surrender, but after the women and children had been released, he refused. Nidal knew that the FSB had too much information on him.” Subsequently the National Anti-Terrorist Committee released a photo of Mahmoud Nidal in the forest with rebels who had joined the Makhachkala group. After Nidal’s death, according to TsEPE sources, Tamerlan moved from his father’s place to a relatives’ apartment and rarely went out in public; even his meals were brought him by his aunt.
Two months later, on 14 July 2012, eight persons were killed near the village of Utamysh in Kayakentskiy Rayon during a firefight with Russian troops. Among the dead was William Plotnikov, who several months before his death had left his village to join the Islamist resistance in the forests. After this, the FSB lost contact with Tamerlan. The police visited his father, who explained that his son had returned to the USA. Authorities did not believe his father, assuming that his son had gone to the forest like Plotnikov, since they knew that Tamerlan had left without waiting for his passport, which he had filed papers for at the end of June 2012.
The FSB later determined that on 16 July, two days after the death of William Plotnikov, Tamerlan Tsarnayev left from Mineralnyye Vody airport for Moscow, and subsequently on 17 July he departed Moscow for the United States. After this, the FSB sent its inquiry, via CIA, about Tamerlan, requesting a trace of his activities and contacts in the United States – but according to the FSB this inquiry went unanswered also.
“Tamerlan Tsarnayev came to Dagestan,” the TsEPE officer stated, “to join the rebels, but this did not work out. This is not easy, you first have to establish contact with the liaison, followed by a period of ‘quarantine’ – before accepting someone, the rebels check him out for several months. After the deaths of Nidal and Plotnikov, having lost his ‘contacts,’ Tsarnayev took fright and fled.” Tamerlan Tsarnayev’s case file was recently removed from the Dagestan TsEPE’s archives.
A couple days ago, in a post about the tragedy in Boston and the “meaning” of the Tsarnayev brothers, I indicated that, so far, I thought this was not probably about a failure of intelligence, rather something bigger in terms of policy.
To quote myself: “Federal law enforcement and intelligence didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory pre-bombing with this one, but neither do I (yet) see much evidence of what the pundits love to term an ‘intelligence failure’.”
That’s still a terrible cliche, but I might need to walk the cat back a bit here. Since the mask may have just fallen.
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a pretty informed guy, yesterday said something pretty revealing, which needs to be examined closely, regarding the FBI and the case: “They may have messed up, because Russia did call and say they have doubts about Tsarnaev. The FBI interviewed him, but then he went to Russia. And when he came back, he immediately started placing on his website very inflammatory items about jihad.”
Got that? Sen. Schumer is admitting what I, among others, had suspected, when this case broke. Having gotten a tip from the FSB, our frenemies in Moscow, the FBI had a chat with young Tamerlan. That’s always a risky move, since it rolls the dice on further radicalization, since there are only three possible outcomes from that talk:
1. Gosh, wow, I really love America, I’ll back off. My bad, bro.
2. Ummmm (sound of urinating one’s own pants)… Can I get out of this jam by cooperating?
3. See you in hell, infidel!
From the look of things, the FBI got Door No. 3 here, and Tamerlan promptly went off to a half-year in Dagestan where I’m sure we’ll eventually find out he was hanging with some unpleasant guys with jihad and mass murder on their minds. There is no doubt that Tamerlan came back from Dagestan a different, far more dangerous person. Did the FBI’s leaning on him help bring that about?
If it did – and at this point an ‘if’ is necessary, although Sen. Schumer’s leading comment is the giveaway, folks – then the FBI’s not keeping Tamerlan under surveillance upon his return from Dagestan isn’t just a fail, it’s an epic fail.
This has all happened before, many times. Most recently, Mohammed Merah, who went self-starting-jihad in southern France last year, was leaned on by French domestic intelligence (DCRI), which failed utterly, and instead induced further radicalization, including a trip to Pakistan and eventually mass murder at home. They, too, failed to keep a dangerous young man under surveillance.
Did the same thing happen with Tamerlan Tsarnayev? It’s looking increasingly like it might have. The other day I encouraged the Bureau to get to the bottom of this case, fast, and not bungle it like the Oklahoma City 1995 investigation (AKA OKBOMB). This time, if the FBI seems to be dragging its feet and doesn’t appear eager to answer the obvious questions …. well, we’ll know why.
[The opinions expressed here are the author's alone, and not those of any of his employers, past or present.]