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What did Russian intelligence know about Tamerlan Tsarnayev?

May 1, 2013

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.

8 Comments
  1. John – What do you think of the argument (made by some of the FBI’s defenders) that the FSB is suffering the same signal-to-noise problem that’s drowning all the Western intel services? I don’t assume that they’re any more competent than we are; I figure they’re less hobbled by constitutional restrictions, but more plagued by lousy info technology and crummy tradecraft that was only designed to catch Cold War spies instead of troublesome Muslims (whom I think they had pretty much gotten a lid on during the, an, vremya zastoi.)

    • Tom: That strikes me as about right. The FSB has fewer legal restrictions than US intelligence, but isn’t as technologically advanced, plus the Chekisty have their own political problems. They’re good, but they drop the ball all the time too. But if the FBI really did ignore repeated FSB attempts to get DC’s attention – we don’t know yet – then there was a serious failure here, on the US side.

  2. I’m going to post a dissenting view here. I don’t view the Tsarnaevs as merely home-grown jihadists Made in America. I think they had inspiration and training from Dagestan, and that one scenario is that they are exploited by other forces who take advantage of their jihadism to set them up to do damage to settle larger scores, i.e. payback for Magnitsky and just general malice from Moscow to keep the US down.

    If the FSB knew of not one, but two, and maybe even three, hands-on jihadists that THEY assassinated, who were in touch with Tsarnaev, why the hell didn’t they tell the FBI?! I’m sorry, but that’s obviously REALLY important information. Had the FBI known that, it might have changed their reaction.

    There’s also the fact that Tamerlan’s pal who was killed by the FBI in Florida whose father worked in the Grozny mayor’s officer and had connections to Kadyrov. All of this needs more research. If you shut your mind to the prospect that they weren’t just Youtube losers, you don’t do due diligence.

    Some of my coverage:

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia/2013/04/novaya-gazeta-finds-possible-ties-of-tsarnaev-to-extremist-underground-in-dagestan.html

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