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The budding Spywar over Tamerlan Tsarnayev

May 9, 2013

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.]

2 Comments
  1. Jacksonian permalink

    Do you seriously expect people to believe that the NSA was either so super competent it handed off Tsarnaev surveillance to the FBI once Tamerlane came back from Dagestan, who bungled it, or worse never had Tsarnaev under legitimate surveillance while abroad even after the FSB warnings that he was a militant (for God’s sake, 95% of Americans would heartily agree a U.S. citizen headed for a region known to be a hotbed of Islamist terrorism is fair game for electronic monitoring while outside the U.S., yes)?

    Neither version of events is flattering to the NSA. And mind you, this is what nearly everyone agrees IS the NSA’s legitimate mission. The failure of Clapper’s ‘collect everything’ approach by creating bazillions of haystacks such that the actual jihadist needles get lost amidst all the juicy data on politicians, corporations and ordinary Americans could not be more evident.

    • If you think NSA – or any intelligence agency, anywhere – “sees everything” you’ve been spending too much time with Glenn Greenwald.

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