US, Russia missed chances to intercept Tamerlan Tsarnaev

Russia warned the US about the future Boston Marathon bomber back in 2011. But when Mr. Tsarnaev returned to Russia the next year, authorities there apparently left him alone. 

Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP
Tamerlan Tsarnaev (l.), fights Lamar Fenner of Chicago in the 201 weight class during the 2009 Golden Gloves National Boxing Tournament at the Salt Palace, May 4, 2009. Mr. Tsameav was identified as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings and was killed Friday during a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass.

The revelation that the main suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings were two Russian citizens of half-Chechen, half-Avar (Dagestani) ethnicity, has prompted Kremlin leaders to dust off a longstanding argument that the United States should listen to Moscow's warnings about extreme Islamist terrorists, whether they hail from Chechnya, or Syria, or anywhere else.

The Russians say the US should turn away from its current path of criticizing Russia on human rights issues and embrace greater anti-terrorist cooperation in the name of common civilizational values.

That pitch was made explicitly by President Vladimir Putin in a Saturday telephone conversation with Barack Obama. A brief statement posted on the Kremlin website noted that "both sides emphasized their interest in increasing coordination between Russian and American intelligence services in the fight against international terrorism."

"I would like to remind you that since the early 2000s, when there was a war going on in the northern Caucasus, Putin has said more than once that there can't be domestic and foreign terrorists, and you can't flirt with them," Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told journalists Saturday. "They can't be differentiated. You can't deal with some of them, and not others. They all equally deserve nonacceptance."

Islamic militants in the northern Caucasus are denying involvement in the marathon attack. "The Caucasian Mujahedeen are not fighting with the United States of America," according to a Bloomberg translation of the statement, which came from unidentified rebel commanders in Dagestan. "We are at war with Russia, which is responsible not only for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims.”

Missed opportunities 

The emerging trail of evidence suggests that Russian security forces did indeed warn the FBI about the elder of the two brothers accused in the bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A statement posted on the FBI website admits that "in early 2011, a foreign government asked the FBI for information about Mr. Tsarnaev. The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups."

The statement continues: "The FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members. The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign." The "foreign government" – which officials have since admitted was Russia – was informed before the matter was subsequently put to rest, it says.

But Russian security, inexplicably, also dropped the ball, apparently failing to pick up the elder Tsarnaev brother or even question him during a lengthy visit to Russia the next year. The Dagestani Interior Ministry, the main law enforcement body in the Caspian republic of Dagestan, where Tsarnaev spent as many as seven months in 2012 visiting relatives, said in a statement Saturday that "the Tsarnaev brothers are not on our databases of those wanted."

The independent Interfax agency quoted a source in the Chechen security service as saying that "according to our information, these people did not appear on the republic's territory." Interfax also quoted a senior security source in Moscow, presumably from the FSB secret service, as also denying any knowledge of the Tsarnaevs. "Since the brothers Tsarnaev lived outside Russia, our special services were unable to provide our foreign partners with any operationally relevant information," the source is quoted as saying.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russia's security services and editor of, which specializes in security issues, says a bureaucratic foul-up probably explains how Tsarnaev slipped away.

"There is a department inside the FSB that's responsible for monitoring social networks," he says.

Suspicious Internet activity

Both Tsarnaev brothers were active on the Internet, mostly on Russian-language websites such as VKontakte and through Russian-language postings on YouTube, which could have triggered the FSB's interest.

"It seems likely that this FSB department may have flagged some comments made by Tamerlan, and forwarded a request to the FBI for more information.... But, perhaps, that one FSB department noticed something, but did not provide greater details to the FBI, and also didn't inform other FSB departments. That's fairly typical," he adds.

Russian analysts say the affair illustrates a dire need for stepped-up cooperation between US and Russian intelligence services.

"I would not be surprised if these Chechens arrived in the US under some program designed to help Chechen political refugees from 'Russian oppression,'" says Sergei Markov, a former adviser to Mr. Putin.

"It's a pity that the US Congress is under the sway of cold warriors who think Russia should be isolated and punished. This is the main reason our relations have reached such a low point lately," he says.

"I believe both Putin and Obama want to improve things. And it's possible that this tragedy [is] an opportunity to rethink attitudes, to show Russia to the US public in a different light. There is no doubt that Russia stands ready to cooperate in the security sphere," Mr. Markov adds.

Russians warn of blowback

Russian officials have been quick to fit the Tsarnaev chapter into the Kremlin's overall, and oft-repeated, narrative that US support for Islamist extremists – from the mujahedin who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s through to Chechen separatists fighting Russia, Libyan insurgents who overthrew Muammar Qaddafi, and today's rebels in Syria – only leads to "blowback" that ultimately damages the US and its interests.

Vladimir Kotlyar, a member of the Russian Foreign Ministry's international law council, told the independent Kommersant FM radio station Saturday that the US needs to make a systematic reappraisal of its policies, in particular its current support for Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow strongman Bashar al-Assad.

"It is known that Chechens – sources cite different figures, between 600 and 6,000 of them – are fighting in Syria on the insurgents' side. They are among the most active militants, well trained and comprising the insurgent's 'armed fist'.... It is time the Americans finally drew the conclusion that there are not 'good' and 'bad' terrorists, 'ours' and 'theirs'," he said.

Rumors of Chechen battalions fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and alongside jihadists in other places have often proved to be false or vastly exaggerated.

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