In 2011 the Russian government requested that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) look into the background and activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two Chechen brothers who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings. The FBI responded, apparently, by conducting some interviews of Tamerlan and his relatives and then concluding that Tamerlan posed no security threat. This despite the fact that during these interviews, according to some reports, Tamerlan espoused militant Islamic leanings and even made an effort to convert the FBI agents who interviewed him to Islam.
The next year, Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan, where he spent six months. Dagestan is home to a large number of ethnic Chechens, including Tamerlan's relatives. It is also the current center of gravity for radical Islamic Chechens. A portion of Dagestan has been proclaimed the Islamic Caucasus Emirate by Doku Umarov, the leader of the jihadists in this area and the self-proclaimed Emir of this Islamic mini-state. Jihadist training camps in this area have trained thousands of radicals from all over the world.
The Caucasus Emirate also has strong connections to Al-Qaida. In 2008, Ayman al-Zawahiri identified the Caucasus region as one of the three fronts in Al-Qaida's worldwide struggle. The Caucasus is referred to by radical Islamists as the "door to Eastern Europe". Recently, Al-Qaida even began translating its online magazine, Inspire, into Russian, so that it could circulate more widely among fighters in the Caucasus.
Nor have Chechens jihadists limited their prior activities solely to Russian soil. Five Chechens were arrested in France in 2010 during a counterterrorism operation. Later that same year another 11 Chechens were arrested in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. They were accused of recruiting jihadist fighters, raising money for the Emirate in the Caucasus and planning an attack in Belgium. One of those arrested was later accused of planning to attack a NATO cargo train. In 2011, the Czechs reported that they had uncovered a Chechen terrorist cell in their country. In 2012 the Spanish grabbed three members of a Chechen cell in that country planning attacks on US and British targets.
According to Tamerlan's father, the trip to Dagestan was for the purpose of obtaining a new Russian passport. Why that was a priority, why it would necessitate a trip to Russia instead of a Russian consulate in the United States and why it would take six months, remain unclear. None of these factors seem to have piqued the interest of the FBI. Nor did they appear to make any connection between the tip from the Russians and the spreading activities of Chechen jihadists outside the Caucasus.
At the conclusion of his time in Dagestan, Tamerlan returned home. He openly championed radical Islamic causes. He grew his beard out in the fashion favored by jihadists. He posted videos on YouTube glorifying the cause of jihad. At least one of these videos featured music with the sound of explosions in the background. The FBI either ignored all these factors or, if it monitored Tamerlan at all, did it so ineffectually that it missed all of the preparations by him and his brother, Dzhokhar, for the massacre that would follow.
The Russians are many things. They are proud, abrasive and brusque. Dealing with them in intelligence exchanges is not always pleasant or productive.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from Chechnya. | Photo: Associated Press |
The Russians are not fools. They do not imagine the danger posed by Chechen radicals. They have been confronting this threat for many years. They have suffered a long string of brutal attacks at the hands of these individuals. In 2002, Chechens seized 850 hostages at the Moscow Theater and held them for two and one-half days. One hundred and seventy people died in that attack. In 2004, Chechens took over a school in the Russian town of Beslan and held the teachers, student body and a large numbers of parents hostage. When the smoke cleared from the rescue operation mounted by Russian special forces, 380 people were dead.
In 2010, a string of bombings in the Moscow subway system killed 40 people and wounded hundreds more. In 2011 a Chechen attack on the Moscow airport killed 35.
The list goes on.
In short, if the Russians tell you they are worried about the activities of a particular Chechen male, because they suspect he might have ties to extremists on their soil, you might want to listen.
We have seen this pattern before. Major Hassan, the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shooting, attracted attention for years prior to opening fire on his fellow servicemen. He openly espoused sympathies for radical jihadists with whom we were at war. He alarmed his fellow soldiers and prompted complaints about his behavior. He was retained on active duty. At the time he committed mass murder in Texas he was simultaneously wearing the uniform of the United States of America and in active communication with Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
It remains unclear why no action was taken to follow-up on the lead regarding Tamerlan we received from the Russians. Perhaps it was bureaucratic inertia. Perhaps it was a case of excessive political correctness and fear of being accused of singling out a young Chechen man based on his religion. Perhaps we did not have the right personnel in the right place at the right time, and the connections that needed to be made were not.
I do not know. What I do know is that in counterterrorism work time is precious. Leads must be pursued aggressively and run to ground. There is no room for going through the motions. People's lives hinge on the thoroughness and speed with which work is done.
Two years before bombs went off in Boston we received a concrete lead that should have allowed us to prevent this attack before it ever began. We did nothing with that opportunity. We wasted two years. Two years, it turns out, we did not have.