Caucasus Causality

April 24, 2013
Putin's scorched-earth policies in the North Caucasus, and bad FSB intelligence, have made the U.S. wary of Russian data on jihadists.

So far, and in spite of the American media’s best effort to acquaint its audience with a country called Chechnya (and the Czech embassy’s best efforts to remind that audience of the excellence of Bohemian pilsner), there is little evidence linking the Boston marathon bombings to any jihadist organization or cell headquartered in the North Caucasus. CNN cited an unnamed U.S. official versed in latest intelligence who said that the Brothers Tsarnaev had no discernible association with al-Qaeda, its affiliates, or any entity that may pose a “significant terrorist threat to the United States.” The Mujahedeen of the Caucasus Emirates, the main Salafi-jihadist franchise in the region, headed by Doku Umarov and responsible for previous attacks on the Moscow subway and Domodedovo airport, denied any affiliation to the Tsarnaevs or the Boston bombings. The Caucasus Emirate, the group insisted in a published statement, was only “at war” with Russia, not the United States. Russia’s branch of Interpol appears to agree; it possesses no information that would implicate the young Chechens in the Caucasus Emirates. Other anonymous Russian security sourceshave similarly disclaimed ties between Umarov and the Tsarnaevs.

Nevertheless, and in spite of a growing counterterrorism consensus that “lone wolf” attacks will proliferate as the capacity of organized global jihadist networks is steadily diminished, the search for a clerical-guerrilla patron behind the Tsarnaevs continues. Dzhokhar, the younger brother now in custody, has left only a tenuous data trail on his VKontakte profile, citing his interests as “Everything about Chechnya,” “Chechens,” “Mosques” and “Islam.” (The bit about the highest priority being “career and money” is perhaps too befitting of an exclusively American psycho.) So far, most journalists have seized upon the FBI’s statement that:

In early 2011, a foreign government asked the FBI for information about [elder brother Tamarlan] 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 FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members. The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign.

The foreign government is Russia’s. Yet if the Federal Security Service (FSB), knew in 2011 that Tamerlan had become an extremist, why did it let him travel to Russia in 2012 and stay in one of the most volatile and Islamist-dominant regions of the country? As Anna Nemtsova hasnoted, 67 people died from terrorist attacks in Dagestan in the first four months of this year; the weekend before America awoke to discover another one of its major cities convulsed by panic and fear, Russian tanks and artillery had pummeled a tiny hamlet of 4,000 in Dagestan, forcing hundreds to flee to a neighboring town. The elder Tsarnaev managed to stay in Makhachkala for six months, visiting relatives, without (so far as we know) being detained or interrogated by local Dagestani authorities or Russian police. The Dagestan Interior Ministry says that neither Tamerlan nor Dzhokhar was ever in its database, which must be promiscuously large. If Tamerlan joined any “underground groups” or jamaats, then he did so under the nose of more than one state apparatus, and no group seems eager to want to claim him as one of their own.

The likelier explanation for what happened in Boston is that Tamerlan Tsarnaev started becoming a convert to jihadism during his time in the United States, and decided to take his impressionable younger brother with him. An apparent prompt or accelerant in this process was his tutelage by “Misha,” an Armenian convert to Islam whom the Tsarnaevs’ stateside relatives have identified as the person who radicalized Tamerlan. Still another catalyst may have been his virtual exposure to fellow boxer Feiz Mohammad, a Salafi sheikh based in Sydney who has made familiar noises about raped women, Jews, and non-believers. (Australia’s attorney general has taken to the airwaves to argue that the sheikh has been rehabilitated; I’m not sure the attorney general can really know that, but the point is how many more unannounced followers of Feiz Mohammed’s more outspoken former self are currently lurking around various YouTube channels and chat forums.)

Finally, Tamerlan’s time in Dagestan, where his mother apparentlyencouraged his piety, likely contributed to his indoctrination in extremist ideology, which usually happens along a continuum. Indeed, a preliminary scan of the brother’s cell phones and computers suggests no accomplices, and the captured Dzhokhar has told investigators that the boys learned how to build pressure cooker bombs by reading Inspire, the late Anwar al-Awlaki’s how-to guide for would-be jihadists.

The Christian Science Monitor quoted Andrei Soldatov, co-author of the excellent book on post-Soviet Russian intelligence, The New Nobility, who said that the department of the FSB responsible for mining social media for terrorist threats and red flags probably just screwed up. Although feared for investigative methods that date back to the czarist Okhrana, the FSB has form in bungling counterterrorism gifts: a man it captured while he was crossing from Russia to Dagestan in 1996 and then jailed for six months before letting him go was none other than Aymann al-Zawahiri, now the head of al-Qaeda.

The Putin regime has not allowed a good atrocity to go to waste, extending one blood-boltered hand of friendship while using the other to smack us around a bit. The goal is obviously to embarrass and shame U.S. law enforcement for failing to heed unspecified Russian warnings about the Tsarnaevs as well as to advocate a strengthened intelligence-sharing between two countries, which have lately fallen out over legislative blacklists, an adoption ban, and Russia’s unignorable deterioration of human rights standards, which now includes a legal Thermidor against Kremlin critics. President Obama personally thanked Putin for whatever assistance he gave to the investigation, whereupon the latter lectured Obama on America’s foreign policy, which has only grown closer to Russia’s under this administration. Sergei Markov, an ex-advisor to Putin, suggested (wrongly) that the Tsarnaevs were granted entry to the United States as political refugees. When will you naïve democracy-promoters learn that there is no such thing as a victim seeking asylum, only an enemy of the state? Meanwhile, this incident was used to underscore the need for the White House to see the North Caucasus as yet another locus in the global war on terror, the waging of which is much more effective if you’re willing to play by Moscow’s rules…

Never have the Russian political elite been keener to depict their own national security as fatally compromised and to source an act of foreign aggression to their own shores, in spite of all available evidence. Vladimir Kotlyar, who is on the international law council of the Russian Foreign Ministry, extrapolated from the marathon bombings the need for U.S. officials to re-evaluate their support for the Syrian opposition, neatly conflating the contingent of Chechens who have joined Jabhat al-Nusra – al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, which the U.S. has already proscribed – with the entirety of the anti-Assad rebellion. What Kotlyar didn’t see fit to add was that the very presence of Russian nationals in Jabhat al-Nusra bespeaks a rather stark intelligence failure on the part of his own government, which he now commends to us as a credible partner for the tracking and preempting of jihadism.

The Kremlin’s opportunism has predictably been seconded by several American “realists” and at least one U.S. representative who must think that any nation that will put a corpse on trial is quite serious indeed about law and order. Yet apart from the lack of any discernible Caucasian causality in the Tsarnaevs case, there are other reasons to suspect that U.S. homeland security types will still look skeptically upon whatever the siloviki are selling. That’s because the breakdown in U.S.-Russian security cooperation post-9/11 owed as much to shoddy data coming out of the FSB as it did to the United States’ growing concerns about what Russia was using that data to do in within and without its own borders. More often than not, any Chechen who has failed to be co-opted into the Instagrammed kleptocracy of Ramzan Kadryov is automatically considered suspect in a manner that really does redefine the term “racial profiling.”

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University specializing in Russia’s organized crime and its security sector, doesn’t think that the FBI bears too much blame for not acting on whatever information the FSB might have passed along or requested with respect to the Tsarnaevs: “The FBI and other Western intelligence services have become wary of FSB warnings because in the past, too often the Russians have seen every devout Muslim as a jihadist-in-waiting and accused critics of the Kremlin of being terrorist masterminds,” Galeotti emailed me. “To that extent, sadly, the investigations of Tsarnaev may well have been less searching that it might.”

And where chauvinism and guilty-until-proven-guilty dragnets haven’t compromised bilateral arrangements, discrediting state conspiracy surely has done. Anyone who seriously investigated the series of Moscow apartment bombings in 1999 – and most especially the “training exercise” that nearly razed a multi-family residence in the city of Ryazan – believes that FSB agents intentionally killed, and tried to kill, Russian citizens in order to blame it on jihadists and create a pretext for military action in Chechnya (which resulted in the Second Chechen War and the razing of many thousands more residences). Putin, then the former director of the FSB and Yeltsin’s acting prime minister, saw his domestic popularity soar because of his macho pronouncements about retaliation: “We will rub them out in the outhouse” was the Wyatt Earp locution that most now remember.

What few choose to recall, however, is just how uninterested Putin was and is in the “hearts and minds” strategy for defeating Islamist insurgents by empowering the majority Muslim population. Not widely reported stateside was how he instinctively reached yet again for the right anatomical metaphor in answering a challenging reporter from Le Monde after the Nord-Ost siege in 2002, an event which ended with 129 people being asphyxiated by knock-out gas shot by Russian special forces into a Moscow theatre filled with hostages and Chechen terrorists wielding explosives. (The Kremlin of course counted that operation an unmitigated success.) Speaking at a press conference sometime later, Putin snapped at the French journalist:

If you are ready to become a radical adherent of Islam and you are ready to be circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow. We are a country of many faiths. We have specialists in this. I will recommend that the operation be performed in such a way that nothing will ever grow there again.

Strange how the same foreign policy hands who worry that Washington’s cozy relationship with the Israeli General Staff is compromising U.S. national security see in a thug who talks like that a viable sub-contractor for improving America’s standing in the Islamic world.

As it happens, U.S. diplomats have long, if quietly, grasped the problem with Putin’s scorched-earth policy for taming the North Caucasus. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns drafted an insightful memo on Chechnya in 2006, which was subsequently published by WikiLeaks. He goes through the history of Chechen separatism, the importation of Salafi-jihadism from Arab countries (the region had typically been the purview of Sufi Islam, which Tamerlan Tsarnaev tellingly denounced as the faith of “idolators”), and the war industry of contraband oil that cropped up under the Yeltsin administration. This was a period in which the Russian military establishment was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and more or less running itself as a corrupt fiefdom (little has changed, judging by Putin’s recentsacking of the Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, whose staff – one of whom was his younger mistress – stole hundreds of millions from state coffers). When the KGB colonel came to power, he pursued a two-pronged approach which Burns characterizes as follows:

The first prong was to gain control of the Russian military deployed there, which had long operated without real central control and was intent on staying as long as its officers could profit from the war. The second prong was ‘Chechenization,’ which in effect means turning Chechnya over to former nationalist separatists willing to profess loyalty to Russia. There are two difficulties with Putin’s strategy. First, while Chechenization has been successful in suppressing nationalist separatists within Chechnya, it has not been as effective against the Jihadist militants, who have broadened their focus and are gaining strength throughout the North Caucasus. Second, as long as former separatist warlords run Chechnya, Russian forces will have to stay in numbers sufficient to ensure that the ex-separatists remain ‘ex.’ More broadly, the suffering of an abused and victimized population will continue, and with it the alienation that feeds the insurgency.”

In other words, permanent military occupation met by an unending supply of holy warriors who will not confine themselves to a proximate battlefield.  This perhaps sounds familiar. Burns’ prediction has indeed been borne out by the last seven years, and yet the grim architects of such a desert called peace now come bearing gifts and assurances that, no matter what just happened in Massachusetts, we’re all in this together.