Russia’s intelligence agencies monitored the activities of a suspected Boston Marathon bomber throughout his six months in Dagestan last year and noted he had been in contact with two known extremists who were later killed in shootouts with security police, according to investigation sources.
Information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s activities in Dagestan during the first half of 2012 has been leaked to Russian media in recent days and it indicates the Boston bombing suspect was under extensive surveillance during his stay in Russia’s Caucasus region.
U.S. authorities have charged Tamerlan and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with carrying out the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded more than 260 others. Tamerlan died April 19 after a shootout with Boston police.
The Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta has published details of the surveillance of Tamerlan Tsarnaev during his stay in Dagestan. Irina Gordienko, its investigative reporter for the Caucasus region, said the information came from an officer in the Dagestani Counter-Extremism Center who was directly involved in the investigation.
Surveillance details leaked
According to Gordienko, while in Dagestan, Tamerlan had contacts with two foreigners who were already engaged in jihadist activities – a Canadian boxer named William Plotnikov, 21, and a Palestinian named Mahmoud Mansur Nidal, 18. Both men were on Russia’s jihadist watch list even before Tsarnaev arrival in Dagestan.
Nidal, accused by Russian authorities of involvement in a bombing in the Dagestani regional capital that killed 13, died in a shootout with police on May 19, 2012. Plotnikov was killed in a shootout last July along with six Islamist rebels in Dagestan.
Gordienko said her counter-terrorism source in Dagestan told her police studying Plotnikov’s computer and internet usage found evidence of frequent contacts with Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
First alarm bell
“That was when the first alarm bell rang and the locals sent a request to their Moscow chiefs [in the FSB intelligence agency] asking for information about an American, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but didn’t get any,” Gordienko told VOA.
U.S. officials said last month the FSB had been in contact with the FBI and CIA in the United States making inquiries about Tsarnaev in 2011, even before he went to Dagestan, and both in turn asked the FSB for any information it had about Tsarnaev.
“The FBI requested, but did not receive, more specific or additional information from the foreign government” The FBI said of its request to the FSB.
Though Gordienko’s security contact said the Dagestani Counter-Extremism Center had no evidence of a face-to-face meeting between Tamerlan and Plotnikov last year, he said Tamerlan was known to meet frequently with Nidal.
“They’d been visiting mosques together, spending a lot of time with each other,” the source told Gordienko.
According to Dagestani officials, Tsarnaev left the area and returned to the United States via Moscow two days after Plotnikov was killed.
Questions on intelligence sharing
While Gordienko said there was little doubt that the FSB’s Moscow headquarters had full reports on Tsarnaev’s activities in Dagestan, intelligence experts say it is common practice for such information to be carefully edited before it’s shared with the any law enforcement or intelligence agencies of other countries.
That’s why Paul Goble, a special adviser on Soviet and Russian nationality issues in the administration of then President George H.W. Bush, said it would be extremely useful for U.S. intelligence agencies to have direct access to the information collected by Russia’s security services in Dagestan.
“Some people in Dagestan may have known more than some people were told in Moscow, and Moscow would have made some decisions about what to share,” Goble said. “And that’s the whole point – there’s simply going to be more data [in Dagestan], than there will be in Moscow.”
Both Goble and Thomas De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research organization in Washington, say the Boston Marathon bombing shows that the U.S. government needs to pay much closer attention to the Caucasus region and in particular to Dagestan, where an Islamist insurgency movement has been gaining strength.
“The situation in Dagestan is incredibly unstable and dangerous,” said Goble.
De Waal, writing in the Financial Times, said Western governments had all but ignored the Caucasus since Russia’s bloody crackdown in the region more than a decade ago. Now, he said, that has changed.
“Look at the Tsarnaev brothers. We are a long way from knowing who, if anyone, ordered them to bomb the Boston Marathon, but there is now a trail that leads from Massachusetts back to Dagestan and Grozny [the capital of Chechnya],” De Waal wrote. “At the least, someone there had the will to export terror to the west.”
“Even the most diehard Russian patriots will have to admit by now that opening up the north Caucasus is a better option than leaving it as a dark forgotten corner of Europe incubating violence,” De Waal concluded.
Though U.S. officials complained that intelligence-sharing with Russia had been extremely limited in recent years, the New York Times reports that has changed somewhat since the Boston Marathon bombing last month. The newspaper said presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have spoken twice on the phone since then to encourage more intelligence gathering cooperation.
According to the Times, Russian intelligence had even provided U.S. officials with a transcript of an early phone call they intercepted indicating that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had embraced extremist Islamist beliefs.