Month: April 2013

Boston: Leaks and Unanswered Questions

For reasons best known to themselves, the Russian security services are currently leaking a fairly large amount of information about the dead Boston marathon bomber suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A Novaya Gazeta report published on April 27 gives data provided by Dagestan’s Center for Combating Extremism which flatly contradicts an earlier interior ministry statement that Tsarnaev only spent 3 or 4 days in the republic in 2012. The new information says that in April 2012

 aгенты силовиков неоднократно «фиксировали» его вместе с неким Махмудом Мансуром Нидалем

an 18-year old youth of Palestinian-Kumyk ethnicity whom they suspected of links with the Dagestani Islamic insurgency and of taking part in a terrorist attack on a police checkpoint in May 2012 (Nidal was killed during a special operation in Makhachkala on May 19 last year.)

Writing in EDM, Valery Dzutsev notes the NG report’s description of the treatment given to the 21 year-old Russian-Canadian Muslim convert William Plotnikov, who was detained and tortured by Russian/Dagestani security services in the town of Izerbash south of Makhachkala in 2010, provided them with a list of contacts, including Tsarnaev, and was killed by Dagestani police in July 2012:

The Russian security services admitted they extensively interrogated Plotnikov, a suspected radical who was a citizen of Canada and possibly of Russia. The authorities interrogated Plotnikov in 2010 despite the fact that they had practically no incriminatory information on him and thus eventually released him. At the same time, they followed up on Tsarnaev, who allegedly met and had meetings with Mahmud Mansur Nidal, a known radical, but did not even bother to question Tsarnaev, who was even more susceptible to being interrogated by the Russians since he apparently was applying for a Russian passport and did not have US citizenship.

Dzutsev continues:

The Russian media displayed an uncharacteristic attitude toward the suspected terrorists. On April 28, one of the country’s major TV channels, NTV, featured an interview with the mother of suspects, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, in which she again insisted that her sons had been “framed.” The substantive part of the interview revealed little that was new, but what was interesting was the very fact that she was featured on a major Russian TV channel (

This is not normally the way relatives of suspected terrorists are treated in Russia. On the one hand, Russian media are threatened by the law against “propagating terrorism,” and featuring a suspected terrorist’s mother would count as such an act. In addition, the relatives of suspected terrorists are often treated with suspicion, based on an implicit expectation that they could carry out an attack to avenge the killing of their relative. Zubeidat and Anzor Tsarnaev do not seem to have experienced any of these usual attitudes in Russia. If the Russian security services had prior information about Tamerlan’s attempt to join the North Caucasian insurgency, then they surely cannot trust his parents. Yet the Russian security services appear to be courting the parents instead of persecuting them. Zubeidat and Anzor Tsarnaev reportedly left Dagestan for Moscow. While in Dagestan, the police protected Anzor Tsarnaev from excessive contacts with journalists. This level of protection for someone whose sons are accused of terrorist activities, not only abroad, but also domestically, is highly unusual in Russia.

Update: Minding Russia has a complete translation of Irina Gordienko’s Novaya Gazeta article, with more background and discussion.

Present situation in the North Caucasus and Dagestan

In an in-depth interview for Kavkazskii Uzel, Emil Pain, director of CEPRS, Moscow, discusses the current situation in the North Caucasus. He believes that contrary to the assertions of some in the human rights community, tensions in the region are not diminishing but actually increasing. He ascribes this to a number of factors, but principally to what he sees as a change in the dynamics of political and religious activity: until recently, the types of conflict were localized: in the 1990s, the conflicts were mostly based on ethnic divisions, while in the 2000s they were predominantly religious in nature, especially focused on the division between Sunni and Sufi Islam. Since 2011, however, the different types of conflict have become combined with one another, embracing religious, ethnic and territorial issues. As examples he points to the Chechen-Ingush conflict, the conflict between Dagestan and Stavropol, and the reawakened hostility between Kalmykia and Astrakhan, dormant since the 1950s.

Pain also thinks that the apparent reduction in the level of tension is only superficial, and is due to a change of tactics by the boyeviki, who, instead of organizing large-scale terrorist attacks which tend to alienate the population, have switched to targeted attacks on individual figures in the power structures. He considers that Moscow is failing to suppress the insurgency because it tries to apply to it the same repressive measures and methods that it uses elsewhere in Russia – primarily against the liberals, who enjoy only marginal support in Russian society. And if such repressive techniques are applied to the nationalists, the result is quite the opposite of what is desired:

…они только увеличивают поддержку населения. В России оппозицию сдерживают тем, что ее обвиняют в сотрудничестве с Западом, то есть с Америкой. Попробуйте обвинить в этом оппозиционеров-националистов в русских краях и областях или нерусских республиках – и вас поднимут на смех, поскольку и те, и другие – еще большие антизападники, чем сама власть. Тот ограниченный набор мер, которым более ли менее удается сдерживать и погашать нестабильность в центральной части России, абсолютно неэффективен на Кавказе.

… they only increase popular support. In Russia the opposition is held back by accusing it of cooperation with the West, that is, with America. Try to accuse the opposition nationalists in Russian territories and regions or the non-Russian republics of this, and you will be laughed to scorn, as all those nationalists are even bigger anti-Westerners than the Russian government itself. The limited set of measures that are more or less successful in containing and suppressing the instability in the central part of Russia, is not effective in the Caucasus.

Pain also has an interesting commentary on the profile of the general social and political situation in the North Caucasus and Dagestan, saying that many observers think it is a form of “frozen traditionalism”:

А это неверно, потому что там происходят разные процессы, в том числе и модернизационные. Увеличивается активность и свобода выражения молодежи, чего раньше не было. Но эта активность молодежи не находит реализации в позитивной форме, и она направляется в сторону радикальных действий. Наконец, играет свою роль общая социально-экономическая ситуация в республике, которая далека от позитивной. Здесь дольше и тяжелее проявляются кризисные явления в экономике. Здесь острее, чем где бы то ни было, проявилась деиндустриализация. Сокращение рабочих мест в индустриальной сфере в Дагестане просто разительное, огромное. И, к сожалению, это не та проблема, которую можно решить за месяцы и даже за годы.

But that is not true, because various processes are taking place there, including the process of modernization. There is an increase in the activity and freedom of expression of young people that was not there before. However, this activity among the young is not finding implementation in a positive way, and it is being directed towards radical actions. In addition, the overall socio-economic situation in the republic is playing a role that is far from positive. The economic crisis is longer and worse here than in other parts of Russia. It is more acute than anywhere else, and there has been de-industrialization. The job cuts in Dagestan’s industrial sector in Dagestan have been sweeping, dramatic. And unfortunately this is not a problem that will be capable of solution within months or even years.

Money, Guns, Islam and Football

Sam Knight (GQ), on Dagestan’s Anzhi Makhachkala Football Club:

When you land at Makhachkala airport, the baggage hall is decked out with posters of the team’s Russian and Dagestani players (and Eto’o). Huge posters line the highways and street corners: “Anji: New History”, “Anji: Territory of Peace”. Not subtle, really. Neither is the symbolism of the new 30,000-seat, “Anji- Arena”, built on the bones of an old stadium, and due to open in March – and rumoured to be staging a game at Russia’s 2018 World Cup – which is slap-bang next to the housing complex for the local FSB headquarters (the successor to the KGB). Then there is the academy, which ran trials for 2,000 Dagestani boys last autumn, and the new football pitches being built across Makhachkala, to give young men something to do.

Extremism and Human Rights

A number of sources have commented on the negative effect the Boston Marathon bombings may have had on the image and public perception of the North Caucasus region and Chechnya. Some observers have focused on the extremist politics that have been woven into Islam by radical Muslims, a worldwide phenomenon, and one that is destructive of religion itself.

The extremist politics have also had a destructive effect on human rights activities in Russia. When I first started to work as a translator with a fairly well-known website that monitored human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, both the Russian-language and English-language comments on articles on the site were very few and far between – in fact there often weren’t any at all. But after a few years, in the early part of 2009, the Russian-language comments became extremely busy – and they nearly all appeared to come from former residents of the North Caucasus who had emigrated to the West and had either obtained asylum there or were in the process of seeking it. Many of the comments they posted were indicative of a particular  mind-cast: hateful and intolerant of Western social conditions and Western values, with an anti-American slant that was accompanied by an anti-Semitism that masked itself as “criticism” of Israeli policy in the Middle East.

The website’s original function as an observer and monitor of the human rights situation in Chechnya and southern Russia became obscured, and in place of the previous news reports and informed analysis many of the articles that were published formed part of a polemical and political debate about the North Caucasus insurgency and the role of Islamic extremism in its developing profile. The site became the object of vicious attacks from sites like Kavkaz Center, and finally in 2010 it ceased to operate altogether, though its content has been preserved and is still accessible.

Black Holes

At the end of a recent VOA interview with North Caucasus expert Jean-François Ratelle, there’s this:

Ф.Т.: В России и в США теракт в Бостоне и причастность к нему братьев Царнаевых вызвала бурю дискуссий и спекуляций. Многие говорят о «неотвеченных вопросах» и «черных дырах» в этой истории. Есть что-либо, что лично вам кажется странным?

Ж-Фр. Р.: Самая важная «черная дыра» – это отсутствие объективной информации о том времени, которое Тамерлан провел в России. Мы не получили данных о том, вступал ли он в контакт с экстремистами в Чечне или Дагестане, был ли он допущен в тренировочный лагерь? Я не исключаю, что подобная информация всплывет на каком-то этапе из российских источников. Но мне кажется очень интересным тот факт, что российское правительство, обладая информацией о том, что Тамерлан направлялся на Кавказ для проникновения в тренировочный лагерь – о чем они предупредили ранее американское ФБР – позволило ему беспрепятственно проникнуть на Кавказ и оставаться там так долго.

FT: In Russia and the U.S.the terror attack in Boston and the Tsarnaev brothers’ involvement in it has caused a storm of debate and speculation. Many are talking about “unanswered questions” and “black holes” in this story. Is there anything that you personally find strange?

J.-Fr. R: The most important “black hole” is the lack of objective information about the time that Tamerlan spent in Russia. We haven’t received data on whether he entered into contact with extremists in Chechnya or Dagestan, or whether he was admitted to a training camp. I don’t rule out the possibility that such information will pop up at some stage from Russian sources. But I find it very interesting that that the Russian government, being in possession of information that Tamerlan was heading to the Caucasus in order to join a training camp – something they had earlier warned the American FBI about – allowed him to pass unobstructed into the Caucasus and to stay there for so long. [my tr.]


Yulia Latynina (, on the trial of Alexey Navalny:

Его интересует только одно. Чтобы все люди, которые это делают – убивают, заказывают киллерам, манипулируют рынком – имели возможность продолжать это делать безнаказанно. Попытка помешать этому, как пытается помешать этому Навальный, и является, с точки зрения СК, преступлением.

The Investigative Committee is interested in only one thing. That all the people who do these things – murder, hire killers, manipulate the market – should be able to continue doing them with impunity. To try to stop them, as Navalny is attempting to do, is, from the Investigative Committee’s point of view, a crime.

The Location of Terror

Yulia Latynina (, on the Boston bombers:

Как сказал в одной из своих проповедей Саид Бурятский, который до того как стать исламистом-моджахедом, был простым русским парнем Александром Тихомировым из Улан-Удэ, «прошли те времена, когда мы сражались за свободу Чечни, за это языческое понятие. Теперь мы сражаемся за Аллаха. Прошли те времена, когда каждый чеченец был нам брат. Теперь русский, если он моджахед, нам брат, а чеченец, если он кяфир, наш злейший враг».

То есть то, что Царнаевы чеченцы – это не удивительно, но это совершенно неважно, так же, как неважно, что Троцкий – еврей. В Бостоне они сражались не за свободу Чечни. Они сражались за всемирный Халифат.

Они вели оборонительный джихад.

As Said Buryatsky, who before becoming an Islamist mujahid was an ordinary Russian guy, Alexander Tikhomirov from Ulan-Ude, said in one of his sermons: “Gone are the days when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for that pagan  idea. Now we are fighting for Allah. Gone are the days when every Chechen was our brother. Now the Russian, if he’s a muhajid, is our brother, and the Chechen, if  he’s a kafir, our worst enemy.”

So the fact that the Tsarnaevs are Chechens is not surprising. but it is totally unimportant, just as unimportant as the fact that Trotsky was Jewish. What they were fighting for in Boston was not the freedom of Chechnya. They were fighting for a worldwide Caliphate.

They were waging defensive jihad



RFE/RL has republished Liz Fuller’s 2010 overview of Internet sites linked to the North Caucasus insurgency.

It is of course impossible even to guess what role the Internet glorification of the insurgency plays in mobilizing young men and women to “head for the forest” and join the fighters’ ranks. But to judge from the Chechen authorities’ determination to create equally attractive counterpropaganda sites, that role certainly is not negligible.


Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe, and senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, on the limits of cooperation with Russia (MSNBC):

The Russian services still see the U.S. as the “main opponent”––a term often used by Vladimir Putin [the glavnyy protivnik in Russian]––that must be countered. This level of mutual mistrust is a significant barrier to the kind of operational information sharing that would be required in pursuing the Boston bombers Chechen connections and other potential cases.