Russia, the Caucasus Emirate, Cloaks and Daggers: Repeating the Need for Increased U.S.-Russia Cooperation in the War against Global Jihadism
Misinformation (and disinformation) in US mainstream media and academia regarding Russia and their Caucasus Emirate (CE) mujahedin, continues to poison the U.S. perspective on jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus.
As I have been warning and documenting for years, the rise of the Caucasus Emirate mujahedin poses a threat to U.S. national and international security. The CE is, and has been, a leading ally in the global jihadi revolutionary alliance.
The Boston Marathon attack was just one more piece of evidence of this, given a series of CE plots previously uncovered in Europe and Eurasia. CE leaders have stated explicitly that they are doing everything they can to build the global caliphate. CE propaganda consists exclusively of Al Qa`ida (AQ) and other global jihadi teachings.
Nevertheless, U.S. journalistic treatments have not even mentioned the CE–– despite the fact that it is now being confirmed by a few intrepid journalists, U.S. investigators, and Russian intelligence sources that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was inspired by, made contacts with, and was seeking to join the CE’s most potent Dagestani network (the Dagestan Vilaiyat (DV), when he traveled to Dagestan in January-July 2012). However, he either was talked out of it by Salafists there, or he lacked sufficient time on his visa to remain until the CE conducted its background check on him. He then decided to return to the U.S. and joined the jihad by carrying out an attack here (Irina Gordienko, “’Bostonskii vzryvatel’ bylo davno zaryazhen,” Novaya gazeta, No. 47, 29 April 2013; Simon Shuster, “Exclusive: Dagestani Relative of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is a Prominent Islamist,” Time, 8 May 2013; Simon Shuster, “Older Boston Suspect Made Two Trips to Dagestan, Visited Radical Mosque, Officials Say,” Time, 22 April 2013; David Filipov and Bryan Bender, “Bombers could have been thwarted, Keating reports,” Boston Globe, 31 May 2013).
The most egregious piece of disinformation was put forward in a New York Review of Books article. The author claimed,“Russian authorities would have followed Tamerlan's every move during his trip, especially since he spent much of his visit in Dagestan and Chechnya, both considered breeding grounds of Islamic radicalism. It is a well-known fact that the Russian FSB (successor to the KGB) has infiltrated all the major rebel groups in these two territories. If, as numerous reports have claimed, Tamerlan was regularly meeting with Islamic rebels in 2012, the FSB would have been aware of it. Russian authorities also would have known that he then returned to the US. Yet the Americans were told nothing about Tamerlan's trip, or his meetings with radicals. Instead of raising questions about Russia's file on Tamerlan, US officials have gone out of their way since the bombings to thank Moscow for its help in fighting terrorism and welcome Russian security officials in Washington. All this has played into the Kremlin's hands and helped reinforce its longstanding arguments that the Chechen rebels it has been fighting in a brutal counter-insurgency for years are part of a larger al-Qaeda-led group that has the goal of international jihad” (Amy Knight, “Playing Moscow’s Game,” The New York Review of Books, 1 June 2013).
The distortions and manipulation in this piece will one day achieve legendary status. First, there is no evidence that “the Russian FSB (successor to the KGB) has infiltrated all the major rebel groups” in Dagestan and Chechnya. What “all major rebel groups” means is unclear. The FSB sometimes infiltrates low-level jamaats, but there have been only a few unconfirmed and indeed unconfirmable reports that the FSB penetrated the CE at high levels. Even if it did so, this would not provide a broad swathe of information on what every CE viliayat, sector, and jamaat is doing, no less each what individual mujahed is up to. The CE, like all other jihadi organizations, is highly decentralized, with limited communication across the vilaiyats, sectors and even jamaats.
The author also claims: “If, as numerous reports have claimed, Tamerlan was regularly meeting with Islamic rebels in 2012, the FSB would have been aware of it. Russian authorities also would have known that he then returned to the US. Yet the Americans were told nothing about Tamerlan's trip, or his meetings with radicals.”
In fact, as press reports indicated, the FSB did inform the CIA about Tamerlan’s 2012 Dagestan trip after he returned to the U.S. Moreover, the author deletes from her recounting that .... after the U.S. congressional delegation’s trip to Moscow this weekend, Massachusetts Congressman William R. Keating said that in 2011, Russian intelligence asked to be informed by U.S. authorities if Tamerlan were coming to Russia but never received a response from Washington.
Thus, when Tsarnaev traveled to Dagestan in January 2012, the FSB did not know (but local Dagestani counter-terrorism officials did know) that he was there because he traveled on documents issued by Kyrgyzstan, where he grew up, not by Russia or the United States (Filipov and Bender, Boston Globe).
Moreover, the FSB and local Dagestani counter-intelligence officials have been more than forthcoming in disclosing that they had information of Tamerlan’s deadly attraction to the CE (Gordienko, “'Bostonskii vzryvatel’ bylo davno zaryazhen,”; Shuster, “Exclusive: Dagestani Relative of Tamerlan Tsarnaev Is a Prominent Islamist,” and Shuster, “Older Boston Suspect Made Two Trips to Dagestan, Visited Radical Mosque, Officials Say.”
The most recent example is the fact-finding mission to Moscow that convinced Congressman Keating that the Boston attack could have been averted with better U.S.-Russian counter-terrorism cooperation. Russian counter- intelligence officials showed him very detailed information that had convinced them Tsarnaev “had plans to join the insurgency” in Dagestan and prompted them to warn US authorities in 2011. Keating was shown “’the names, the addresses, the cellphone numbers, the iPad accounts, e-mail, Facebook pages.’” At the time, in 2011 Tamerlan “’was trying to get involved to go to Palestine to deal with insurgencies there but wasn’t able to learn the language sufficiently so that plan had to be scratched.’ According to the FSB, Tamerlan then decided to come to Dagestan” (Filipov and Bender, Boston Globe). This account has been verified by U.S. investigators through “other channels” (ABC News).
My guess is that author Amy Knight of New York Review of Books thinks, but lacked the courage to print that the CE is a ‘false flag’ operation (that the CE was organized by the FSB). Instead of coming clean, the author sought to muddy the waters, rather than make public her ‘cloak and dagger’ conspiracy theory. It is this very kind of overly-suspicious attitude toward anything coming from Russia (purveyed without question or pursuit of alternative explanations) that forms our all-too-jaundiced view of Russia across America today.
The pervasiveness of this mentality creates grave doubts that the U.S. and Russia can establish sufficient coordination to prevent similar jihadi attacks in America or elsewhere.
Mutual suspicions have been building between the U.S. and Russia since the NATO expansion toward Russia in the mid-1990s––and show no sign of abating. The volley of politicized shots in the form of the Sergei Magnitskii and Dima Yakovlev laws are prime examples. Those laws, however, were not only symptoms of the suspicious relationship, but they were also causes of the present mutual distrust. The Magnitskii Law provoked the standard, predictable Russian overreaction––which created a hiatus in the U.S.’ participation the U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission’s counter-terrorism working group.
This contributed to a further breakdown in what had previously been good coordination years earlier. As a result, the FBI was even less willing to devote resources to a threat alerted by Russian intelligence, due to regarding Russians as an entirely unreliable source on the subject. The caricature of Russia purveyed by U.S. media and much of the entire academic and think tank community in Washington, DC exaggerates Russia's fault and exonerates entirely the North
Caucasians and the global jihad for the rise of the CE and jihadism in the North Caucasus. That distortion has misinformed and even disinformed U.S. policymakers, officials, and thus federal agents as well.
There is a similar distrust and paranoia on the Russian side. This in some ways is rational, given the support in the West for any “rebels” who take up arms against Russia––such as radical Chechen separatists Akhmed Zakaev and Ilyas Akhmadov, as well as the jihadist CE’s amir Dokku ‘Abu Usman’ Umarov.
One example of mere moral support should be shocking enough to get the point across. U.S. tax-payer funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s chief Caucasus correspondent, Liz Fuller (also a supporter of the ‘false flag’ hypothesis) complimented amir Umarov in 2011: “If these young men (the CE’s younger mujahedin) have not become the callous brutes Khasbulatov anticipated, much of the credit must surely lie with the older commanders who were fathers before they became fighters, and have since assumed the role of father figures to the younger generation of insurgents: the natural-born pedagogue Abdullayev; Tarhan; Mansur; and even Umarov, seen receiving a filial embrace from Hadji-Murat at the very end of this clip” (Liz Fuller, “Chechnya's Youngest Insurgents,” RFE/RL, 14 February 2011). This ode was written just three weeks after another suicide bomber, deployed personally by Umarov, detonated his suicide belt in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, killing 25 and wounding 180 civilians.
I would not be at all surprised if one reason Russian and/or Dagestani security forces neglected to apprehend Tamerlan is that some higher-ups in the FSB or GRU suspected that he was an American agent and wanted him to remain on the loose so they could monitor him. In this case, the warnings sent to the FBI and CIA would have functioned as a probe of U.S. intention regarding the Tsarnaevs, and the US failure on occasion to respond would then have supported Russian suspicions. The only 'winner' in this failed game was Tsarnaev.
Mutual distrust has led to the U.S. indirectly supplying weapons to the Al- Qa`ida tied to Jabhat al-Nusrah (Al-Nusrah Front) in Syria, which includes a large contingent of foreign jihadists from Russia’s North Caucasus––and the logic behind Russia’s position on Bashir Assad’s Syrian regime, Hezbollah and its supporters against the Al-Qa`ida-connected rebels.
With the 2014 Winter Olymic Games in Sochi around the corner, the U.S. and Russia must step up intelligence sharing, cooperation, and mutual trust in the war against jihadism. A major wing of the Nusrah Front, the ‘Jeish Mukhajirin va Ansar’ (the JMvA or Army of Emirants and Helpers) is led by ethnic Chechens from the North Caucasus, including the top amir Omar al-Shishani It consists of more than one thousand jihadi militants. CE amir Umarov has publicly expressed his support for them. Moreover, we now know that the Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons. This means that the North Caucasian elements within the rebel front could acquire such weapons to attack the Winter Games. We in the U.S. would do well to reject the conspiracy theorists regarding Russia and make policy on that which we know to be true; no matter how politically inconvenient that may be.
To be sure, Russia is not a paragon of democracy today - and Russian, Dagestani, Chechen, and other local security and police forces sometimes commit grave crimes against civilians while fighting the Caucasus Emirate jihadists, as also happens with us in our Middle East wars; but if we could ally with the far worse Stalin during World War II, then we can certainly partner with Moscow in the fight against jihadism.
The global jihad is a decentralized alliance of networks spread out across the world. To the extent there is a weak or broken web of networks fighting it affords the CE and other jihadi groups important advantages and opportunities in places like Boston, Sochi and elsewhere.
Gordon M. Hahn is Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program; Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies; and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. Dr Hahn is author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine. He has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program.