Amid the swirl of mysteries surrounding the alleged Boston bombers, one fact, barely touched upon in the mainstream U.S. media, stands out: There is a strong possibility that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers, was a double agent, perhaps recruited by the FBI.
If Tsarnaev was a double agent, he would be just one of thousands of young people coerced by the FBI, as the price for settling a minor legal problem, into a dangerous career as an informant.
That he was so coerced is the easiest explanation for two seemingly incompatible incidents in his life:
The first is that he returned to Russia in 2012, ostensibly to renew his Russian passport so he could file an application for US citizenship.
The second is that Tsarnaev then jeopardized his citizenship application with conspicuous, provocative — almost theatrical — behavior that seemed more caricature than characteristic of a Muslim extremist.
While walking around in flashy western clothes in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, he visited his cousin, Magomed Kartashov, a prominent Islamist leader, already on the Russians’ radar. The two reportedly spent hours discussing Tsarnaev’s wish to join a terrorist cell there in the Caucasus. Later, Russian authorities asked Kartashov if he had tried to incite Tsarnaev with “extremist” views. Kartashov said it was the other way around: he had tried to convince Tsarnaev that “violent methods are not right.”
Experts agree that Tsarnaev could not have expected such provocative activity to escape the notice of the vigilant Russian authorities.
Back in America, Tsarnaev again called attention to himself as a radical Muslim. Just one month after he returned from his trip, a YouTube page that appeared to belong to him featured multiple jihadist videos that he had purportedly endorsed.
And in January 2013, he got himself thrown out of a mosque in Cambridge for shouting at a speaker who compared the Prophet Mohammed to Martin Luther King Jr. Tsarnaev rarely attended this mosque, but he must have known it was moderate. (He had done something similar the previous November at the same mosque.) Typically, jihadists are trained to blend in, to be as inconspicuous as possible. Did Tsarnaev go to this mosque with the express intent of smoking out possible radicals?
The key to Tsarnaev’s puzzling behavior may lie in the answer to another question: when exactly did Tsarnaev first come to the attention of the FBI? The timeline offered by the agency, and duly reported in the mainstream media, has been inconsistent. One story line focused on the FBI’s response to an alert from Russian authorities.
Eric Schmitt and Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times, wrote, on April 24, 2013,
The first Russian request came in March 2011 through the F.B.I.’s office in the United States Embassy in Moscow. The one-page request said Mr. Tsarnaev ”had changed drastically since 2010” and was preparing to travel to a part of Russia “to join unspecified underground groups.”
The Russian request was reportedly based on intercepted phone calls between Tsarnaev’s mother and an unidentified person (The Guardian[London], April 21, 2013). According to another source, several calls were intercepted, including one between Tsarnaev and his mother.
So was it the Russian alert in March 2011 that first prompted the FBI to investigate Tsarnaev? This conclusion seems undermined by another report in the Times – written four days earlier by the same two reporters plus a third– that dated the agency’s first contact with Tamerlan and family members at least two months earlier, in January 2011.
If the FBI interviewed Tsarnaev before the Russians asked them to, then what prompted the agency’s interest in him? Were his contacts here as well as in Russia considered useful to American counterintelligence?
The Canadian Connection
Although it’s not known why the Russians were intercepting phone calls involving the Tsarnaevs, one reason might have been Tamerlan’s connection, direct or indirect, with a Canadian terrorist named William Plotnikov. According to USA Today, a Russian security official told the AP that
Plotnikov had been detained in Dagestan in December 2010 on suspicion of having ties to the militants and during his interrogation was forced to hand over a list of social networking friends from the United States and Canada who like him had once lived in Russia, Novaya Gazeta reported. The newspaper said Tsarnaev’s name was on that list, bringing him for the first time to the attention of Russia’s secret services.
According to a slightly different version, Plotnikov, “while under interrogation in the militant hotbed of Dagestan, named Tsarnaev as a fellow extremist.”
The similar backgrounds of Plotnikov and Tsarnaev make it likely that they had indeed been in contact. Both were recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Both had successful boxing careers in North America, and both surprised their friends by converting to Islamist extremism.
Plotnikov was a member of the Caucasus Emirate, an al-Qaeda ally, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been searching for him since 2010. By 2011 the United States had joined the Russians in targeting this terrorist group as an al-Qaeda ally, and had offered $5 million for information leading to the capture of the group’s leader Dokka Umarov. (Moscow Times, May 27, 2011)
Plotnikov was killed in July 2012 in a shootout between militants and police in Dagestan. Tsarnaev left Dagestan for America two days after Plotnikov was killed.
US and Russia Share Concerns
Tsarnaev’s hopes for a Russian passport would have been put at risk by his openly provocative behavior in Dagestan –unless he was acting as an informant. But for which government, the U.S. or Russia?
The United States and Russia have two shared concerns in the “arc of crisis” stretching from Afghanistan to the Caucasus – terrorism and drugs. The two problems are interrelated, because drugs, especially in the Caucasus, help finance terror operations. This vitally affects Russia, both because it has one of the highest heroin death rates in the world, and even more because some of its member republics, like Dagestan, are up to 80 percent Muslim. This shared concern has led to a successful joint US-Russia anti-drug operation in Afghanistan.
Was Tamerlan Tsarnaev caught up in a similar counter-intelligence operation?
The FBI’s Dysfunctional Informant Program
One of the more controversial features of the FBI’s informant program is the frequency with which FBI agents coerce young people into the dangerous role of informant, as a price for settling a minor legal problem. Tsarnaev fits the mold. His successful career as a boxer was interrupted and his application for U.S. citizenship was held up (and perhaps denied) because “a 2009 domestic violence complaint was standing in his way.” This alone would mark him as a candidate for recruitment.
Thousands of vulnerable young people avoid our overcrowded prisons by agreeing to become snitches, sometimes wearing a wire. In this way a person whose only crime may have been selling marijuana to a friend can end up risking his career and even his life. And for what?
According to Sarah Stillman in The New Yorker,
The snitch-based system has proved notoriously unreliable, fuelling wrongful convictions. In 2000, more than twenty innocent African-American men in Hearne, Texas, were arrested on cocaine charges, based on the false accusations of an informant seeking to escape a burglary charge. This incident, and a number of others like it, prompted calls for national legislation to regulate informant use.
After 9/11, the coercive techniques of the FBI drug war, along with half of the agents using them, were redirected to surveillance of Muslims. The emphasis was no longer on investigation of specific crimes, but the recruitment of spies to report on all Muslim communities.
In 2005 the FBI’s Office of the Inspector General found that a high percentage of cases involving informants contained violations of the FBI’s own guidelines. Its report noted that since 2001 the rules had been loosened to reflect the new emphasis on intelligence gathering and. by extension, the bureau’s urgent need for informants.
According to the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, … nearly every major post-9/11 terrorism-related prosecution has involved a sting operation, at the center of which is a government informant. In these cases, the informants – who work for money or are seeking leniency on criminal charges of their own – have crossed the line from merely observing potential criminal behavior to encouraging and assisting people to participate in plots that are largely scripted by the FBI itself. Under the FBI’s guiding hand, the informants provide the weapons, suggest the targets and even initiate the inflammatory political rhetoric that later elevates the charges to the level of terrorism.
A writer for Mother Jones, Trevor Aaronson, also investigated the FBI’s informant-led terrorism cases for over a year; he too found that in a number of cases, “the government provides the plot, the means, and the opportunity.”