Boston Bombings: The Russian Question

Both parents of the Boston perpetrators come from the Caucasus. Zubeidat Tsarnaev is an Avar of Dagestan, her husband Anzor a Chechen. He is a boxing fanatic. Every counterintelligence officer should ask himself the following question: With which club did Anzor Tsarnaev box? There were two kinds in the Soviet Union: Spartak, which was run by the army, and Dynamo, which was subordinated to the KGB.


By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | May 8, 2013


Anzor and Zubeidat TsarnaevDynamo Sports SocietySoviet-era boxing sculpture/Getty Image

It appears the Boston perpetrators, Tamerlan and his younger brother Johar (Dzhohar) Tsarnaev, were homegrown, Internet empowered jihadists. But Russia’s part in the deadly game remains murky. There is no solid evidence linking the Kremlin to the marathon bombing but too many questions remain unanswered to exclude Moscow’s involvement.

Let us consider the relationship between Tamerlan and the post-Communist secret police.

In 2011, Moscow approached Washington with a warning that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was involved in radical Islamist circles, most likely connected to the Chechen insurrection. Accordingly, the FBI talked five times to the young man and his relatives, but found nothing noteworthy. Now that we know the Russian warning about the older brother was eerily prescient we should ask on what basis the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) singled out Tamerlan Tsarnaev for the FBI’s investigation. But the Kremlin says it does not have anything specific on the perpetrator and never did. Why did Russia bother us then with investigating someone apparently lacking a track record of malfeasance? Yet it did.

This can mean several things. First, it was a case of routine harassment of a Chechen émigré by the Russian authorities. In other words, the FBI was used as a tool in a Muscovite racial profiling scheme and influence operation abroad. The FBI should now analyze the frequency and nature of Russia’s routine requests for a preventive talk against Chechens resident in the United States to see just how routine the Kremlin’s request actually was in the Tsarnaev case.

Second, by pointing out Tamerlan, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) was stupendously clairvoyant and channeled its fears straight to our intelligence community to help protect America. That broadminded generosity is highly unlikely, not to mention the apparent Cassandric qualities of the Chekists. If the Russians contacted us, they had to have had an interest in it, other than the pure goodness of Vladimir Putin’s heart.

Third, the post-Soviet secret services suspected that something was afoot and wanted to emerge with clean hands in case anything did go haywire. This is the “I-told-you-so” posture as in “I told you that the Chechens are terrorists.”

Fourth, and most controversial, the Kremlin’s spooks singled out Tamerlan because they had advance knowledge of the intent, if not the operation itself, and, perhaps, were involved in it in some way. In what way? That is the question. We can merely speculate. But his relationship with the chekists appears to have been close indeed to warrant such speculation.

In January 2012, Tamerlan Tsarnaev flew to the Russian Federation and headed to Dagestan, where he remained, until July 2012. Let us remember, Tamerlan was allegedly a person of interest to the FSB, which prompted a probe by the FBI in Boston into the young man’s Islamist tendencies. The standard operating procedure in Russia (and even in the U.S.) would have been to detain the budding radical at the airport. At a minimum, he should have been questioned. Deporting or jailing him would be perfectly routine actions. Nothing of the sort happened. He was permitted to go. Either this was a serious security lapse, or the FSB was following him or otherwise kept him under surveillance. If the latter, why does Moscow now deny it has any information about the bomber?

And, why were the famously thuggish post-Communist secret services of Dagestan not interested in Tamerlan at all? Their spokesman is on record expressing lack of interest in the Tsarnaevs even in the wake of the bombing. That is extraordinary. America’s leading specialist on the non-Russian nationalities in the post-Soviet zone, Paul Goble, has approvingly discussed the view of Ramaan Abdulatipov that Dagestan is a failed state. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Glen Howard has described the country where anarchy rules and assassinations occur daily, usually with the connivance of the secret police. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was suspected of being an Islamist radical by the FSB and he went on vacation there?

In Dagestan, according to his father, for half a year, Tamerlan did nothing but sleep and visit relatives. Which ones? His uncle Muhamad Suleimanov (pictured in uniform), who, according to Vasily Dazaev, was (or is) involved with Dagestani security? Did Tamerlan meet with the local Islamists? Or people who claimed to be Islamists?

And whom did Tamerlan meet in Austria when he visited there twice in 2007 and 2009? Allegedly, he competed in boxing in Insbruck and Salzburg. Did he visit his relatives in Gratz? Who paid for the trips? This is very expensive and unusual for a fresh emigrant to traipse around the world with no worries. Austria is a hub of the Chechen émigré activities second only to England. Where was Tamerlan when the émigré leader Umar Israilov was assassinated by Moscow’s Chechen agents in 2009? All this needs investigating.

And why do his parents remain unmolested and safe in Dagestan? Both parents were absent during the bombing in Boston. Coincidence? They were happily tucked away in Makhachkala. Please remember: this is the Caucasus. The Russians and their local allies go after anyone, and their family with extreme prejudice who is suspected of radical Islamism. Yet, the Tsarnaevs find this environment to be their safe haven.

Both parents of the Boston perpetrators have roots in the Caucasus. Zubeidat Tsarnaev is an Avar of Dagestan, her husband Anzor a Chechen. He is a boxing fanatic: first as a fighter, and then as a trainer and a fan. This is an important point. I know that it sounds paranoid to laymen but every counterintelligence officer should ask himself the following question: With which club did Anzor Tsarnaev box? There were two kinds in the Soviet Union: Spartak, which was run by the army, and Dynamo, which was subordinated to the KGB and harks back to Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Dinamo society. It is extremely relevant to the Russian angle of the Boston bombing because, if in fact Anzor boxed for the KGB, the secret service connections would endure well beyond his amateur career and residency, anywhere. Such connections have served as an informal safety net and transcend localities, translating rather fluently throughout the entire post-Soviet zone. Once a Chekist, always a Chekist. Ask Putin.

We would like some answers about the possible links between the Tsarnaev family and the Soviet and post-Soviet security services. If we can establish that such connections do exist, then we can prepare a more detailed set of questions regarding their nature. The Tsarnaevs are perhaps ordinary post-Soviets and there isn’t anything really to their story beyond what the mainstream media has spun. However, until we get some answers to the questions above, it is mischievous to exclude the Kremlin angle from the Boston terrorist attack.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics , A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.