MOSCOW, Russia — The ethnic Chechen brothers accused of last week’s deadly Boston Marathon bombing may have roots in Russia’s North Caucasus, but Moscow appears eager to distance itself from the investigation even as it leads back to the volatile region.
Although it’s generally believed the Russian government asked the FBI in 2011 to investigate Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder of the two suspects, for alleged Islamic radicalism, Russian law enforcement and security agencies are remaining tight-lipped about the US probe now reportedly focused on the 26-year-old’s six-month trip to the region early last year.
Some experts say Moscow’s muted response is rooted in the authorities’ belief that they have little to gain from cooperating, especially in the sphere of domestic terrorism, which the Kremlin has long considered to be largely under control.
“The Russians were very cooperative with the Americans in the first half of the 2000s, mostly because they needed to legitimate what they were doing in the North Caucasus,” said Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov, referring to Moscow’s heavy-handed assault on Chechen rebels and civilians early in the second Chechen war.
“But now the Russians aren’t in a position to ask for such legitimacy — they actually believe they have it — so why should they be interested in American support there?” he added.
The 2011 FBI investigation, prompted by a request early in the year from an unnamed foreign government, was “based on information that [Tsarnaev] was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups,” according to an FBI statement.
The US authorities haven’t publicly commented on the identity of the foreign government, but strong suspicion has fallen on Russia as American investigators now turn to examine Tsarnaev’s reported trip to the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, which neighbors Chechnya, in early 2012.
There are questions about whether there was an intelligence failure in keeping tabs on Tsarnaev. The FBI said it found no traces of suspicious activity or behavior and that the foreign government in question failed to respond to requests for more information.
But a YouTube account under Tsarnaev’s name, featuring videos of radical Islamist nature, appeared last August, shortly after his alleged return from Russia. The New York Times, citing a senior law enforcement source, reported that the FBI did not follow up on Tsarnaev on his return to the United States, where he was a legal resident.
While it’s unclear whether Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) took a more serious interest in Tsarnaev afterward, other experts note that he wouldn’t have made it into Russia if there were serious reservations about his background.
“The Russians don’t have a problem with saying ‘no,’” said terrorism expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University. “So if they had any particular concerns, or if they had any particular concerns communicated to them, they would’ve said ‘no’ rather than letting him through.”
He added that the relatively small number of Chechen emigres who return to the region after a long absence or for the first time may often be subject to routine Russian background checks as a rule.
“We tend to think that it must’ve been something very important, but there’s a lot of rather mundane, day-to-day querying and reporting that goes on,” Galeotti said.
Despite the Kremlin’s sluggish public reaction to news about the Tsarnaev brothers’ alleged involvement in the Boston bombing last week, President Vladimir Putin nevertheless on Friday reaffirmed his support for “close coordination” between US and Russian officials in the investigation. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state television that he expects close cooperation between the countries’ intelligence agencies.
But that prospect has yet to pan out. A spokesman for Russia’s Investigative Committee in Dagestan told the RIA Novosti news agency on Saturday that local security officials had no intention of investigating the Tsarnaev brothers’ brief stay in Dagestan around 2001, before they emigrated to the United States — unless they were ordered to do so.
According to Soldatov, a leading analyst on Russia’s security services, Moscow sees no practical benefits in cooperating with Washington because Russian officials believe it has little to offer in return.
“The Russians were more interested in getting information from the US mostly in the first five or six years of the 2000s,” he said, “when they believed they might bring some people back to Russia, or maybe get some information about funding because they strongly believed then that the insurgency in the North Caucasus was funded from abroad.”
Instead, he added, Moscow has received more valuable support in recent years from law enforcement agencies in Europe and Turkey, which are home to a far greater number of Chechen refugees and emigres who might be of interest to the FSB.
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Experts say the Kremlin may also be less worried about domestic terrorism than it was years ago. Putin has left Chechnya under the firm control of former rebel-turned-strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov — who has all but wiped out the insurgency in Chechnya amid allegations of rampant official human rights abuses, and presided over a relative enduring calm.
While low-intensity violence continues to simmer in the Caucasus, particularly in Dagestan, the relatively small number of major terrorist attacks inside Russia — at least since early 2011, when a suicide bomber attacked Moscow’s Domodedovo airport — have convinced the Kremlin that the problem is manageable, Galeotti says.
“As long as it’s only occasional, Putin can basically live with it,” he said.