On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee released a report summarizing its investigation into the April 15, 2013, terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon. Among the report’s key findings: Nearly one year after twin backpack bombs killed three people and wounded more than 260 others, U.S. officials are still unsure about the extent of the terrorists’ foreign ties.
Two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, planted the bombs. There are clear indications that they were inspired by jihadism. But questions have surrounded Tamerlan’s associates since shortly after the attack and those questions have not been fully resolved.
The elder Tsarnaev brother traveled to Russia in January 2012 and returned in July 2012. Despite some suggestive press reporting, it has never been clear who, exactly, Tamerlan met with during those several months abroad. Some accounts have claimed that he met with known extremists and professional terrorists belonging to the Islamic Caucasus Emirate, an al Qaeda-linked group that is fighting the Russian government.
According to the committee’s report, American “investigators have not found proof of these meetings.” But Tamerlan “possibly had the opportunity to meet with rebel fighters,” who “may have helped to fuel his radicalization.”
The committee explains: “It has not been determined whether the Boston Marathon bombing…is tied directly to the Caucasus Emirate or the ongoing terrorist activity in Dagestan, Chechnya, and across the North Caucasus.”
Regardless of whether or not Tamerlan Tsarnaev conspired with more seasoned extremists, jihad clearly influenced his thinking. It “is reasonable to assume that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was at least inspired by their activity and ideology, and driven to take part in the vision of global jihad which they share with al Qaeda,” the committee’s report reads.
The most obvious examples of Tamerlan’s jihadist beliefs were found online. After his return from Russia in July 2012, Tamerlan quickly began posting videos of Caucasus Emirate fighters, as well as a video titled, “The Emergence of Prophecy: The Black Flags From Khorasan.”
The rise of the black flag used by militant Islamists is a key part of the mythology promulgated by al Qaeda and like-minded groups. According to the myth, one of the most significant battles fought by the true believers against the “infidels” will take place in the Khorasan, a geographic area that includes parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. While this belief is extreme and bizarre to many Western ears, it resonates among jihadists and their recruits. And should parts or all of Afghanistan fall to the Taliban, al Qaeda and their allies again, the mythology will only grow in strength.
Was Tamerlan merely inspired by these beliefs, or was there something more to his trip to Russia?
The committee’s report cites several press accounts concerning Tamerlan’s possible meetings.
The elder Tsarnaev brother reportedly visited the al Nadira mosque in Makhachkala, Dagestan. The mosque has some unsavory connections. According to an account by Alan Cullison in the Wall Street Journal, the mosque’s founder assisted Ayman al Zawahiri, who now heads al Qaeda, during a trip to Dagestan in 1997.
Other press reporting, relying on Russian sources, indicates that Tamerlan may have met with Mahmoud Nidal, a known jihadist recruiter in Dagestan. Nidal was killed by Russian forces in May 2012.
In January 2014, Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Congressman William Keating traveled to Russia to meet with investigative journalists. These sources claimed that Tamerlan had met with Nidal, but Tamerlan’s attempt to join the jihad against Russia was rebuffed “in part because of his conspicuously Western style.”
U.S. officials dispute this reporting, according to the committee. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow told the congressmen that “investigators have uncovered no evidence of such a relationship between Mohmoud Nidal and Tamerlan Tsarnaev” and Tsarnaev did not attempt to “go into the forest,” a euphemism for “joining Chechen rebel groups.”
Journalist Irina Gordienko has reported in Novaya Gazzetta that Russian authorities found evidence of “frequent contacts” between Tamerlan and William Plotnikov, who grew up in Canada but joined the Caucasus Emirate in Dagestan. The contacts were reportedly found on Plotnikov’s computer.
A key section of the committee’s report dealing with the Plotnikov connection has been redacted, presumably because it deals with sensitive intelligence.
The relevant sentences read: “FBI officials in Moscow indicated that electronic communication between the two may have been collected [REDACTED]. These officials also reported that investigators have determined it is unlikely the two met face-to-face while Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in Dagestan.”
It is curious that after all this time the communications between Plotnikov and Tamerlan Tsarnaev have not been verified. It is possible the Russians are withholding them, or the evidence is locked behind a classified wall.
Much of the media’s reporting on the House Homeland Security Committee’s report has focused on the dots that were potentially missed before the bombings. The FBI investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, after Russian officials warned that he had become radicalized and may join jihadist groups. Even though the Russians did not provide specific intelligence “on exactly why he posed a threat,” their overall assessment was correct.
Long before the Boston Marathon bombings, the Russians “were concerned about [Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s] possible ties to militants in the Caucasus.” Almost one year after the attack, American officials have still not come to a firm conclusion about the extent of these ties.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.