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Congress is briefed on radical Islamists in Northern Caucasus

WASHINGTON — Terrorist groups in the Northern Caucasus pose little immediate threat to the United States, harboring most of their ill will for Russia.

But some Islamist radicals there — especially in the province of Dagestan, where one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, spent half of last year — may be indoctrinating followers to take up a global struggle against the West, specialists told a congressional panel on Friday.

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The testimony before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the first since the deadly April 15 attacks, touched on the potential for attacks by militants drawn to the United States from the wider Islamic world, not just Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the Middle East.

“The Chechens are generally not preoccupied with the United States,” said Craig Douglas Alpert, a professor at Georgia Regents University who studies the majority Muslim region of Chechnya, which neighbors Dagestan and has been the focus of Moscow’s relentless campaign against militant groups seeking independence. “However, one has to consider if the Chechens do become more involved with the larger global jihadi network, whether they may consider attacking the US homeland.”

Several groups operating in Chechnya and Dagestan were designated terrorist organizations by the US State Department in 2011, including a confederation of groups called the Caucasus Emirate, founded in 2007, and one called Shariat Jammat.

The Caucacus Emirate issued a statement after the Boston Marathon bombings disavowing any knowledge or involvement in the attacks and insisting that it was not at war with the United States.

“We are at war with Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims,” the group, which has been blamed for dozens of terrorist attacks in Russia, said in a statement.

But militants in the region are believed to have ties with Al Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim extremists that the United States has been fighting since 9/11. Lawmakers were warned on Friday that sympathizers there could be inspired to adopt some of the same enemies, including the United States.

Some of the groups’ websites link to Al Qaeda chat rooms and publications, Alpert said, “including links to the [Al Qaeda] magazine, Inspire, which may have helped the Boston bombers develop and deploy their bombs.” They also share some of the same funding sources in Saudi Arabia, he said.

“It must also be mentioned that the tactics and bombs used in Boston resemble attacks carried out in Chechnya including delayed, multiple explosions, although the bombs are made slightly different,” Alpert added.

Chechnya has long been a breeding ground for Islamist militants, inspired by Russian military offensives that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians and sparked worldwide condemnation. But it is the radical Islamist influences in Dagestan, to the east, where the parents of the suspected Boston bombers live, that concerns the analysts more.

“The problem is worse in Dagestan,” Andranik Migranyan, director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York and a former adviser to the Russian government, told the panel. Dagestan lacks a strong state government, which has given radical groups room to blossom, he said.

One of the suspected Boston bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, an ethnic Chechen who died after a gun battle with police on April 19, spent much of 2012 in Dagestan, visiting his family before returning to his home in Cambridge. He was a citizen of Kyrgyzstan whose application for US citizenship had been delayed by allegations of domestic violence in the United States and because Russia had flagged him to US authorities as a potential terrorist.

“I am much more worried about the six months in Dagestan than the Chechen background,” said Paul Goble, a professor at the Institute of World Politics, an independent Washington think tank.

Tsarnaev’s listing on at least two terrorism watch lists and his overseas travels led others on Friday to conclude that he should have received more scrutiny by the FBI.

A former US official involved in counterterrorism efforts, Thomas E. “Ted” McNamara, said Friday in an interview with the Globe that the CIA’s request that Tsarnaev be placed on a terrorism watch list in September 2011 should have triggered more alarms.

“This looks like a mistake in the sense there should have been some method to jack up his significance,” said McNamara, who served until 2009 as the program manager for Information Sharing Environment, a position established following 9/11 to make sure counterterrorism agencies share information on potential threats. The office reports to the director of national intelligence, which ­also was created after the 2001 attacks.

“This guy was considered a low-level threat,” McNamara added. “There are a few things that might have bounced that up to higher level attention. But apparently it stayed in that low-level database.”

At Russia’s request, Tsarnaev was investigated by the FBI between March and June of 2011. The FBI determined he did not pose a threat. The FBI has said that it sought additional information from Russia on Tsarnaev on repeated occasions but received no response.

In September 2011, after a similar request by the Russians to the CIA, Tsarnaev was placed on a watch list maintained by the National Counter-Terrorism Center, set up after 9/11 to coordinate the different databases. Tsarnaev’s name also was placed on a separate FBI terrorist screening database, and another one linked to the Department of Homeland Security.

Homeland Security detected his travel to Russia in 2012, but his warning status was not high enough to require a follow-up interview by border authorities when he returned, security officials have said. A security official said this week the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston was notified of his travels, however.

Massachusetts officials who oversee antiterrorism “fusion centers” created to disseminate federal, state, and local information on potential terrorist threats, meanwhile, said they were never informed about the FBI’s original three-month investigation.

McNamara called the chronology a trail of missed opportunities to identify an increasingly radicalized individual.

“We have come an incredibly long way [since 9/11], but we still have a substantial way to go,” said McNamara, who also served as ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism at the State Department. “We sometimes forget that we are not as fully up to speed as we ought to be or need to be.”

At Friday’s House hearing, the specialists suggested that a disconnect left over from the Cold War between the United States US and Russia may have contributed to gaps in monitoring Tsarnaev.

Migranyan said he believes US officials, who requested additional information from Moscow but did not receive it, may have doubted the Russians’ motives in passing along information about Tsarnaev. He speculated that they suspected Russia’s overture was “some Russian plot — This is not [a] terrorist, it is something else.’ ”

“I am afraid that they just didn’t pay enough attention to this warning,” he added.

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.
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