Bombers could have been thwarted, Keating reports
MOSCOW — Russian intelligence officials believe that if US authorities had acted on their detailed warnings about Tamerlan Tsarnaev wanting to join an Islamic insurgency, the Boston Marathon bombings could have been averted, US Representative William R. Keating said Thursday in Moscow after a series of meetings with senior members of the Russian Federal Security Service.
Keating said the counterintelligence officials had shown him specific information that convinced them Tsarnaev “had plans to join the insurgency back in” Dagestan, a restive region in the North Caucasus mountains on Russia’s southern rim.
“You can see with the level of these details that in fact if we had had better information sharing, there’s a very strong chance that things could have changed, and [the bombings] could have been avoided,” said Keating, who was in Moscow as part of a congressional delegation discussing counterterrorism cooperation.
Tsarnaev, who was killed in a shootout in Watertown last month, and his brother, Dzhokhar, are suspected of planting the two bombs that killed three and injured more than 260 at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15. Dzhokhar, 19, was injured in the Watertown shooting and ultimately taken into custody. The brothers are suspects in the slaying of an MIT police officer.
The FBI and CIA did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday.
Keating’s comments raise new questions about whether US intelligence authorities could have prevented the bombings if they had more closely tracked the elder Tsarnaev brother after interviewing him in 2011 at the urging of the Russians. After a three-month investigation, in which the FBI reviewed Tsarnaev’s Internet activity and interviewed family members, the bureau closed his case and apparently never followed up.
That inquiry has been the subject of several Capitol Hill hearings, including one in which Keating bemoaned the lack of US-Russian cooperation before the bombings.
Russian officials have in the past said they had information about conversations Tsarnaev had with his mother, Zubeidat, that made vague references to jihad. US officials have maintained the information they received from Russia about their suspicions regarding the Tsarnaevs, while enough to land them in a database of people who posed a possible security threat, never contained much detail.
But Keating said the intelligence he was shown by the Russian security agency, known as FSB, contained “the names, the addresses, the cellphone numbers, the iPad accounts, e-mail, Facebook pages . . . the fact that he was trying to get involved to go to Palestine and deal with insurgencies there but wasn’t able to learn the language there sufficiently so that had to be scratched.”
According to the FSB, Tamerlan then decided to come to Dagestan, the homeland of his mother, and the region bordering Chechnya, the ancestral homeland of his father.
A US intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, told the Globe Thursday that “we have no dispute with Representative Keating’s characterizations of the Russian-
provided information in their memo.”
In fact, it was this information that led the CIA to add Tamerlan to a database of potential terrorist suspects, said the official, who has direct knowledge of the chain of events.
US and Russian officials, however, seem to have a different opinion about what was sufficient information back in 2011 to detain the Cambridge resident, the official said.
Keating said the Russians asked to be tipped off if Tamerlan Tsarnaev were coming to Russia but never heard back from US intelligence.
“They took the nonreply as a sign that this was not important and this was not a threat,” Keating said.
When Tsarnaev traveled to Dagestan in January 2012, the FSB did not realize he was there because he had traveled on documents issued by the country where he grew up, Kyrgyzstan, not Russia or the United States.
Another ethnic Chechen and Tsarnaev associate, Ibragim Todashev, was shot and killed by an FBI agent in Orlando, Fla., last week during an interview about his possible involvement in a 2011 triple murder in Waltham.
As Keating made his revelations, the father of Todashev released photos of his son’s shirtless corpse during a press conference in Moscow and said the FBI agents were “bandits” who should face trial.
“I cannot call them anything else,’’ Abdulbaki Todashev said in a recording of the conference played by a human rights lawyer supporting him, Zaurbek Sadakhanov. The pictures showed six wounds on his arm and body that had been sewn up. Another picture showed an apparent bullet wound to his head.
“The shooter would have had to have been standing above him, to his side, shooting down,” Sadakhanov said. He dismissed reports that the agents had fired only after Todashev attacked them. “Why did they have to shoot him seven times? Why did they have to shoot him from behind?”
Sadakhanov also poured cold water on Keating’s assertions that the FSB had tried to relay information that could have prevented the bombings.
He referred to a response Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, gave recently to reporters who asked about the information the FSB had tried to share.
“Since the Tsarnaevs did not live in the Russian Federation, and they arrived in Russia from Kyrgyzstan, and appeared here only occasionally, the Russian special service unfortunately, to our great misfortune, could not have given our American colleagues information,” Putin said.
The Russian president’s comments conflicted with Russian news reports about the FSB investigation into the Tsarnaev family and the effort to alert US officials.
The Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported in April that the Russian special services’ observation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev intensified in 2012, when he spent six months in Dagestan.
According to the paper, agents in an antiterrorism bureau in the North Caucasus noticed several encounters between Tamerlan and Makhmud Mansur Nidal, whom Russian intelligence agencies had identified as a recruiter for the radical Muslim underground.
According to the paper, a background check revealed that Tsarnaev’s name had surfaced during the investigation of William Plotnikov, a Canadian who had converted to Islam and had been detained in Dagestan in 2010 for having contacts with Islamic militants. During an interrogation, Novaya Gazeta said, Plotnikov gave a list of names of people with whom he communicated over the Internet.
Plotnikov, the paper said, divulged that he had communicated with Tamerlan frequently on a popular Islamic Website.
The FSB, according to the paper, “requested information from its overseas colleagues” but received no answer, and the name Tsarnaev was relegated to the archives.
When Tsarnaev came to Dagestan, he spent most of the time in its capital, Makhachkala, other than a short trip to Chir-Yurt, a village in neighboring Chechnya where some relatives live.
In May of that year, Nidal was killed in a raid by authorities in Makhachkala. In July, Plotnikov and seven others were killed in what officials described as a special operation against extremist militants.
Tamerlan flew out of Moscow two days later for the United States.
The paper reported that the FSB sent a request to the CIA to look into Tamerlan’s activities, but once again received no answer.
“Judging from everything, Tamerlan Tsarnaev came to Dagestan with the goal of joining the militants,” the paper quoted the security official as saying. “But it didn’t work out. . . . After the deaths of Nidal and Plotnikov, having lost his ‘contacts,’ Tsarnaev got frightened and took off.”
Both Russian and US intelligence agencies appear to be interested in improving their communications. Russia’s Interior Ministry recently said the United States had agreed to grant Russia access to some FBI information previously unavailable.
Keating, too, said communication has improved.
“I was able to find out that cooperation has improved greatly since the April 15 bombings, greatly,” Keating said.