The investigation into the Boston Marathon terrorist attack is now focused on what is the most important question: Did they act alone? In my view, the answer is no.
To begin with, the brothers engaged in a firefight with police and held their own, throwing bombs at the police as they attempted to flee. Tamerlan was killed in a fusillade of gunfire, but Dzhokhar managed to get away. At least one of them was very familiar with firearms and knew how to use them. Neither has any known military experience: somebody trained one or both. The question is: who?
Tamerlan traveled to Dagestan two years ago, where his father now resides, and together they went to Chechnya. Six months later, Tamerlan returned – and began posting jihadist videos on his Youtube page. Dagestan, a former Soviet “republic” in Central Asia, has been torn apart by a Muslim fundamentalist insurgency for years, and is one of the most dangerous countries on earth.
There are unconfirmed reports that the explosive devices which caused such mayhem at the marathon were set off by a sophisticated triggering mechanism, which, according to an unnamed law enforcement official, aren’t the kind of thing you can jigger from information garnered from a Google search. The same unconfirmed report says authorities are frantically trying to uncover what they believe is a “12-man sleeper cell,” and although this seems like an extravagant claim – how did they come up with the number 12? – I wouldn’t discount it entirely.
Initial speculation as to the motives for the attack centered around the brothers’ ethnicity and religious views, and these indeed seem to be important. Nineteen year old Dzokhar had a Twitter account, where he posted the usual trivia one might associate with a typical American teenager – along with a few comments explicitly expressing his religious beliefs and his frustration with people who believe all Muslims are terrorists. His tweets, usually light-hearted, took on a darker aspect just prior to the Boston attack: on April 15 he tweeted: “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people.”
The content of Dzokhar’s Russian Facebook page includes a video dramatizing the persecution of Muslims in Syria, and another one featuring some kind of religious discussion. There is also a video of Tamerlan, who is speaking in Russian, mocking the various accents he encountered in Central Asia. There are also links to Dzokhar’s favorite internet sites, including salamworld, an Islamic version of Facebook, and various similar sites.
Tamerlan was undoubtedly a devout Muslim at this point in his life. His relatives all point to a period starting about two years ago when he became very religious: he was reportedly asked to leave the house of one of them when he went to visit them in Dagestan. A friend of his wife describes him as “intense,” “controlling,” and “manipulative” in her account of his growing religiosity and his insistence that his wife convert to Islam, wear the hijab, and behave like a good Muslim wife.
Nearly unnoticed in the dramatic denouement of Dzokhar’s capture: the apprehension of three people, including Dzokhar’s alleged girlfriend, in nearby New Bedford. The three were later released, but authorities reappeared at their apartment complex on Saturday and apparently detained two of the same men, who are reportedly from Kazakhstan: a van with consular license plates had earlier turned up in front of the complex, and a young woman was seen entering the van in a hurry. The Tsarnaev brothers weren’t lone nuts: they had help.
One important detail is that the Russian security apparatus asked the Americans to investigate Tamerlan before he made his trip to Russia two years ago. Here is the FBI statement, with its ass-covering final paragraph averring “The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from the foreign government.” However, according to a senior congressional aide cited by the Boston Globe, the fault lies with the FBI: “The FBI had this guy on the radar and somehow he fell off.” And the Daily Mail reports:
“Russia reportedly asked the FBI to investigate one of the alleged Boston bombers just six months ago after he was seen meeting an Islamic militant six times – but the agency never responded, it has emerged.”
In addition, Tamerlan reportedly came to the attention of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, probably on account of his altercation, three months ago, with the head of a local mosque, who threw him out for expressing radical views. The Tsarnaev brothers’ uncle, who lives in the US, has said this has nothing to do with Chechnya, or the Chechen independence movement, and that it’s simply the fact that the brothers were “losers” which explains their actions: yet he also points to alleged “mentors” who supposedly radicalized Tamerlan in the United States – he specifically referred to an Armenian convert to Islam who purportedly lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet this information, if true, hardly rules out an overseas connection: he may have been radicalized in America and sought out compatriots on his Russia trip, where he reportedly met with a known Chechen “militant.” (“six times,” according to the Daily Mail).
Aside from these religious and regional connections, there is a link to criminality that may or may not be significant. Tamerlan – a boxing champion who represented New England in the Golden Gloves competition – once introduced the owner of his gym to one Brendan Mess, whom he described as his “best friend.” Mess was murdered on the afternoon of September 12, 2011, in his apartment, with two others: all three had been stabbed to death, their bloody bodies left covered in marijuana. Mess was 25: he had been arrested prior to that for possession of marijuana with intent to sell, and at least one of the other two had arrests for petty crimes, like assault, and, like Tamerlan, were into physical fitness. At the end of the above-linked news article, a neighbor is quoted: “According to her, five men lived in the apartment and they were frequently coming in and out. One of the men drove a Mercedes-Benz, she added.” Tamerlan drove a Mercedes, according to this account: was he one of the five men who lived at that address? Or did he just spend a lot of time there, so much that the neighbor thought he must live there?
In any case, there was apparently some kind of drug-dealing business operating on the premises, but whoever killed Mess and his two friends left the drugs behind, ruling out a pecuniary motive. What’s more, they were stabbed with what appeared to be a pick axe or similar weapon: all three died from massive cuts to the neck. A symbolic beheading? A gangland hit? Did a newly converted Tamerlan suddenly turn on his “best friend”? The murder is unsolved to this day.
If Tamerlan’s best friend had a drug-dealing/gangland connection, and if the elder Tsarnaev brother – undoubtedly the dominant figure in the bomb plot – was involved in some manner, then that is interesting in and of itself.
The Chechen insurgency is deeply involved in the sale of illegal drugs, and the Chechen Mafia, known as the Obshina, has an ideological as well as a criminal character. A good account of the big overlap between the Obshina and the Chechen guerrilla movement can be found in the late Paul Klebnikov’s Conversations With A Barbarian, which consists of extensive interviews with Chechen Mafia chieftain Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, whose career included financing pro-rebel newspapers as well as forcing the Russian Mafia out of Moscow and taking over its illicit empire. The late Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch whose recent suicide made headlines, made good use of the Obshina in his efforts to dominate the Russian car dealership market. In return for their protection, the oligarch financed pro-Chechen propaganda and other activities.
Boston’s Chechen community is the largest in the United States, and the Obshina has a presence extending as far West as Portland. According to one study, in addition to the Russian Mafia, “at least 150 ethnic-oriented Russian criminal groups had also been identified, including Chechens, Georgians, Armenians, and Russian-Koreans, of which at least 25 were active in various parts of the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America.” Unlike these other Russian-based criminal gangs, the Chechens have an ideological – and religious – coloration: there are reported links between Al Qaeda and the Chechen Mafia.
So what do we have here? The answer, I’m afraid, is a clear-cut case of carefully premeditated Islamist terrorism with an overseas connection. Tamerlan clearly went to Dagestan, and then Chechnya, where he received training and instructions. He returned to America, recruited his brother, and together they carried out the plan. Whether this operation was coordinated by Al Qaeda, or some other group – possibly some Chechen fundamentalist faction, which outsourced the operation to the Obshina – may seem irrelevant, except for the fact that if there is an organized crime connection then we really have a problem on our hands.
The lessons to be drawn from all this? First and foremost, the idea that we can invade other countries – indeed, that we must invade countries like Afghanistan – so as to prevent terrorists from acquiring a “safe haven” is absolute nonsense. We tried that, and it didn’t work. Boston is the proof.
The second lesson is that American officialdom is comprised of hysterics, whose overreaction must have the terrorists chortling in their Chechen lair. A nineteen year old punk succeeded in shutting down a major American city: whoever organized the Boston atrocity can surely count that as a victory.
The third lesson we can draw is that Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are opportunists of unusual talent and perspicacity. No sooner had Dzokhar been caught then these two were all over the media demanding he be tried as an “enemy combatant,” presumably in secret, and denied a lawyer. If we ever see a police state imposed in the US – and are we very far from that now? – McCain and Graham will go down in history as two of its Founding Fathers. The sooner these two are involuntarily retired, and driven out of American political life, the better are our chances of preserving what’s left of our old republic.
As the hunt for Dzokhar went on, I saw a lot of denial on Twitter amongst liberals who resisted – and still resist – linking the Boston bombers’ motives to either the Chechen independence movement or radical Islamist ideology. Yet the evidence is staring them right in the face: they simply refused to see it because it didn’t confirm their own politically correct biases.
That simply will not do. Antiwar activists, and those who rightly resist the often violent wave of Islamophobia that has swept the country since 9/11, are going to have to face facts, and fight accordingly. Anti-interventionists are actually given more intellectual and political ammunition on account of this incident, as pointed out above: the invade-the-world strategy hasn’t worked. And unless Senators McCain and Graham are going to be advocating a US invasion of Chechnya and Dagestan, it’s clear the War Party hasn’t got an answer for this one.
On the other hand, civil libertarians are going to have a harder time of it: Sen. Graham’s invocation of the New Tyranny’s slogan – “the Homeland is the battlefield” – is a creepy reminder that we are on the brink of establishing a police state in this country. The irony is that the police state methods “legalized” by legislation like the Patriot Act didn’t pick up on the Boston conspirators’ plans. For all their snooping and sneaking around, prying into our emails and investigating supposedly “subversive” individuals and groups – including myself, I might add, and this web site – they were caught flat-footed.
If and when a connection to Chechen terrorist groups is established, I would think that the West’s longstanding support for the Chechen cause would be called into question. The US State Department under both Bush and Obama has routinely sided with the Chechen separatists, and Britain, in particular, has been their invaluable ally, granting asylum to Chechen terrorist leaders as well as their Russian oligarch sponsors, such as Berezovsky. The growing cold war between Russia and the US no doubt squelched any real cooperation between Moscow and Washington in tracking terrorists: that’s the real explanation for the FBI’s failure to take Russian warnings seriously. And besides that, they were too busy monitoring Antiwar.com and other Americans engaging in legal and constitutionally protected activities to bother with the brothers Tsarnaev.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’m having great fun on Twitter these days, and I urge you to join me on this wonderfully interactive site: you can do so by going here.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).