Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Hidden Face of Russian Security

Abdula Magomedov/AP Photo
Russian special force soldiers during an anti-terrorist operation in Makhachkala, Dagestan, January 20, 2014

In early January, FBI director James Comey said the US has benefited from improved ties with Russia’s security services as Russia prepares to host next month’s Winter Olympics. According to Comey, there is now regular contact between the FBI and the FSB, Russia’s counterintelligence agency, and coordination has been growing since last year’s Boston Marathon bombing. Yet with the US about to send more than two hundred athletes to Sochi, concerns about terrorism continue to mount. The appearance this past weekend of a video on the website of a militant Islamic group called Ansar Al Sunna has caused particular alarm. In the fifty-minute video, two Russian-speaking men claimed responsibility for the two December suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd, and warned that Sochi was their next target.

The US State Department, which has issued a travel warning for Americans planning to attend the games, had no comment on the new video, but lawmakers in Washington have reacted strongly. Senator Angus King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CNN Sunday that he would not go to Sochi and would not send his family there. More significantly, Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers now say that the FSB, Russia’s main security agency, has not been cooperating with the US. “They’re not giving us the full story…what are the threat streams, who do we need to worry about,” Rogers said on CNN. “Are those groups….still plotting?”

In fact, careful scrutiny of both the recent Volgograd attacks and the Boston bombings provides further evidence of what some security experts have long observed: the Russian government’s dismal record in fighting terrorism makes it far from a reliable partner.

Russia has for years fought violent counterinsurgencies in the republics of the North Caucasus region, which are rife with ethnic conflict, and dealt with terrorist threats from Islamic groups there. But consider what is now known about Volgograd. Following the suicide bombing at the main railway station there on December 29, Russian security sources let it be known that they had identified the bomber: a woman from Dagestan named Oksana Aslanova. But after security police rushed to her village in Dagestan to take DNA samples from Aslanova’s relatives, the Russian Investigative Committee suddenly told Russian news organizations that the suspected terrorist was instead a man named Pavel Pechenkin, a Russian who had left his family in 2012 and was living in Dagestan with Islamic rebels.

Pechenkin, a trained emergency medic, was well known to security authorities. His parents had contacted them after he disappeared and had then sent desperate appeals to him over the Internet urging him to come home. REN TV had also posted a video in which Pechenkin, dressed in Muslim garb and appearing to get cues from someone in the background, seemed highly distressed as he explained that he would not be returning to his family.

After the railway bombing, Russian investigators took DNA samples from Pechenkin’s parents, but even before they got the results, they decided, without explanation, that he, too, was not the bomber. Since then security agents have made sweeping arrests in a crackdown throughout Volgograd, but the government has not announced formal charges against any of the suspects in either of the two bombings.

More troubling, the December Volgograd bombings might have been anticipated or even thwarted if the FSB had not botched the investigation of a separate suicide bombing on a trolleybus in that same city just two months earlier. In that attack, which occurred on October 21, a female suicide bomber killed six people and wounded many others. Within minutes of the blast, investigators identified the bomber and announced that her common-law husband, Dmitry Sokolov, had probably prepared the bomb. Sokolov had long been on the FSB’s radar—a year earlier, he had posted a video on the Internet declaring his commitment to militant Islam. In November, when the FSB surrounded a house in Dagestan where he was holed up with five other militants, the FSB had Sokolov’s mother talk to him on the phone and beg him to surrender.

It is not clear what transpired after the call. Yet FSB forces killed Sokolov and the other inhabitants of the house, thus preventing any possibility of questioning them. And incredibly, as several respected Russian journalists later reported, Sokolov had been arrested and released by local authorities twice—before and after the October attack. In the words of veteran political observer Andrei Piontkovskii:

The circumstances of the life and death of Dmitry Sokolov are so monstrous that their discussion either becomes a central event in the political life of the country, or this country no longer exists.

Other Russian analysts have suggested that the FSB might have had an interest in allowing or even facilitating such attacks. Nikolai Petrov, a specialist in Russia’s regional politics and a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, noted recently:

When we examine these recent Volgograd attacks, it’s hard not to notice how well planned and well organized they were. They seem to have enjoyed a lot of logistical help…Some officials in the security forces have interests in private companies that provide security for airports and other transport infrastructure, and there are huge profits to be made in this field. Terrorism has become a big business, and there are people with a real, material interest in keeping it going.

Last year’s Boston bombings, meanwhile, continue to raise questions of its own about Russia’s security services. Russian authorities had identified Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who carried out the bombings, as a possible radical Islamist as far back as 2010. In March 2011 the FSB sent a message to the FBI mentioning the US-based Tamerlan and asking for more information about him. But the following year, when Tamerlan spent six months in Russia, mainly in Dagestan, a breeding ground for Islamic extremists, the FSB failed to tell its American counterparts. Had FBI officials known about Tamerlan’s 2012 trip to Russia, they would have been watching him closely after he returned to the US and possibly could have prevented him and his brother from carrying out the attacks.

Massachusetts Congressman Bill Keating, who was part of a congressional delegation that went to Moscow in May to discuss terrorism policy with Russian officials after the Boston bombings, told me that FSB officials insisted they knew nothing of Tamerlan’s 2012 trip. But Congressman Keating also said he heard from other sources in Russia that this was not the case. (In fact, the leading independent newspaper Novaya gazeta published a lengthy investigative story on April 29, 2013, documenting how local security officers were following Tamerlan’s movements in Dagestan.) Despite FBI statements that the agency had requested further information from Russia on Tsarnaev, Russian officials vigorously denied to Keating and his colleagues that such requests were made.

Clearly, there are a lot of questions to be resolved about Boston; according to Congressman Keating, the House Committee on Homeland Security is expected to release the results of its own investigation of the bombings within weeks. But the operations of the Russian security services are shrouded in secrecy, and as US lawmakers complain, their officials are loath to share even the most insignificant details with their Western counterparts, let alone with Russian citizens. The standard Russian response to terrorist attacks is to release a spate of contradictory and confusing information, designed to present the security agencies in the best possible light and cover up mistakes, or even possible complicity, in the attacks. Despite debacle after debacle, no one in the security agencies is ever held accountable, at least publicly. Terrorism cases are rarely brought to court because in most instances authorities have already killed the suspected perpetrators, and when trials occur they are held behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, the specter of further attacks provides a convenient pretext for more crackdowns on civil rights. Since the Vologograd attacks, members of the Russian Duma have drafted new anti-terrorism bills that significantly expand the already sweeping authority of the FSB, including giving it broader powers to conduct searches of citizens and to control the Internet. One of the bills’ authors is former former FSB officer Andrei Lugovoi, a prime suspect in the 2007 murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko.

But the growing threats from violent groups have been driven above all by the failure of the Russian government to address poverty and unemployment in the North Caucasus, leading to the rapid growth of anti-Russian ethnic and religious ferment. Moreover, many such militants have become harder to trace, shifting their activities from more open paramilitary groups to small cells and lone suicide bombers. They have also recruited more ethnic Russians, making it more difficult for authorities to single out potential attackers.

For the moment, is not clear how vulnerable Sochi is to an attack. The many incidents in Russia over the past several years, as devastating as they have been, have mainly taken place in the Caucasus, where deaths are taken lightly by the Kremlin and by many Russians, and have not threatened the political stability of the regime, or even damaged Putin’s credibility. But Sochi, with the whole world watching, is a different matter.

There are thousands of special police patrolling the streets and up to 30,000 troops guarding nearby borders. Six Panzer-S missile defense systems will protect the skies above Sochi, along with air force fighters and drones. And patrol boats from the Russian navy will scour the coastline. Putin has a huge political stake in the success of the Olympics and so do his security services. (That said, with all their resources directed at Sochi, Russian authorities may be opening up opportunities for terrorists to strike elsewhere in Russia, which would cast a pall upon the Games.)

Washington, understandably, is striving to achieve as much cooperation as possible with Moscow in the war on terrorism. But given Russia’s questionable handling of terrorist incidents and the unchecked power it continues to give its security agencies, such cooperation may serve Moscow’s interests far more than it does those of the US.

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