The Boston Attack and the Russian Connection

What did Vladimir Putin know about the bombers, and when did he know it?

There’s an intriguing and still ambiguous Russian connection emerging in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings. Specifically, it involves the Russian government’s interest in Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his potential connection to terrorist groups, as well as a curious offer of assistance in the investigation that came directly from Vladimir Putin. 

The Associated Press reports this afternoon that “the Russian FSB intelligence security service told the FBI in early 2011 about information that Tamerlan…was a follower of radical Islam…” Tamerlan died in a shootout with police Friday morning, and his brother, Dzhokhar, was captured last night. 

The FBI released a statement yesterday that sheds more light on this exchange between the FSB and US law enforcement.  

“…in early 2011, a foreign government asked the FBI for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.” 

The statement doesn’t identify the foreign government, but the AP and other news organizations have confirmed with US officials that it was Russia.  

In response to the request, the FBI checked government databases and “other information” looking for so-called derogatory information, according to the statement. Generally, derogatory information is a piece of intelligence, such as a phone record or a monetary transaction, that connects the individual in question to a known or suspected terrorist or group. In Tsarnaev’s case, the FBI looked for “derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel and history plans, and education history.” 

This is a fairly extensive search, and it suggests that US law enforcement did more than a cursory scan of information for any connections Tsarnaev may have had to terrorist groups or fundamentalists. The FBI also interviewed Tsarnaev and unspecified family members. “The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign, and those results were provided to the foreign government in the summer of 2011,” the statement said. 

So far, pretty straightforward. But here’s where things get curious. On April 16, one day after the bombing, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly offered his country’s assistance in the investigation. In a note posted on the Kremlin Web site, Putin condemned the attacks and said Russia “would be ready to provide assistance” to US investigators. 

This offer of assistance came three days before the FBI publicly identified the suspects and noted their Russian/Chechen roots. Did Putin know, or have some reason to suspect, who the bombers were, or that they had a connection to his country?  

It would not be unthinkable, or in some cases even unusual, for the head of a foreign government to offer condolences and assistance in the wake of a terrorist attack. And this was the most significant and high-profile attack on American soil since 9/11. But US-Russian relations are frosty right now amidst talk of a ‘”reset.” Is this Putin making a first step towards better relations? Was he preemptively trying to cover himself knowing that a Russian connection in the bombings would emerge?  

On Friday, President Obama spoke with Putin and  “praised the close cooperation that the United States has received from Russia on counterterrorism, including in the wake of the Boston attack,” according to a White House statement. 

Since the bombing, US officials have reportedly been looking at Tsarnaev’s travel records and have found that he traveled from JFK International Airport to an airport near Moscow on January 12, 2013. He returned to JFK on July 17. It is not yet clear who Tsarnaev met with while he was there. Officials have reportedly found no connections with terrorist groups during that visit. But if Tsarnaev was “radicalized” or received any special training, perhaps in bomb making, investigators will want to know more about what he did while he was in Russia, and who he met with. Presumably, Putin’s offer of assistance will come in handy as US investigators try to answer these questions.