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US ignored tip-off on Boston ‘bomber’

- Russia had warned of suspect’s terror links
A CBS News image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after he was found hiding in a boat in a Boston suburb. (AFP)

Washington, April 20: Dismissed in barely one paragraph by mainstream media outlets in the US is a big story that ought to rank along with dramatic accounts of the capture late last night of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old Chechen American who is suspected to have planted pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon.

This grossly understated story is a tale of how Russia had tipped off the Federal Bureau of Investigation two years ago that Dzhokhar’s elder brother, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had ties with Chechen terrorists. Tamerlan, also a suspect in the Boston bombings and a US green card holder, was shot and killed in a fire-fight with the police on Thursday.

The FBI “interviewed” Tamerlan — did not interrogate him — and he carried on with whatever he was doing, which appears to have culminated in tragic consequences for more than 170 innocent people in Boston on Monday.

And Tamerlan was doing quite a lot, it now turns out, which ought to have been evident to anyone merely scanning his social media posts, let alone to a specialised investigative agency such as the FBI.

This is an experience that is not unfamiliar to Indians. As early as 2007, the Moroccan wife of David Coleman Headley, who is now acknowledged as a key planner in the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, went to American officials at their embassy in Islamabad to warn them that her husband was a terrorist.

She even suspected that he was connected to a train bombing in Mumbai.

A review by the US director of national intelligence in 2010, long after the proverbial bird had flown the coop, revealed that there were four other instances since 2001 when US intelligence agencies had been tipped off about Headley.

As in Tamerlan’s case now, nothing was done about Headley then. It is possible that the victims of the Tsarnaevs — assuming they are guilty — could have been saved had the FBI taken the Russian warning seriously just as 166 lives could have been saved in Mumbai if the Americans had shared their information with India.

Residents of Watertown in Massachusetts, where Dzhokhar was detained last night, came out in droves and cheered the law enforcement agencies, which had tracked down the alleged killers. Relief was writ large on their faces that the tense lockdown of their city and parts of their state had ended.

The FBI and other agencies that tracked the bombers down deserve much credit. They were looking for a needle in a haystack at the sprawling 117-year-old Boston Marathon site.

No one is even talking about the huge intelligence failure that turned Boston into a fertile ground for the biggest terrorist act within the US since September 11, 2001. But those who govern America are quiet in the knowledge that they erred - and erred grievously.

A few hours before Dzhokhar was arrested, and a few hours after his elder brother was shot dead, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, went through the ritual of releasing the annual American country reports on human rights practices around the world.

The release was immediately followed by a briefing by the acting assistant secretary of state for human rights, Uzra Zeya. At her briefing, one enterprising reporter got to ask about Chechnya, which the Americans have been using as a big stick to beat the Russians with.

The US attacks against Russia on the situation in Chechnya became more and more strident after Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s President.

Zeya was taciturn, the first time for a state department official on this occasion since the Americans began attacking Russian policies on Chechnya in 1995.

The reporter asked: “I just wondered. In the past, I think, the US government has talked a lot about concern about human rights abuses in Chechnya and I just wondered if you think the events in Boston are going to change in any way how the government would see human rights in Chechnya.”

The acting assistant secretary sought refuge in the shadow of her boss, Kerry. “I just have to reiterate the secretary’s comment that it would be highly inappropriate to make further comment on this....”

She added as an afterthought that “with respect to the situation in the northern Caucasus... you will find quite a bit of information in this year’s report. And they note serious human rights abuses taking place and acts of human rights violations reportedly committed by both authorities and militants.”

The moderator quickly decided that “this is going to be the last question” and ended the briefing although she acknowledged that there were “people who didn’t have their questions answered”.

The human rights report released yesterday had already been printed and transmitted to the US Congress, as required under the law, before it became clear that the alleged Boston bombers were Chechen refugees who had been allowed to migrate to the US.

Although Zeya was reticent about the Boston connection with Chechnya, the latest report is, therefore, as critical of Moscow as before.

“There continued to be reports that security forces used indiscriminate force resulting in numerous deaths and that the perpetrators were not prosecuted,” the report said of Dagestan, where the family of the two Boston suspects lived after leaving Chechnya, but before they went to Central Asia and eventually to the US.

Tamerlan went back to Dagestan last year. He had earlier been to Russia’s troubled Caucasus region and had an extended stay in Russia when he appears to have come under surveillance by Moscow’s intelligence agencies. The tip-off to the FBI was a sequel to such tracking.

“Armed forces and police units reportedly abused and tortured both rebels and civilians in holding facilities,” yesterday’s report said of the Caucasus. “Burning the homes of suspected rebels reportedly continued.”

Even after Chechen and Ingush terrorists killed at least 380 people, mostly schoolchildren, in hostage-taking in Beslan in Russia in 2004, the US media has consistently referred to such acts as the work of “rebels”.

The same reluctance to use the “terrorist” label was in evidence earlier in 2002 when Chechens took 850 hostages at a Moscow theatre demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. All the 40 hostage-takers, and 130 hostages, were killed in a Russian rescue.

Kashmiri terrorists and their supporters who cross the Line of Control to commit violence within India too are often described as “militants” here when they commit acts of terror.

The expectation is that at least in the case of Chechens, the description may change from “rebels” to “terrorists” after the Boston bombings and President Barack Obama’s unequivocal statement this week that “anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror”.


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