I’ve been struck in the past 48 hours how many journalists’ queries I’ve fielded that seemed to take seriously the idea that the Russian state (or local agents in the North Caucasus) could somehow be responsible for the terrible Boston bombing. (I’m talking 6 serious journalists: not the kind of lunatics who, for example, claimed the real bombers were Navy SEALs.) The idea would seem to be that by encouraging, facilitating or downright arranging the attack, they demonize the Chechens, legitimize their brutal security campaign in the North Caucasus, and create a new, more favorable environment for dealing with the USA, in one fell swoop. A cute idea, worthy fodder for some lurid airport thriller, but in my opinion very, very hard to believe.
I can understand why the Tsarnaevs’ family and friends might want to believe that Tamerlan and Dzhokar were framed or set up. It’s the same impulse that leads to the disbelieving and perplexed statements that “he was a lovely man” or “he kept himself to himself” every time some serial killer or child abuser is arrested. Evil thoughts and plans, alas, do not always or even usually manifest themselves through sinister manner and demented cackles.
However, if we look at these particular suggestions (some of which also come from Russians), they seem to rest of a few basic assertions:
- The FSB had suspicions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, so the fact that they let him into the country shows that they had some ulterior motive.
- Putin was willing to blow up Russian apartment buildings in 1999 for political purpose, so he’d have no more compunction seeing terror in Boston.
- The Russians want to make the world stop hassling them about their tactics in the North Caucasus: this gives them a perfect way of demonstrating that they are simply fighting evil jihadists.
- In the most ridiculously extreme cases, it’s asserted that the Kremlin just hates the USA anyway, and likes seeing mayhem there.
Of course Moscow will seek to make political capital out of this event; that’s what countries do (I remember when offers of assistance to the USSR after Chernobyl were also accompanied by patronizing suggestions about how this wouldn’t have happened if the Soviets were less Soviet and more Western). That certainly doesn’t mean that “hardliners in Russia might want another Cold War with America, and they may even secretly rejoice at the idea of mayhem in the West.” The pragmatic art of diplomacy is often about making the best from whatever fate presents.
The Kremlin has not shown itself averse to the use of violence in domestic and international politics (I’m inclined to accept the 1999 apartment bombings were state terrorism), but this is a world apart from actually trying to instigate an attack on US soil. The risks so outweigh the potential advantages that I don’t think it would even have been seriously considered. There is one basic rule of covert operations: at some point, they become covert no longer. If Tamerlan had been an active, aware agent, what would have happened if he had been captured? Even assuming that he was instead a dupe, groomed for the purpose by Russian undercover agents posing as jihadists, what happens when the US authorities–who, we can safely assume, are turning the full weight of their massive intelligence capacity onto this case–get a sniff of this? Any political advantages are likely to be transient (think how quickly the post 9/11 amity evaporated); any political risks astronomical.
Besides which, the FSB flags up potential individuals of concern all the time. They don’t necessarily bar them from the country. One could just as easily (and foolishly) suggest that the FBI’s failure to pick up on the brothers’ jihadist sentiments in 2011, after the FSB had passed on a warning about them, showed that somehow the US authorities were involved. (And for the record, while the inevitable inquiry will say for sure, we need not assume the FBI “failed” here–Tamerlan may not have been fully radicalized by then, the FBI get many such warnings, and in any case they are often rightly skeptical of FSB tip-offs as the Russians often claim people are “terrorists” on the flimsiest grounds or just to smear political oppositionists.)
The world is usually a simpler place than people think, and covert actions less common and less attractive than the movies suggest. We’ll wait and see, but to me this is a case of an alienated young man looking for answers and sadly finding them in the ideology of global jihad, and apparently bringing his brother into the cause. In some ways this is harder to understand than deep plots and cunning stratagems, because it requires us to accept that the Western liberal democratic model does not satisfy everyone and that we cannot control the vagaries of lost souls…
(Oh, by the way: North Korea has denied being behind the bombing, too. So that’s alright, then.)