U.S. MILITARY BATTLES SYRIAN REBELS ONCE SUPPORTED BY CIA, NOW BACKED BY TURKEY
September 22, 2017
Soldiers from the U.S.-led coalition tasked with battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) engaged in a firefight in northern Syria Tuesday with Syrian rebels whose movement was once supported by the CIA.
Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the Kuwait-based Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, said the insurgents opened fire first near the city of Manbij, prompting coalition forces to shoot back before taking cover elsewhere. The belligerent Syrian fighters were not identified, but they were believed to have been part of a Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army group opposed to ISIS, the Syrian military and the mostly Kurdish forces supported by the Pentagon, all of which are vying for control in northern Syria.
“Our forces did receive fire and return fire and then moved to a secure location,” Dillon told Reuters, adding that the coalition has admonished Turkey and told it to tell its allies that such an incident “is not acceptable.”
Dillon went on to say that coalition forces trying to defuse tensions between Syrian Arab rebels and the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces “received fire multiple times over the course of the last two weeks,” even though the U.S. and Turkey are NATO allies. Turkey has criticized U.S. support for Kurdish militias such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), because it considers them connected to an insurgent Kurdish nationalist movement at home.
While it’s uncertain if there is any link between the two events, the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army’s Ninth Brigade special forces released images of its fighters conducting training drills in northern Syria around the time reports emerged of the clash. The Free Syrian Army, a loosely knit band of armed opposition groups, was once one of the most powerful revolutionary groups in Syria, but it has suffered years of defections and defeats to jihadist groups also trying to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.
The Free Syrian Army was also the primary recipient of CIA funding to overthrow Assad, but this support diminished as ISIS and Al-Qaeda became increasingly influential among rebels. Turkey attempted to unify the remains of the Free Syrian Army in northern Syria in May, and reports emerged in July that the Trump administration had cut all CIA funding to rebel groups that refused to stop fighting Assad and at times clashed with the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is now the U.S.’s primary partner in Syria.
The Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have taken more than half of ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa since storming the city in June. Syria’s armed forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have also managed to return to Assad large swaths of the country lost to rebels and jihadists. Both sides have their eyes set on the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, which has been under ISIS siege since at least 2014.
Despite tensions and even violence between the U.S.-led coalition and pro-government forces in past months, the Trump administration has expressed its willingness to work with Russia in order to find a political solution to the six-year war that’s already killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more. The two powers have established a cooperation center in neighboring Jordan and have committed to a ceasefire between the Syrian military and a separate Free Syrian Army faction in the southwestern city of Daraa.
Manbij was also the site of early, informal cooperation between the U.S. and Russia when both sent personnel to support their respective partners on the ground from a Free Syrian Army advance in March. Both the U.S. and the Russian military have conducted patrols in the city, which is administrated by a council backed by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
A U.N.-led effort to end the Syrian conflict in Geneva has repeatedly stalled as opposition groups grow frustrated with Assad’s refusal to step down, especially as the military regains control over much of the country. Russia, Iran and Turkey are involved in separate ongoing talks between the Syrian government and the opposition in the Kazakh capital of Astana. This dialogue has produced four “de-escalation zones” not formally recognized by the U.S.
BY TOM O’CONNOR ON 8/29/17 AT 3:40 PM
Find this story at 29 August 2017
© 2017 NEWSWEEK LLC
U.S. coalition exchanged fire with rebels in Syria
September 22, 2017
BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition forces returned fire after being repeatedly shot at near Manbij in northern Syria, where they are patrolling near areas held by Turkish-backed rebels, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said on Tuesday.
“Our forces did receive fire and return fire and then moved to a secure location,” he said by phone.
The incident reflects the complexity of the battlefield in northern Syria, where the Russia-backed Syrian army, Kurdish forces aided by the U.S.-led coalition and Syrian rebels supported by Washington’s ally Turkey are all operating.
The coalition has told Turkey to tell the rebels it backs there that firing on U.S.-led coalition forces “is not acceptable”, Dillon said.
U.S. ground forces are in northern Syria as part of the U.S.-led coalition supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a local alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias battling Islamic State.
Last year, Turkey backed Syrian rebel groups in an offensive next to SDF-held areas aimed at both pushing Islamic State from the border and quelling the expansion of Kurdish influence.
The Turkish-backed rebels and the SDF have often exchanged small arms and artillery fire in other parts of northern Syria where U.S.-led coalition forces are not patrolling.
“Our overt patrols that have been conducting patrols in that area to keep tensions down received fire multiple times over the course of the last two weeks,” Dillon said.
“We let our counterparts in Turkey know this and we continue to conduct these patrols but are always prepared and ready to defend ourselves in that area.”
U.S. forces have been filmed since last year patrolling near Turkey-backed rebel areas while clearly displaying the U.S. flag.
Russian military police have also carried out patrols in northern areas held by the Syrian army and by the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the SDF.
Coalition and U.S. jets have carried out operations to prevent potential attacks on local forces they support.
A year ago, they scrambled to protect U.S. special operations forces in northern Syria from attack by government jets during rare clashes between the Syrian army and the YPG.
In May, the U.S. military carried out an air strike against militia supported by the Syrian government that posed a threat to U.S. and U.S.-backed fighters in southern Syria.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Andrew Roche
AUGUST 29, 2017 / 6:05 PM / 24 DAYS AGO
Find this story at 29 August 2017
Syria pivot? Why anti-Assad rebels, dropped by CIA, could land with jihadists.
September 22, 2017
A SHIFT IN THOUGHT Suspension of a CIA program that armed and trained the rebels leaves them with few options. Some may join the US-backed anti-ISIS campaign, but others may join jihadists to pursue their campaign against Assad. Some already have.
President Trump’s reported suspension of a covert CIA program to fund, arm, and train Syrian rebels is seen as signaling the end of US efforts to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the battlefield.
But the cutting of US ties – and likely those of US allies who also provided the rebels material support – also calls into question the fate of thousands of armed fighters who have grown reliant on US support and direction.
The move, which some commentators have characterized as appeasing Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful backer, has left thousands of mainstream rebels struggling to navigate a battlefield suddenly tipped against them, without a patron, without guidance – and for some – without a cause.
Among the options for the rebels, looking to evolve to survive: join the US-led battle against the so-called Islamic State, or, for the fervently anti-Assad fighters, even join the ranks of jihadist and Islamist groups, which have retained their shadowy funding and supply lines.
Abu Mohammed al Darrawi, the nom de guerre of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) intelligence official who has spent the past four years shuttling between southern Syria and Jordan to negotiate for arms and support, says many “emotional” fighters and commanders will begin considering outreach by Al Qaeda and other well-funded Islamist militias.
How well do you understand the conflict in Syria? Take our quiz.
“We lost our brothers, our sisters, our children; we went through hell just to end this regime and see an end to Assad,” Darrawi said.
“If Al Qaeda, if Ahrar al Sham, if the devil himself is fighting Assad and will help us in this fight, we will side with them.”
When the CIA launched the covert training and arming program, known as Timber Sycamore, in early 2013, it was designed to pressure Assad on the battlefield while regulating the flow of arms and cash that had already been pouring in from Gulf countries and from Turkey.
The CIA, along with the US allies, vetted and trained thousands of rebels from the FSA and affiliated militias at bases within Turkey to the north and Jordan to the south.
Every operation, every battlefield movement, was micromanaged from Military Operations Centers (MOCs), in Jordan and Turkey that featured US, French, British, Saudi, and Emirati intelligence and military officials.
The US and its allies provided the rebels with light arms, including heavy machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles, and vehicles. But, due to Washington’s concerns, they did not provide them with the anti-aircraft weapons they needed to counter regime airstrikes and turn the tide on the battlefield.
The Trump administration’s suspension of Timber Sycamore followed months of scaling down the program and was seen by many as an inevitable divorce. Mr. Trump referred this week on Twitter to his “ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments” to the rebels.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, staunch supporters of the rebels, will be unable or unwilling to go against their ally Washington and continue arming or financing the fighters, say Arab security sources close to the MOC in Amman.
Jordan will no longer offer a land corridor to provide weapons to the south, Turkey is pressuring moderate rebels in the north to fight a proxy war with Kurdish groups, while Qatar, a major backer of Islamist rebels, will also be unwilling to throw its support behind the FSA.
The mood in the northern Jordanian town of Irbid, 12 miles from the Syrian border, where commanders of the FSA’s Southern Front have lived and operated, is one of weariness as they consider their options.
“We have 54 factions in the south alone without support, without arms, and without salaries,” says Abdul Hadi Sari, a former Syrian air force general who has been an adviser to FSA’s Southern Front and a military analyst based in Jordan.
“When the US says stop, they all stop.”
Fighting against, with jihadists
According to rebel commanders close to the MOC in Amman, rebels have been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue salaries to fighters in order to prevent them from breaking ranks and joining jihadist groups. There have been 50 reported defections already this month.
The end of the CIA program meanwhile may also boost efforts to build a fighting force to oust ISIS from Syria, analysts and rebels say, the only way mainstream rebels can secure US support or that of its allies.
According to Syrian rebel commanders close to operations, the US has been redirecting vetted rebels to bases established near Tanf in the triangle between south-eastern Syria, western Iraq, and northern Jordan to train and take up the fight against ISIS in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour.
“The CIA program was aimed at Assad, while the Department of Defense’s program was aimed at ISIS,” Faysal Itani, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Rafiq Hairiri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says via email.
“Ending the former will, if anything, pressure fighters to join the latter in order to get paid and receive US protection.”
As the CIA program was winding down over the past three months, 200 vetted Syrian rebels traveled to Tanf to join the US-formed Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra (Revolutionary Commandos Army) for training, according to Syrian rebel commanders. Hundreds more are said to be considering the offer, but travel from southwest and northwest Syria to the southeast is a dangerous proposition given that swathes of territory are held by pro-regime Shiite militias or ISIS.
“Entering at-Tanf for many would be a suicide mission,” says Mr. Sari, the former air force general. “But if you are starving and worn down by four years of war, many may take that risk.”
One proposal allegedly backed by both Russia and the US, which came as part of Russia-US-Jordan tripartite talks in Amman that reached a cease-fire in south Syria, is the transformation of the Free Syrian Army and moderate rebels from a militia to a “police force.”
Under the proposal, which according to those close to the ongoing tripartite talks has gained the support of Jordan, the rebels would change their mission from overthrowing Assad to keeping the peace in recently-announced truce zones in southern Syria and east of Damascus.
As part of the switch, as envisioned by the West, rebels would receive police training within southern Syria and salaries to both police and prevent extremist groups from filling the vacuum. Should it prove successful, the model would be replicated in central and northern Syria, with the presence of a non-regime police force facilitating the return of Syrian refugees from Jordan and Turkey, according to those close to the talks.
Syrian rebel commanders are divided on the initiative; some say they would rather fight to the “last bullet” than abandon their cause.
“Many would rather die as martyrs than live as policemen,” says Abu Kamal, the nom de guerre of a FSA rebel commander in the Damascus countryside, whose fighters came to a standstill due to funding cuts last month, ahead of the Trump decision.
But, while the mission would be a far cry from overthrowing a regime that has committed atrocities, rebels say many fighters, worn down from broken promises and an increasingly sectarian fight, may be ready to accept the offer.
“When we went out and protested for freedom, we did not know that we would be facing jihadists, the world’s Shiite militias, Russia, a civil war, and a sectarian war,” Sari says.
“Right now, if you offer us security and peace on our homeland, many will take it.”
JULY 26, 2017 IRBID, JORDAN—
Find this story at 26 July 2017
© The Christian Science Monitor
Dozens of US Civilians Are in Syria Fighting ISIS With Local Forces
September 22, 2017
RAQQA, Syria — The heavily armed fighters peered out of a broken second-story window at their outpost in a crumbling house on the western edge of this shell-shocked city, where the Islamic State is fighting a furious battle to hold on to the capital of its self-declared caliphate.
They ducked to avoid snipers camped in nearby high-rise apartments. Armed drones hovered nearby. Just before 2 p.m. came the crack of sniper fire.
“That’s our guy,” Kevin Howard, 28, said as he rose and prepared to return fire.
Howard is not one of the hundreds of U.S. troops deployed in Syria. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran from San Francisco came here as a volunteer, part of a small group of freelance recruits who have traveled to Syria from the U.S., Europe and other regions to help local forces fight the Islamic State.
Americans have a history of volunteering to fight overseas. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought fascists in the Spanish Civil War; U.S. pilots flew for Britain and China before World War II; and U.S. citizens have served in the Israel Defense Forces.
The war in Syria and Iraq has been more problematic. Americans who try to travel there to fight alongside the Islamic State face immediate arrest, and many have been detained at U.S. airports as they prepared to respond to the militant group’s global call to arms. Those who volunteer to fight the jihadis with U.S.-allied Kurdish and Syrian militias, though the State Department advises against it, face no such legal consequences.
Several hundred such volunteers have arrived since the Syrian civil war began six years ago, according to local estimates, and several dozen remain.
Some, such as Howard, are military veterans who served in the Middle East and believed they had left a job unfinished. Others are young people drawn to the plight of the Kurdish rebels, or by the powerful lure of combat in a faraway land.
In recent days, as the battle for Raqqa has turned into a violent death spiral for the Islamic State, three of the volunteers have died.
Nicholas Warden, 29, of Buffalo, N.Y.; Robert Grodt, 28, originally of Simi Valley; and Luke Rutter, 22, of Birkenhead, England, were killed as Kurdish forces, aided by coalition air support, advanced on Raqqa.
“Everyone is really torn up over losing those three guys, especially all at once. And they were only a few months out of the [Kurdish training] academy,” said Lucas Chapman, who returned to Washington this year after fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the largest force fighting in eastern Syria.
Warden had served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and with the French Foreign Legion, Chapman said, and came to fight the Islamic State in February because of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, Fla.
Grodt, who graduated from Monte Vista School Independent Learning Academy in Simi Valley and studied philosophy at Moorpark College, was an idealist, friends and family said.
A few years ago, he had hitchhiked cross-country to New York to join Occupy Wall Street protests and proposed to a young woman he met there in Zuccotti Park, the Occupy movement’s base. The couple settled in New York and had a 4-year-old daughter.
In April, he traveled to Syria to join the YPG, after researching the group’s cause and meeting other volunteers who had returned to the U.S. He didn’t consider joining the U.S. military because he wasn’t sure it was getting the job done, according to his mother, Tammy Grodt of Simi Valley.
“My reasons for joining the YPG was to help the Kurdish people in their struggle for autonomy in Syria and elsewhere and also to do my best to help fight Daesh and help create a more secure world,” Robert Grodt said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in one of a series of videos he made from Syria, this one as he sat in uniform in a field, clutching his rifle.
He was killed by a mine explosion July 6, his body taken to a “martyrs’ center” at a YPG cemetery in Qamishli, his mother was told.
Tammy Grodt, a nurse and mother of six, learned of her son’s death July 8. “The State Department is working to bring him home to us,” she said.
She said her son had seen other volunteers return home unscathed and “truly counted on coming back.” He last called home from Syria on May 11, chattering excitedly about his battle buddies and promising to return in August.
“Many may question why he chose a task that seemed so far from being one that could be successfully accomplished,” she said. “He had a lot of passion and dedication and believed with his effort and enthusiasm, working with others just as dedicated, he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.”
Others have had similar aims.
Arriving in Raqqa recently from northeastern Syria, Swedish volunteer Olivia Mefras said she had left to join the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units without telling her parents.
“They’re not that happy about it,” said Mefras, 22. The high school graduate said she had rudimentary firearms training and was eager to head to the front line.
“We all want to do something meaningful. We know it doesn’t make a difference to the people here — they would fight anyway. But it makes a difference to us in our lives,” she said.
Daman Frat, a YPG commander stationed east of Raqqa, said several foreign volunteers were fighting alongside his units in remote areas outside the city, most of whom had served previously in U.S. or European military units and wanted to be in the thick of the fight.
“They know what Daesh means, and that if they control the area, they will go to Europe more” to mount new attacks, he said.
Syrian Democratic Forces fighters, including Western volunteers, are paid about $100 to $250 a month, depending on which forces they serve with and for how long.
U.S. coalition support for the SDF does not include those salaries, said Maj. Josh T. Jacques, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, who described the fighters as “the coalition’s local ground force partner in the fight against ISIS in northern Syria.”
“Coalition forces continue to support the SDF as part of their advise-and-assist mission, providing equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires and battlefield advice,” he said.
Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Syriac Military Council, or MFS, whose Assyrian militia joined the alliance against the Islamic State, said volunteers receive basic military training and are given standard-issue Kalashnikov rifles, with limited access to other weapons, including the Russian sniper rifle Howard used. Their mine-clearing equipment: homemade bombs and string.
“So many foreign volunteers have been martyred fighting for our cause, and for that they shall always be remembered among us,” Gabriel said.
In his west Raqqa outpost, surrounded by snipers and the occasional armed drone, Howard said Western volunteers in Syria seem to fit into one of three groups: There are the anarchists and socialists, “the starry-eyed dreamers.” Then there are the “people that are running away from their past.” Finally, he said, there are the “people that are legitimately crazy.”
Across the room, Taylor Hudson, a volunteer from Pasadena, noted that Howard hadn’t said to which group he belonged.
“I just want to help people,” he said, pausing. “I’m probably crazy,” he said. “To do this — to leave home, put your life on the line — you have to be kind of crazy.”
Howard was raised in a San Francisco orphanage and went straight into the Marines at age 17. Stationed in Southern California at Twentynine Palms, he served for about five years, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq at the height of American deployments there.
Howard and his friends returned home with post-traumatic stress, in his case due in part to traumatic brain injury, he said. He had been looking forward to civilian life, he said: “Go to college, white picket fence.” But he grew restless.
“I missed this,” he said, gesturing at the abandoned house that had become his home.
When the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Mosul three years ago, Howard said, he was stricken by reports about atrocities the militants had committed against Yazidi religious minority communities in the area of northern Iraq where he had served as a Marine.
He joined the French Foreign Legion but didn’t get sent to Syria, even after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 — instead he was scrubbing toilets.
So he quit and came on his own this year and quickly found his niche with a 30-member unit of the MFS. Some fellow veterans have had trouble adjusting, he said.
“This is total anarchy, guerrilla war,” Howard said. “A lot of military guys can’t handle it because there isn’t structure. It just sort of flows.”
Hudson, 33, an ironworker, also joined the French Foreign Legion for a few months before coming to Syria last year. He had studied medicine at Eastern Washington University and though he never earned his degree, he has served as a medic since he arrived in Syria, where local fighters call him Doc.
He arrived planning to volunteer with Kurdish forces, then discovered the plight of the Assyrian minority, the group’s history of persecution in the region and lack of resources compared with Kurdish forces. Now he is working with the same militia as Howard.
The war in Syria, he said, is about more than defeating the Islamic State. For Hudson, it’s about establishing a democracy that will protect minorities such as the Assyrians.
Howard had planned to leave once Raqqa was freed. So did Hudson. Now they are reconsidering.
“This is the most important fight in the world right now,” Howard said.
(Staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington and special correspondent Kamiran Sadoun in Raqqa contributed to this report.)
This article is written by Molly Hennessy-Fiske from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
The Los Angeles Times | 17 Jul 2017 | by Molly Hennessy-Fiske
Find this story at 17 July 2017
© 2017 Military Advantage
Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Terrorist. Murderer. Federal Informant?
April 25, 2017
Not long after Tamerlan Tsarnaev bombed the Boston Marathon,
investigative reporter Michele McPhee went looking for answers. What she
discovered, detailed in this exclusive excerpt from her new book,
Maximum Harm, might just change how you think about our government and
law enforcement forever.
As darkness descended over the village of Utamysh, Russia, one mid-July
night in 2012, international soldiers, intelligence agents, and local
police made their way inside a convoy of covered troop carriers to a
carefully hidden encampment. They even brought a light-armored tank,
knowing the men inside were heavily armed.
The hideout, a small farmhouse, was home to seven mujahideen, guerrilla
fighters who had all vowed to bring sharia law back to Russia’s Northern
Caucasus. They flew their own nationalist flag and consistently referred
to Russian authorities as “invaders.” Two of the men, however, Islam and
Arsen Magomedov, were more than mere guerrilla insurgents: They were
notorious terrorists and commanders of the region’s most brutal criminal
gangs. In all, they were suspected of orchestrating dozens of murders
and deadly bombings of police checkpoints, civilian-filled trains, and
Russian Federation television stations. Next to the Magomedovs stood
five other men who ranged in age from 25 to 35, budding jihadists who
had very few prospects when they left their families other than to go,
as they said, “into the forests” to train. After a long day, the men
went to bed—completely unaware that just outside the tiny village, under
the cover of night, forces were preparing a raid that would level their
Russian Interior Ministry counterterrorism troops wanted to move in
without being seen by the prying eyes of Utamysh villagers, so they
evacuated some women and children living near the camp. Not everyone in
the Muslim village supported the continuing carnage in their region, but
most distrusted Russian Federation law enforcement officials. As in most
military operations, the soldiers moved silently as they carefully
checked their guns and grenades, switched the safeties off their
automatic weapons, and even loaded a small rocket-propelled grenade.
They wore combat gear, and not for aesthetic reasons. Inside the hideout
were some of the most violent men in the Northern Caucasus, an area that
has long been among the most volatile and lawless places in the world.
At that time, it was not unusual for a Russian police officer to be
assassinated weekly. The insurgents inside the Utamysh compound had been
trained to believe that the Russians were invaders who—like
pigs—deserved nothing less than slaughter, and had been taught that
there was no greater honor than to die taking a Russian out.
When the radicals heard the sound of dried dirt and rocks being crushed
under the weight of the tank and the troop movers carrying the enemy to
their front door, according to a video that was later released by the
Russian Interior Ministry, the mujahideen grabbed their own guns, prayed
that Allah would give them strength in battle, and fired.
Tracer rounds and bombs lit up the village for hours. When the sun rose
over the mountains on July 14, 2012, all seven of the Islamic militants
were dead. The Russians photographed their slain bodies lying in the
scrubby grass as proof of their deaths.
The camp was a smoldering shell. Cars belonging to the insurgents were
still burning. The walls of the farmhouse were pitted with gunfire, and
its windows had all been blown out. Russian Federation counterterrorism
coalition forces also lost a man: an officer with the Russian Interior
Ministry. Three other Russian agents had been wounded.
As the farmhouse continued to fume, while militants mourned and the
Russian Interior Ministry prepared to bury its dead agent, one man left
the region, somehow paying 2,050 euros for a one-way Aeroflot ticket
from Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow to John F. Kennedy
International Airport, and then to Logan airport on July 17, 2012. His
name was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a Russian expat whose entire family fled the
region a decade earlier for Cambridge, Massachusetts, telling United
States immigration officials that they would be killed because of their
political affiliations if they ever returned home.
It remains unclear how the unemployed 25-year-old on welfare paid for
the flight or exactly what he spent his time in Russia doing, or for
whom. Less than a year later, he and his younger brother, Dzhokhar,
carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, an act of terror so immense it
would paralyze the entire city. Tamerlan would die on April 19, 2013,
not long after a wild firefight with police and a high-speed chase in a
stolen SUV driven by Dzhokhar, who fled the shootout and prompted a
nearly daylong manhunt before being captured.
When Dzhokhar’s trial started nearly two years later, his famed
death-penalty defense attorney, Judy Clarke, startled court spectators
when she flat-out admitted her client was guilty of the bombings. At one
point, she pointed to a photo of older brother Tamerlan and explained,
“There’s little that occurred the week of April the 15th…that we
dispute.” But what about in the months and years before that?
Much is murky about Tamerlan’s life leading up to the deadly attack on
Boylston Street. Four years after the blasts, his case, at first blush,
seems to be an extreme cautionary tale about the shortcomings of the
overbloated war on terror, its divided attentions rendering actual
terrorists invisible. But upon closer inspection, a strange picture
starts to emerge—one that counterterrorism experts and law enforcement
officials have suggested points to Tamerlan having been a federal
informant who went rogue.
During Dzhokhar’s trial, his defense attorneys raised provocative
questions about the FBI’s mysterious involvement with Tamerlan. Had
agents pressured him to be an informant? And if so, did that pressure
play a role in the bombings? “We base this on information from our
client’s family and other sources that the FBI made more than one visit
to talk with [Tamerlan’s parents] Anzor, Zubeidat and Tamerlan,
questioned Tamerlan about his internet searches, and asked him to be an
informant, reporting on the Chechen and Muslim community,” Dzhokhar’s
lawyers stated in court records. “We further have reason to believe that
Tamerlan misinterpreted the visits and discussions with the FBI as
pressure and that they amounted to a stressor that increased his
paranoia and distress. We do not suggest that these contacts are to be
blamed and have no evidence to suggest that they were improper, but
rather view them as an important part of the story of Tamerlan’s
decline. Since Tamerlan is dead, the government is the source of
corroboration that these visits did in fact occur and of what was said
The FBI denies that Tamerlan was their informant, but to this day those
questions have not been answered. What is the bureau trying to hide?
THE TSARNAEV CONNECTION
Tamerlan Tsarnaev participates in a photo essay titled “Will Box for
Russian counterterrorism agents warn the FBI about Tsarnaev.
The FBI closes its investigation on Tsarnaev.
September 11, 2011
The bodies of three men with connections to Tsarnaev are found nearly
decapitated in a Waltham apartment.
Russian officials warn U.S. intelligence about Tsarnaev’s jihadist
rhetoric; his name is added to two terror watch lists.
January 21, 2012
Despite being watch-listed, Tsarnaev is allowed to fly from New York to
Radical extremist William Plotnikov and six other rebel fighters are
killed by Russian forces in Dagestan; Tsarnaev leaves Russia, paying
2,050 euros in cash for the flight.
August 28, 2012
Tsarnaev’s naturalized citizen application is reopened.
January 23, 2013
Tsarnaev’s citizenship is delayed once again.
April 15, 2013
Tsarnaev and his brother bomb the Boston Marathon.
In 2011, the year before Tamerlan flew from Boston to Moscow, the
Russians were already worried about him and his mother, Zubeidat. So in
an unusual move, the agency shared its concerns with counterterrorism
counterparts in the United States. To say the least, the relationship
between the two countries—both of which were trying to eradicate Islamic
terrorism—was based more on need than trust.
Still, on March 4, 2011, the FSB sent its first message about Tamerlan
and Zubeidat to the FBI’s legal attaché in Moscow. Later, it sent the
same memo to the CIA. While the FBI refuses to release a copy of the
letter, FSB officials read it to a congressional delegation that
included Representative William Keating, a Democrat from Massachusetts
and a former prosecutor. “It was amazing in its detail dealing with
Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” Keating later said.
The letter, according to Keating and others, described intercepted text
messages between Tamerlan, his mother, and Magomed Kartashov, her second
cousin—a former Dagestan police officer who had become a prominent
Islamist and leader of a group called Union of the Just (a Muslim
advocacy group that has been banned in Russia because of its alleged
affiliations with Muslim militants). The organization sympathized with
radical Islamic insurgents who had declared war against Vladimir Putin’s
Russian forces. Zubeidat and Tamerlan, the letter stated, were becoming
adherents of radical Islam.
The FSB also provided full names, addresses, and phone numbers for many
of the members of the Tsarnaev family, including Tamerlan and his
mother. According to the FBI, it warned that Tamerlan “had changed
drastically since 2010” and was preparing to travel to a part of Russia
“to join unspecified underground groups,” namely, violent radical
Islamists in the Caucasus who formed their own bandit groups, which were
essentially ragtag insurgency gangs. The FBI’s legal attaché in Moscow
sent a translated copy of the FSB’s warning concerning Tamerlan to the
Counterterrorism Division of the FBI’s Boston field office, telling them
“to take any investigative steps deemed appropriate and provide [the
legal attaché in] Moscow with any information derived,” with the promise
that the information would be forwarded to the Russians.
After receiving the FSB’s letter, a special agent in that Boston
Counterterrorism Division, referred to in an Office of the Inspector
General (OIG) report as “the CT Agent,” was assigned to conduct what the
FBI called a threat assessment based on the information that the FSB had
shared regarding Tamerlan’s and his mother’s increasing extremism.
In the months before Tamerlan left Boston for Russia, the CT Agent
interviewed Tamerlan and his parents and reported his findings, the OIG
said. The report concluded that there is no public evidence that the CT
Agent contacted Tamerlan’s then-wife (Katherine Russell, also known as
Karima Tsarnaeva)—at the least, notes about any contact with her never
became part of any official file. Nor did the CT Agent visit the
controversial Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge where
Tamerlan prayed, despite its rumored connections to radical Islamists.
The FBI would later issue a statement that in response to the FSB’s
letter, agents “checked U.S. government databases and other information
to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible
use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity,
associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans,
and education history. The FBI also interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and
family members. The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or
foreign.” And so the bureau closed its case on Tamerlan in June 2011.
As it turned out, the CT Agent’s investigation into the Tsarnaevs was
never shared with the police in Cambridge, where the Tsarnaevs lived,
nor with the Boston police, which ran the Boston Regional Intelligence
Center. The CT Agent, who could not be reached for comment, didn’t even
share the information with his Joint Terrorism Task Force counterparts
from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). When asked about the CT
Agent, the FBI declined to speak about him or any specific agent. As for
the Russians, the Boston FBI field office sent a letter to the FSB dated
August 8, 2011, through its legal attaché in Moscow, stating that its
agents had found “nothing derogatory” about the Tsarnaevs. Months later,
though, Tamerlan flew to Russia, where he would meet the very men the
FSB had warned American counterterrorism officials about: Tamerlan’s
mother’s cousin, Magomed Kartashov, and William Plotnikov, a notorious
In a strange twist, evidence would later show that Tamerlan somehow
clandestinely recorded many of the conversations he had with Kartashov
without his relative’s knowledge—recordings that would eventually be
introduced by Dzhokhar’s attorneys during trial to bolster the defense’s
assertion that the younger brother had come under Tamerlan’s corrupting
influence, just as Tamerlan had sought guidance on jihad back in his
On January 21, 2012, Tamerlan departed from Boston’s Logan Airport and
connected at JFK for a flight to Moscow. By then he was on two different
terrorist watch lists, though that fact never slowed him down.
The first was the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)
database, which is the repository of all international terrorist
identifier information shared by the FBI, CIA, and an alphabet soup of
U.S. intelligence agencies. The National Counterterrorism Center
maintains it by adding biographical or biometric identifiers. The second
watch list was TECS, which is not an acronym but takes its name from an
outdated system of identification checks from a now-defunct federal
agency. TECS, aimed at flagging potential terror suspects as they cross
borders, is a system allowing customs agents to file reports about any
“encounter with a traveler, a memorable event, or noteworthy item of
information particularly when they observe behavior that may be
indicative of intelligence gathering or preoperational planning related
to terrorism, criminal, or other illicit intention,” according to the
DHS. Despite Tamerlan’s being on both of those lists, he still left
Logan without a hitch.
Nearly six months later, upon arrival in the United States after
spending time overseas in a terrorist hot spot, he faced little to no
resistance from U.S. Customs. The purpose of the FBI’s and CIA’s placing
Tamerlan on the watch lists was to create an alert any time he traveled.
But inexplicably, that never happened.
Then there was the question of his passport, which Tamerlan had reported
stolen—or at least that’s what he told his ex-wife, Katherine Russell.
The last valid passport that Tamerlan possessed came from Kyrgyzstan,
where he had grown up, and was slated to expire on November 16, 2012.
Tamerlan applied for a Russian passport to replace the one issued in
Kyrgyzstan that he had used to gain entry into the United States as a
political refugee in 2002. But, as congressional investigators would
discover, he left Russia without ever collecting the new passport.
Still, when Tamerlan landed at Logan on July 17, 2012, he had no problem
whatsoever. A customs agent “scanned Tsarnaev’s Alien Registration Card
into the computer system used during primary inspection. The card was
valid, and as a result, CBP [Customs and Border Protection] took
Tsarnaev’s picture, collected his fingerprints, confirmed his identity,
and admitted him into the country based on his LPR [legal permanent
resident] status,” according to the OIG. However, the report states, the
Customs and Border Protection officer who processed Tamerlan told
investigators he “could not recall” processing Tamerlan or if he alerted
the FBI regarding Tamerlan’s return to the United States without a
passport. He did explain to the inspectors that officers like him
communicate with the FBI about potential terrorist watch list suspects’
travel with “email, orally, or via ‘sticky note.’”
Stranger still was the testimony from then–Homeland Security Secretary
Janet Napolitano during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on
immigration policy on April 23, 2013—just days after Tamerlan died—that
the name on his airline ticket did not match the name on his green card,
saying, “there was a mismatch.” She publicly declined to elaborate.
Surely to stop Tamerlan at the airport for additional screening based on
his physical profile alone—he was a Muslim male with a long beard—or
because he was leaving a terrorist hotbed would have been insensitive
racial profiling. But the idea that a man whose name was on two
terrorist watch lists somehow managed to clear customs because,
government officials claimed, his name was misspelled on those lists, is
inconceivable. This is especially true given the multimillion-dollar
computer program the DHS had purchased to prevent that very sort of
thing from occurring. Even after the Russians had inexplicably notified
the United States in writing about his radicalization in 2011, and
despite being on multiple terror watch lists, Tamerlan was allowed to
travel to a terrorist hot spot and return without being questioned.
All of this looks strange—even stupendously negligent—to the casual
observer. But to the trained eye, it might look like something else
entirely. Former Somerville Police Chief Tom Pasquarello, a longtime DEA
agent who has supervised his own confidential informants, had noticed
similarities between Tamerlan’s case and his own use of so-called CIs
during multiple takedowns all over the world. As a longtime law
enforcement official, he says, the seeming coincidences cannot be
ignored. They make no sense—not Tamerlan’s trip to Russia, nor his
return without a passport while on two separate terror watch lists.
Unless, that is, Tamerlan was trying to lure like-minded radicals in an
effort to collect information and report back to U.S. law enforcement.
“You pull a string on Tamerlan’s life,” Pasquarello said, “and all you
get is unanswered questions.”
The use of Muslim informants has been a controversial topic since 9/11.
Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, former New York
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly turned to retired CIA officer David
Cohen to create the Terrorist Interdiction Unit, a secretive squad that
fell under the department’s Intelligence Division. The unit began
recruiting Muslim police officers to go undercover, as well as Muslim
confidential informants who’d been arrested and were willing to
cooperate with the police. NYPD commanders and detectives assigned to
the unit became among the most lauded and aggressive
domestic-intelligence-collecting agencies in the country, coming up with
the term “raker” to describe informants who infiltrated radical Islamist
plots and raked for information. To this day, Kelly credits the unit
with stopping multiple would-be terror attacks across the country. The
unit’s tactics, however, would raise the ire of organizations including
the ACLU, who accused the police department of abusing its powers to
target mosques and infiltrate them with Muslim officers or informants.
In many ways, what the NYPD created was nothing new. The U.S. Department
of Justice began its relationship with cooperating informants in 1961,
when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy instructed FBI Director J. Edgar
Hoover to order every agent in every field office throughout the country
to infiltrate organized crime groups. The FBI knew it needed to access
the dregs of the underworld in order to bring down its targets, and the
way to do that was to tempt bottom feeders up into the light.
Over time, informants started to pay off as the FBI began toppling the
highest levels of organized crime. Eventually, it had informants inside
the Mafia, the KKK, the Black Panthers, and biker gangs throughout the
country. After 9/11, the bureau focused much of its effort on finding
and maintaining Muslim informants to fight the war on terror. More
recently, informants have infiltrated anarchist groups such as Black
Bloc and Occupy Wall Street.
With the resulting arrests came power for FBI case agents. In some
instances, that power brought unfettered authority to offer sweetheart
deals to turncoats, no matter how treacherous the cooperating informant
was. The FBI tracks the productivity of its informants by aggregating
their “statistical accomplishments”—that is, the number of indictments,
convictions, search warrants, and other contributions to investigative
objectives for which the informant gets credit. But what the FBI does
not track are agents who let informants run amok.
Boston has an especially fraught history with this. Entire FBI field
offices have been tainted, as in the case with infamous mobster James
“Whitey” Bulger. Bulger’s FBI handler was John Connolly, who had admired
the rough-and-tumble mobster while growing up in the same South Boston
housing development. Connolly’s boss was John Morris. Both men took
bribes, and Connolly is now serving time in a Florida prison for
allowing Bulger to set up mob-style hits on innocent people, while the
agents made a name for themselves arresting Italian and Italian-American
mobsters whom Bulger was trying to put out of business. Connolly went so
far as to alert Bulger to an indictment pending against him. As a result
of that tip, the mobster went on the lam with his companion, Catherine
Greig, for 16 years. Then there was notorious mob captain Mark Rossetti,
a feared enforcer who ran his criminal enterprise of drugs and
loansharking out of East Boston. It was only after the Essex County
district attorney indicted more than two dozen mobsters that Rossetti’s
secret work as an FBI informant was exposed.
Despite these high-profile scandals, the FBI informant program is still
in widespread use—and Muslim informants make up a large part of it.
During the height of Hoover’s Cointelpro operations in the 1960s and
1970s, for instance, the FBI had roughly 1,500 total informants. In the
1980s and 1990s the drug wars brought that number up to about 6,000.
Then, after 9/11, the FBI recruited so many new informants—including
accused criminals looking for leniency, liars looking for immigration
favors, Muslims looking for revenge on the members of competing Islamic
sects, and narcissistic egomaniacs who wanted to be revered as a Jason
Bourne–type figure—that it had to hire an outside software company to
help agents track their secret spies. Today, there are anywhere from
15,000 to 20,000 snitches on the FBI’s payroll, and many of them inform
on fellow Muslims in the United States and overseas. The vaunted NYPD
Intelligence Division—working alongside members of the NSA, CIA, and
FBI, as well as Muslim patriots—have uncovered jihadi-inspired plots
that led to multiple criminal prosecutions.
In February 2016, Homeland Security alerted 29 “high-target” cities,
including Boston and New York, that their DHS funding would be slashed
by 1.3 percent. Boston, which had received $18 million from the federal
government earmarked for homeland security initiatives in fiscal year
2015, received $17.7 million in fiscal year 2016. Rene Fielding, chief
of Boston’s Office of Emergency Management, explained that the cuts
collected from the cities would be used to fund “nonprofits”—primarily
to provide security to mosques and synagogues.
Privately, though, police officials complained that it was a way for DHS
officials to pay imams at mosques for goodwill. The feds needed to make
nice with angry activists who were part of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations, the reasoning went, and grant money goes a
long way with nonprofits.
Sometimes, though, the program backfired and inadvertently turned
informants into radicals. According to a report issued by Human Rights
Watch and the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University Law School,
“Indeed, in some cases the Federal Bureau of Investigation may have
created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting
operations that facilitated or invented the target’s willingness to act.
According to multiple studies, nearly 50 percent of the more than 500
federal counterterrorism convictions resulted from informant-based
cases; almost 30 percent of those cases were sting operations in which
the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.”
The ACLU has filed several civil lawsuits against New York City and the
NYPD saying that the Terrorist Interdiction Program started by Kelly
used unconstitutional methods that essentially coerced Muslims to inform
on their neighbors. Both Kelly, a Harvard University graduate, and his
successor, William Bratton, a longtime Boston police commissioner,
insisted the program was essential to stopping planned attacks.
Meanwhile, the NYPD released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the
West: The Homegrown Threat, stating that some of the warning signs
someone was becoming radicalized included changes in appearance and
behavior, and cited “wearing traditional Islamic clothing [and] growing
a beard,” abstaining from alcohol, and “becoming involved in social
activism.” In response, the ACLU argued that infiltrating mosques and
hookah bars was illegal and that the NYPD’s “purported rationale for
this unconstitutional surveillance” was nonsense.
Nevertheless, those warning signs had certainly been observed in
While living in Cambridge, Tamerlan underwent a transformation from a
womanizing Euro-trash party boy to a pious Muslim, albeit one who first
showed signs of radicalization in 2010. He stopped drinking and doing
drugs. He traded his designer clothes for traditional Muslim robes,
wearing them to pizza parlors and Starbucks shops. He started attending
the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque, which was initially
incorporated in 1982 by Muslim students from MIT, Harvard, and other
area colleges. Its first president listed on state records is Abdurahman
M. Alamoudi, who is currently serving a 23-year federal prison sentence
related to charges of funneling money to Libya. By the time Tamerlan
began attending regularly, the mosque had long faced rumors of ties to
Tamerlan had all the traits that comprised the perfect candidate to
infiltrate a mosque that had been in the crosshairs of federal
counterterrorism investigators, law enforcement officials in
Massachusetts say privately. He was multilingual. He had tentacles in
the drug and mixed martial arts worlds. And he was just the type who
could help the fight against terrorism overseas in one of the most
dangerous regions for Islamic extremists: his Mother Russia.
When Tamerlan flew to Moscow in 2012, his name should have been flagged
at Logan airport. After all, he was on the TIDE and TECS terrorist watch
lists. His travel documents included an American permanent resident
alien card that had been issued to him in 2007 and a passport issued in
Kyrgyzstan in 2002 when he was 16, which would expire that year. He
wasn’t stopped at JFK for additional screening, and he wasn’t stopped
when he arrived in Moscow as a suspected terrorist.
Among his Dagestani relatives and members of his Russian mosque,
Tamerlan “looked like an American.” His cousin Magomed Kartashov had
grown up across the street from Tamerlan’s great-grandmother and had
known the Tsarnaev family when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were young
children. He hadn’t seen either boy in years until Tamerlan showed up in
the Kizlyar region to visit relatives.
Kartashov did not recognize his cousin, but they quickly embraced.
Tamerlan was wearing a long raincoat and glasses, Kartashov later
recalled to the FBI in June 2013 at the FSB offices in Dagestan while he
was being jailed for allegedly supporting terrorism, according to court
records. Kartashov remembered he hadn’t seen Tamerlan since he was about
10, and that he’d grown up to be a “big guy.”
Tamerlan didn’t wait long to ask Kartashov for help achieving the goal
that had brought him to Russia. According to Kartashov, Tamerlan said
that he wanted to go into the forests, and that he wanted to go to
Syria. “I came here to get involved in jihad,” Tamerlan said.
At first, it sounded like boasting from a spoiled westerner. But
Tamerlan told Kartashov that he had followed Islamic teachings that
urged Muslims to follow orders such as “cut their heads and make them
kneel in front of you.” Kartashov said Tamerlan didn’t know what he was
talking about and took these words too literally. However, investigators
believe this is what happened to three men in Waltham months earlier,
all mixed martial arts fighters who called Tamerlan a friend. While the
case led investigators to Ibragim Todashev, a Russian with ties to
Tamerlan who was shot dead by FBI agents under murky circumstances
during an interview in Florida, the murders remain unsolved.
From the outside, Tamerlan’s familial relationship with radicals in
Russia would’ve made him the perfect FBI recruit. As would his
connections to Muslim drug traffickers and budding Islamists who, on the
highest of Muslim holidays in August 2012, posed in front of a black
flag often associated with jihad. Law enforcement officials in
Massachusetts later began to say that Tamerlan was an informant for the
feds, a spy sent to Russia to help track and kill the men with whom he
was in contact. Some believed that he was working for the U.S.
government, motivated by the promise of citizenship.
Tamerlan was desperate to become an American. In 2009, he even posed in
a photo essay that read, “Will Box for Passport.” He’d wanted to compete
in the Olympic Games on the U.S. boxing team, for which only citizens
were eligible, and trained hard. But he destroyed any chance he might
have had when police arrested him on a domestic violence charge—an
offense of moral turpitude that legally made him ineligible for
citizenship for the next five years. And yet, within weeks of his return
from Russia, where many of the men he had been spotted with had been
tracked and killed by Russian counterterrorism forces, Tamerlan’s case
for citizenship was mysteriously reopened.
When Janet Napolitano was grilled about security lapses in Tamerlan’s
case at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration in April
2013, she admitted that the name on his travel document did not match
the name on his identification. Napolitano, clearly frazzled, said that
a misspelling allowed him to leave the country but that redundancies in
the DHS computer system alerted U.S. authorities to be aware of his
return. But, she said, by the time he came back to the United States six
months later, the FBI alert on him had expired, so his reentry was not
noted. “The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,”
Napolitano testified. “By the time he returned, all investigations had
been—the matter had been closed.” The response, many believe, was
laughable. One federal agent not authorized to speak publicly explained
it this way: “His time overseas should have triggered a secondary
inspection for a number of reasons: immigration status, duration out of
the country, area of travel, and the fact that he was watch-listed.”
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, pushed
Napolitano for more answers and was told to wait for a
classified—secret—briefing. Senator Charles Grassley asked Napolitano
how a misspelling could have caused problems in 2012 when the
Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 had
amended certain sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act
pertaining to the control of foreign nationals’ travel. The 2007 law
reiterated the need for exit data and required that such data be
collected on all foreign nationals who entered the United States under
the visa waiver program with the provision that air carriers are
required to “collect and electronically transmit” passenger “arrival and
departure” data to “the automated entry and exit control system”
developed by the federal government. Clearly, according to Napolitano’s
testimony, that didn’t happen. Inexplicably, once again she was only
willing to answer behind closed doors. It would be better, Napolitano
told the senators at the hearing, if they could discuss the matter in a
Whatever information Tamerlan’s immigration records contained, the DHS
secretary was not at liberty to talk. It was a staggering admission,
especially since DHS would eventually be forced to release Tamerlan’s
alien file pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by
multiple news organizations, including the Boston Globe, in February
2016. Though dozens of pages were completely redacted, including the
names of federal agencies that requested Tamerlan receive U.S.
citizenship (and waive any fees for the application process), the U.S.
Customs file still contained troubling information.
First, Tamerlan had multiple names and dates of birth that he had used.
Then there were the two State Department Medical Examination for
Immigration or Refugee Applicant forms, which had startling
discrepancies. In one, the attached picture was of an unidentified
older-looking man wearing a black-collared polo shirt and contained a
passport number. In the second, the picture was of a teenage Tamerlan
wearing an identical shirt, and the passport number had been redacted.
Another troubling form seemed innocuous at first glance: a notification
instructing Tamerlan to report to 170 Portland Street in Boston on
October 16, 2012, so he could finally take the official oath and become
an American citizen. Even though Tamerlan was legally ineligible,
somehow his naturalization application had been reopened on August 28,
2012. Among other things, the October ceremony would have meant an
impossibly short turnaround for an application opened just months
earlier. It remains unclear whether Tamerlan showed up at 170 Portland
Street and what happened if he did show up. But the document suggests
that someone was pulling strings to help him obtain the very thing he
had been craving so desperately for years.
Tamerlan did not become a citizen on that October day, though the DHS
will not say whether he attended. What is clear, however, is that in the
weeks after that scheduled appearance, the FBI continued to email
immigration officials, prodding them to approve Tamerlan’s citizenship
application, according to the Office of the Inspector General’s report.
Janet Napolitano, though, would not stick around to answer questions.
She quit her job at the DHS months after the Boston Marathon bombings,
right around the same time FBI Director Robert Mueller retired, as did
the Boston FBI special agent in charge, Richard DesLauriers.
On October 22, 2012—days after the scheduled oath ceremony for Tamerlan
was somehow scuttled—an immigration services officer emailed the FBI’s
CT Agent saying that Tamerlan’s name had popped up on a terrorist watch
list and asking if he “represented a national security concern.” The
next day, the CT Agent, who investigated the initial Russian FSB warning
in 2011, assured immigration officials in writing that Tamerlan was not
a risk if he gained full citizenship: “There is no national security
concern related to [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] and nothing that I know of that
should preclude issuance of whatever is being applied for,” he wrote.
The CT Agent would tell officials that he did not remember whether he
searched Tamerlan’s file or public sources before he replied to the
immigration official. To this day, the FBI insists that Tamerlan’s case
file was closed after the CT Agent’s initial investigation in 2011, and
was only reopened after the Boston Marathon attack.
On January 23, 2013, Tamerlan made a second attempt to become a U.S.
citizen. He had an interview with Customs officials to discuss
documentation related to his arrest for domestic violence and fully
expected to walk away with his citizenship. Instead, the officer wrote,
the paperwork relating to the dismissal of charges in his domestic
violence arrest did not arrive and his status was delayed.
Two weeks later, on February 6, 2013, an angry Tamerlan walked into
Phantom Fireworks in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and asked for the “biggest
and loudest” pyrotechnics in the store.
Michele McPhee’s book Maximum Harm will be released April 4 by ForeEdge,
an imprint of University Press of New England.
By Michele McPhee
Boston Magazine | April 2017
Find this story at 9 April 2017
519: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2014)
April 25, 2017
Last May, a weird story made the news: the FBI killed a guy in Florida who was loosely linked to the Boston Marathon bombings. He was shot seven times in his living room by a federal agent. What really happened? Why was the FBI even in that room with him? A reporter spent six months looking into it, and she found that the FBI was doing a bunch of things that never made the news. Her Boston Magazine story.
This story was reported by Susan Zalkind in a collaboration with Boston Magazine. Check out Susan’s print story for more about the murders in Waltham, MA, and the investigation into Ibragim Todashev.
Ira explains that in May 2013, the FBI shot a guy named Ibragim Todashev in his living room in Florida. Supposedly, right before he died, Todashev implicated himself in a crime, a pretty gruesome one, a triple murder of three drug dealers in Waltham Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. Law enforcement officials told reporters that he also named one of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers – Tamerlan Tsarnaev – as his accomplice in the crime. And then, right before he signed a confession, he supposedly freaked out, and an FBI agent shot him. Which is weird in itself. But weirder still is the fact that the FBI has been silent about what happened. They first promised an investigation on this last May. And since then, we’ve heard that it’s coming, but nine months later it hasn’t arrived. So many questions remain: what happened during that interrogation that led to them shooting Ibragim Todashev? If they had such good evidence connecting him to these murders, why didn’t they just arrest him? What evidence did they have? How good is the evidence connecting the alleged Boston bomber to the murders? Do they truly know who committed the triple murders? In the absence of solid information, conspiracy theories sprang up. Some people started to believe the FBI was hiding something. (7 minutes)
Susan Zalkind spent six months investigating all this for Boston Magazine and This American Life. And she has a personal connection to the 2011 triple murder. She knew one of the three drug dealers who were killed: Erik Weissman was a friend of hers. In this half of the show, she explains what happened when she reached out to people who might have information on Ibragim Todashev, the man killed by the FBI in Florida. First his girlfriend Tatiana Gruzdeva and then his best friend Khusen Taramov are more or less kicked out of the country by federal authorities. Tatiana says she was told she was deported specifically because she spoke with Susan for a story. (17 minutes)
Susan’s investigation continues, and she tells the story of a third person who was close to Ibragim Todashev who was whisked out of the United States thanks after actions by the FBI. (20 minutes)
Susan lays out her theory of what the truth is in this case. And she explains what we still don’t know. (14 minutes)
MAR 7, 2014
Find this story at 7 March 2014
© 1995 – 2014 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass
Did FBI Execute Friend of Boston Bombing Suspect During Interrogation? (2014)
April 25, 2017
Names you know… Dhovar Tsarnev and Tamerlen Tsarnaev… Two young Chechen born brothers, raised in the United States, radicalized through the internet, and responsible for the deadly Boston Bombing attack.
That is the story media has told you but what about the story they have all but ignored? About another Chechen with a lesser known name. Who is Ibragim Todashev and why was he killed by the FBI during an interrogation over the Tsarnev brothers?
Today, you will hear from the widow of that man, and the questions she is still waiting to have answered.
The first step toward truth is to be informed.
As I said, it is a name most americans don’t know at all Ibragim Todashev. A 34 year-old Chechen, living in Orlando, Florida and friend of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlen Tsarnev.
Here is the story.
On May 22nd of this year, FBI agents and Massachusetts state police officers showed up in Orlando florida to interview Todashev.
Before moving to Orlando, Todashev lived in Massachusetts. He was a mixed martial arts fighter and through that sport, became friends with boston bombing suspect Tamerlen Tsarnev.
That was why, only weeks after the bombings, the FBI went to meet with Todashev. but it was during that interrogation when something went terribly wrong
According to a statement released by the FBI,
“The agent, two Massachusetts State Police troopers, and other law enforcement personnel were interviewing an individual in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing investigation when a violent confrontation was initiated by the individual. During the confrontation, the individual was killed and the agent sustained non-life threatening injuries.”
So what violent confrontation took place? Media reports were all over the place on what happened. The New York Times claimed that Todashev pulled a knife on the agent. Other media claimed it was a samurai sword and then metal pole, some said a broom stick. That is, until
the Washington Post was told by an unnamed law enforcement source that Todashev had neither a knife or gun, that he was completely unarmed but did lunge at the agent.
Who saw this happen?
Another important question. Because according to the FBI, who is doing an internal investigation, immediately prior to the killing, after hours of interrogation, all of the other interrogators withdrew and left the room, leaving the FBI agent who fired the shots alone with Todashev.
That agent, claims that Todashev was about to sign a confession to his involvement along with Tamerlen Tsarnev in an unsolved triple murder in Massachusetts and it was just before he was going to sign that confession that he attacked.
The ex-wife of Todashev spoke to me via Skype.
Ben: “What do you make of the claim that all the agents left him and only the agent who killed Ibragim remained in the room with him?”
Reni: “We still don’t know what exactly happened, how many were in there when he was shot. It is still not clear, they are not telling us anything. So far we know it was three of them when they started the interrogation of them but who was in there when he was shot, we still don’t know.”
Aside from the very strange details surrounding an FBI agent left alone with a suspect, who then must defend himself and kill that suspect, are these details.
The agent who shot and killed Todashev, reportedly shot him 7 times including in the head and chest. I say reportedly, because on July 8th, the autopsy report on Ibragim Toashev was finalized and ready for release. According to the Orlando medical examiners office forensic records coordinator,
“The FBI has informed this office that the case is still under investigation and not to release this document.”
All of which is not only unusual, but the entire investigation so far has been surrounded by secrecy. Another issue that the FBI has not even addressed is that while the claim was that Todashev attempted to attack the agent, friends and his ex-wife claim that Todashev was recovering from knee surgery.
Ben: “You say that Ibragim was recovering from knee surgery, so what was the injury and how bad was that knee?”
Reni: “He had done his surgery in the middle of march. For a month and a half he was still on crutches. He was still limping, he was still in pain and with a light touch to his knee, he would feel the pain. He was still in pain on the knee, he was still walking and limping on the knee.”
Ben: “Is it true that he was on crutches at the time that he was killed?”
Reni: “Not necessarily. He was on them sometimes and when he would feel the pain he would go and get the crutches.”
Ben: “Obviously it is speculation on your part but why do you believe that Ibragim was killed?”
Reni: “He got 7 shots and one of them was the back of the head. Clearly this was an execution.”
Ben: “How do you know that one was to the back of the head?”
Reni: “Because I saw the body.”
Ben: “How do you know that it was an entry wound and not an exit wound for the bullet?”
Reni: “I can’t tell, I’m not a professional but from what I see and the medical examiner in Orlando says that he had 7 shots, 1 in the back of the head.”
Ben: “The medical examiner told you?”
Reni: “Yes, they have told me from day one when I came to sign for the body and to take it.”
Ben: “And he told you that he was shot in the back of the head? Incredible.”
Reni: “He said that he had 7 shots, 1 in the head, 3 in the heart, 1 in the liver and I believe that 1 was somewhere in the shoulder or in the arm.”
What you need to know, is that while the ACLU has requested an independent investigation in Florida and Massachusetts, both those requests have been rejected by law enforcement, saying that it would be inappropriate.
Meanwhile, CAIR in Florida is reporting that a friend of Todashev, was arrested in September and was denied a lawyer for 6 days. That even though he repeatedly requested to speak with an attorney, the FBI agents allegedly responded, “That is not happening.”
CAIR-Florida Civil Rights Director Thania Diaz Clevenger said in a statement.
“It fits the pattern of abuse and troubling behavior by FBI agents beginning in the days prior to the killing of the unarmed Ibragim Todashev. One can only wonder if Mr. Todashev was denied his rights to legal council during the questioning that ultimately resulted in his death.”
In addition, other Chechen friends of Todashev say they are being pressured by the FBI to spy on friends and neighbors. The story here that media just won’t cover is the incredible secrecy surrounding this young man’s death, the fact that he was killed so brutally during an interrogation and to so many people its not even that big of a deal because he might be connected to a terrorist.
Ben Swann Nov 14, 2013
Find this story at 14 November 2013
© Ben Swann 2014
The Murders Before the Marathon (2014)
April 25, 2017
Waltham, September 11, 2011: Three men, throats slit, cash and drugs left on the bodies. Two years later, two dead suspects: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and a friend who the FBI says was about to confess. One haunting question: Could solving this case have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings?
It’s nearly midnight in a nondescript condo complex a few blocks from Universal Studios in Orlando, and Tatiana Gruzdeva has been crying all day. Though neither of us knows it yet, as she sits on the corner of her bed and sobs in tiny convulsions, the fact that she’s talking to me will lead to her being arrested by federal agents, placed in solitary confinement, and deported back to Russia.
Next to us on the bed are nine teddy bears. Eight of them came with her from Tiraspol, Moldova. The ninth was a gift from her boyfriend, Ibragim Todashev. Today would have been Ibragim’s 28th birthday, but he is not here to see it, because in the early hours of May 22, 2013, a Boston FBI agent shot and killed him in this very apartment, under circumstances so strange that a Florida state prosecutor has opened an independent investigation. According to the FBI, just before Ibragim was shot—seven times, in two bursts, including once in the top of the head—he was about to write a confession implicating himself and alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a brutal triple homicide that took place in Waltham, Massachusetts, in September 2011.
I’m sitting awkwardly at one end of the twin bed. She’s crying quietly, cross-legged at the other end, wearing shorts and a white shirt with sequins. Most of her outfits have sequins or rhinestones. She’s 19. I’m 26. We both have long blond hair. We’ve both been close to men who were in trouble with the law, and lost them violently. We’ve been talking for about an hour, mostly about men, and parties, and moving forward after a tragedy. Ibragim was a good man, she says. He could never have committed a murder.
“I’m here alone,” she cries. “I hope it never can be worse than this.”
I try to comfort her, but it’s complicated. We both want to know why Ibragim Todashev was killed. She wants to clear his name. For me, and for the families of the Waltham murder victims, Ibragim’s shooting may have snuffed out the last chance at finding out what really happened that night. In the back of my mind is this question: Did her dead boyfriend kill my friend Erik?
September 11, 2011 was a Sunday, and at twilight Erik Weissman was looking for somewhere to spend the night. That afternoon he’d visited his younger sister Aria at a diner down the street from their parents’ home, but he didn’t have a place of his own—he’d been couch-surfing since the cops busted him on drug charges back in January. He kept his belongings at his friend Brendan Mess’s apartment on a dead-end street in Waltham, and that’s where he usually stayed. Erik and Brendan were established pot dealers who occasionally worked together and shared an interest in sports, personal fitness, and designer weed. But Erik had cleared out of the apartment while Brendan was going through a dramatic breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Hiba Eltilib. He had recently been staying with a friend in Newton. “That chick is crazy,” Erik had repeatedly told the friend.
That night his friend in Newton was busy, so around 7:30 p.m. Erik drove his Mercedes SUV back to Brendan’s place in Waltham. It was a warm night, cloudless. Brendan and Hiba had finally broken up, and Hiba had split for Florida, so the coast was clear. Brendan had invited another friend, Rafi Teken, to come over, too. Like Erik, Rafi had been avoiding Brendan’s place while Hiba was there. Rafi and Hiba were known to get into arguments of their own.
At 7:30, Erik sent a text to his friend in Newton. Shortly thereafter, all three men stopped answering their phones.
The bodies were found the next day. Erik was 31. Brendan was 25. Rafi was 37.
It was Hiba who found them, of all people. On September 12, she returned unexpectedly from Florida—most of Brendan’s friends were under the impression that she wasn’t coming back—and after she couldn’t reach Brendan on her cell phone, she showed up at the apartment and asked the landlord to open the door. The bodies were inside. One news report says that Hiba left the house and screamed, “They’re all dead!” Another says she went outside, crying, with blood on her feet, and calmly asked for a cigarette.
Their throats had been slashed with such force that their heads were nearly decapitated. A veteran Waltham investigator called it “the worst bloodbath I have ever seen,” and compared the victims’ wounds to “an Al-Qaeda training video.” About a pound and a half of high-grade marijuana covered two of the corpses. Rafi Teken’s face was left untouched. Erik Weissman had a bloody lip. But Brendan Mess, an experienced mixed martial artist who trained in jujitsu, had real fighting wounds. His arms were covered in scratch marks. He had puncture marks on his temple and the top of his head, another mark by his ear, and he was bruised around the lips. It didn’t scan like a robbery: There were eight and a half pounds of pot left in bags and glass jars, and $5,000 dollars left on the bodies—enough for a cheap funeral, for one of them.
Hours later, Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone stood amid a scrum of reporters on the dead-end street outside Brendan’s home at 12 Harding Avenue. State police had found a “very graphic crime scene” in the second-floor apartment, he said. “It does not appear to be a random act.” He told reporters that there was no evidence of a break-in—that it was likely the assailants and dead men knew one another. Assailants, plural? a reporter asked. Leone replied that there were “at least two people who are not in the apartment now, who were there earlier.”
“This is a fluid, ongoing investigation,” he said. “We will have information as we develop the facts.”
But they didn’t.
FROM TOP LEFT, PICTURES RELEASED BY IBRAGIM TODASHEV’S FATHER SHOW HIS WOUNDS—BULLET HOLES IN HIS TORSO AND THE TOP OF HIS HEAD—AS WELL AS THE BLOODY SCENE AT HIS ORLANDO APARTMENT.
From the beginning, investigators failed to follow up on seemingly obvious leads. They didn’t visit the gym where Brendan trained, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of Brendan’s best friends, was never questioned—even though several of Brendan’s friends say they gave his name to the police. Ten days after the murders, a state police detective essentially told one victim’s mother that investigators were waiting for the case to solve itself.
It would take 18 months and two homemade bombs before FBI investigators exhumed the case—and once they did, they were able to move with uncanny speed. It took them mere hours to link Tamerlan to the Waltham triple homicide. The day after Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with Watertown police, plainclothes FBI agents detained his friend, Ibragim Todashev, at gunpoint. Although the FBI seems to have initially been looking for evidence of a wider terrorist cell in connection with the marathon bombings, within weeks its agents were questioning Ibragim about the Waltham murders. According to the FBI, agents were able to bring Ibragim to the brink of a written confession by pressuring him with circumstantial evidence.
If you believe the FBI’s account, then you must also believe this: If Waltham police had figured out who hacked three men to death on September 11, 2011, there’s a good chance we would not be talking about the Boston Marathon bombings. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev might be alive and in jail. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might be just another mop-headed, no-name stoner at UMass Dartmouth. There would be no One Fund. Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, and Martin Richard would still be alive. Sean Collier would have graduated from the MIT police department to the Somerville Police Department by now. And for the friends and family of the three men who died in Waltham, perhaps their grief would not still be paired with such haunting questions.
I met Erik Weissman in the summer of 2006, after my freshman year of college. I was 19. He was 26. He’d come to sell us some high-end weed. I was with my friends from high school in a Newton attic, and it felt less like a drug deal than a Tupperware party. Erik had spotless sneakers, wire-rimmed nerd glasses, and a contagious smile. He produced a series of glass jars from a black duffel bag, each filled with a different strain of headies: Blue Dream, Grand Daddy, Alaskan Thunder Fuck. My friends were easily impressed; I teased him for talking game. My father, Norman Zalkind, is a criminal defense lawyer, and I grew up discussing his cases and clients at the kitchen table.
A few days later, Erik picked me up and we drove around in his blue Audi, taking turns playing Lil Wayne and Buju Banton on our iPods and smoking Erik’s Sour Diesel. We did that a few times that summer: driving aimlessly, talking, smoking. He was one of the few friends who encouraged my cheesy freshman-year poetry. He thought of himself as an entrepreneur and a connoisseur of pot; he would fly to Amsterdam regularly to buy seeds of a particular variety that interested him. He talked about selling pot as if it were a community service, and told me repeatedly that he didn’t operate in violent circles. I told him about my father and his clients. I told him his line of work always ends badly. He laughed.
Over time I stopped smoking pot, and we grew apart. The last I heard from him was sometime in January or February of 2011. He wanted my father’s number. He’d been busted when his landlord went into his apartment, saw his stash, and called the cops. Boston police had seized more than $20,000 in cash and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of marijuana from his Roslindale home. He had always told me that he sold only pot, but in the raid police also seized cocaine, Vicodin, and OxyContin.
I gave him the number for my dad’s law firm. He sounded scared.
Soon after my dad took me out for oysters to thank me for the referral. He told me there was a problem with Erik’s warrant, and he didn’t think the case would go to trial.
I never spoke to Erik again.
There was a lot about him I learned only after his death. The drugs and money he lost when he was arrested left him $50,000 in debt to his Sour Diesel connection in California, his friends told me. He’d invested in a California bong company called Hitman Glass, but his money woes kept him from moving out West. In the months before they died, Erik and Brendan were working together to expand their pot business, trying to buy in larger quantities and purchasing equipment to grow marijuana on their own, according to another dealer who sometimes worked with them.
Waltham is often described as a small, quiet, suburban town, but in 2011 it was teeming with much bigger drug operations. A few months before the murders, federal investigators indicted a steroid-popping Syrian national named Safwan Madarati, the Waltham-based head of a violent international drug ring. Madarati, the indictment revealed, hired thugs to assault and intimidate his enemies, and maintained “personal connections with members of the Watertown police department.” A former Watertown officer was among those charged in the case. In an unrelated case only a few months later, police arrested a former Watertown council member after they found $2 million worth of hydroponic pot in his Waltham warehouse. They were all convicted.
Police quickly seized on Erik and Brendan’s pot dealing, and theorized that the murders must have been connected to a drug dispute or robbery. “Whose toes were they stepping on in Waltham?” one friend remembers being asked. Investigators grilled the victims’ friends about Erik and Brendan’s drug sources, and asked with whom they had financial disputes. “They were telling us that it could’ve been a drug deal that had gone wrong,” recalled Bellie Hacker, Erik’s mother. “But then it didn’t make sense because there was money left behind, and the marijuana.”
For Bellie, the aftermath of the murder was excruciating. In addition to the cops’ theory about a drug deal gone wrong, there were other dark rumors circulating, some of them concerning Brendan’s ex-girlfriend, Hiba. “One of the theories was that Hiba hired someone to kill Brendan and just Erik and Rafi were there and they got killed, too,” Bellie said. According to news reports, police questioned Hiba on several occasions. Before dropping out of sight, she gave anonymous interviews to the New York Times and the Boston Globe disavowing any involvement in the crime. Bellie didn’t know what to believe. “Nothing really made sense,” she said.
It didn’t help that police seemed to save their toughest questions for the victims’ families and friends. A few days after the murders, Erik’s sister, Aria, learned that her brother had kept a storage unit, and called the company to ask if she could get access to Erik’s belongings. They didn’t call back, and instead she got a hostile phone call from a detective, State Trooper Erik Gagnon, assigned to the Middlesex County DA’s office. What did she think she was going to find in that box? Gagnon asked. Drugs? Money? She remembers that Gagnon called her “deceitful” and threatened to prosecute her for interfering with the investigation. “How many murders have you solved?” he barked. (When I asked Gagnon about the conversation, he wouldn’t comment on it directly, but said, “If someone said I was being accusatory, maybe ask them why.”)
Friends of Erik’s who spoke to the police after his murder had similar experiences. One friend, who did not have a police record, told me he was questioned by detectives just hours after carrying Erik’s casket at his funeral. “They were treating us less like friends and more like drug dealers,” he said.
Then there were leads that the detectives seemed to ignore. They never visited the Wai Kru gym in Allston, where Brendan practiced mixed martial arts several times a week, according to gym owner John Allan. They never spoke to his training partner and best friend, Golden Gloves champion Tamerlan Tsarnaev, even though several friends gave the police his name in a list of Brendan’s closest contacts. Meanwhile, detectives called Aria into the police station and accused her of knowing who killed her brother. She broke down in tears as her mother defended her.
Ten days after the bodies were found, detectives told Bellie that they were not actively pursuing leads in her son’s murder. Instead, she remembers state police detectives explaining, they were waiting for a suspect to shake loose. “They were basically waiting for someone to come forward and say who did it,” Bellie recalled. “They said, ‘Someday down the line, someone is going to need a plea bargain.’”
It was September 22, 2011. The case would go cold for 582 days.
There was a time, just after the bombs went off on Boylston Street, when it looked like the families might finally get some answers about who killed Rafi, Brendan, and Erik. On April 19, media outlets made the connection between Tamerlan and Brendan. Friends recalled that Tamerlan had acted differently after Brendan’s death, and hadn’t attended his memorial service. John Allan, the owner of Wai Kru gym, recalled approaching Tamerlan to offer his condolences, only to have Tamerlan laugh him off.
Bellie was hopeful that the renewed attention would stir something up. “It got international news, everyone found out about it, the whole world knew about it, and someone will get the fire under their tush, and we’ll start really getting some answers,” she remembers thinking.
A few days after the Watertown manhunt, Aria says, she spoke to Gagnon for the first time since 2011. He asked for her brother’s cell-phone number and the name of the gym Brendan Mess went to. The Middlesex County DA’s office had Boston cops send over the files from Erik Weissman’s previous arrests.For the first time, Brendan Mess’s younger brother Dylan and his friends were questioned about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The FBI agents wanted to know if either Brendan or Tamerlan was involved in organized crime. If Tamerlan had guns. Who else he sparred with. If Tamerlan prayed, if he preached. The agents asked if the auto shops where Tamerlan and his father sometimes worked were part of an organized-crime ring.
A few weeks later, in mid-May, FBI agents called on Dylan again. He and a friend met them at Dwelltime, a café near Inman Square. The agents, who were in plainclothes, took them into the back of a van and showed them a series of photo lineups. Dylan and his friend looked at each other, and told the agents that the man in the last photo looked vaguely familiar.
The man in the photo, they would later learn, was Ibragim Todashev.
No one who knew Ibragim Todashev seemed to have a complete picture of who he was. Even his own father, with whom he spoke regularly, did not know he had a wife in America, let alone a girlfriend. Ibragim was a womanizer. He was kind to children. He had a sweet tooth, and a temper. He was a trained MMA fighter who liked to hang out with a close-knit group of Chechnyan friends; he didn’t socialize outside of that circle. He was an erratic driver—he’ d been in several car accidents. He and his friends liked to drive luxury cars, but they’d buy old, broken-down ones and fix them up. He liked to listen to a Russian singer called Mr. Credo, who sings in a fake North Caucasus accent about buying drugs from the Taliban.
Ibragim was the eldest of 12 children—his father, Abdulbaki Todashev, had two wives. The family was on the move constantly in the chaos of war-torn Chechnya. After the wars, Ibragim attended college in Russia for three years before leaving in 2008. He arrived in Boston with a student visa (though he would never attend school here), and shortly thereafter received asylum.
Ibragim was welcomed into Boston’s insular Chechnyan community. Tamerlan was one of his first friends. They worked out together, and went clubbing. But it seems he never socialized with Tamerlan’s many American friends. He most likely knew Tamerlan’s friend Brendan, though, because the three of them once lived within a few blocks of one another around Inman Square, and they all trained at the Wai Kru gym.
According to owner John Allan, Tamerlan introduced Ibragim to the gym shortly after Ibragim first arrived in Boston in 2008. Allan remembers them praying together before training. “[Ibragim’s] English was horrific, and it was really hard to communicate with him,” Allan recalled. “In the beginning I assumed the fights and problems were related to language. But later I learned he was just very hotheaded.” For some reason, Allan said, the word “motherfucker” would incite in Ibragim an inconsolable rage. “He would lose it. He would just lose it. He would be ready to fight 17 people and not care if he would win or lose. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be directed to him.”
In 2010 Ibragim was working for a medical-transport company when he got into a verbal argument with another driver in traffic on Tremont Street. By the time police arrived, he was out of the car, being held back by several bystanders as he screamed, “You say something about my mother! I will kill you!”
Ibragim met his wife, Reni Manukyan, when she came to visit his roommate in May 2010. He was 24; she was 20. They exchanged phone numbers, and when she went home to suburban Atlanta, they began a courtship via text message. The relationship moved fast. By July, Reni, an Armenian Christian, had converted to Islam and married Ibragim; a few months later Ibragim moved in with her in Georgia. But he had trouble finding work, and came back to Boston in the summer of 2011 to work at another medical-transport company. Reni came to visit that July to watch him fight a match (he lost). She remembered that his friend Tamerlan called frequently during that visit. Reni told reporters that Ibragim left Boston in August; she told me she had a bank statement that proves he was in Atlanta the day after the murders, but she said her lawyers advised her not to show it to me.
By early 2012, Ibragim had moved to Orlando alone. A year later, when the bombs went off in Boston, he was living with a girlfriend in a condo complex located between Universal Studios and a swamp. A month later, the FBI shot him dead.
Anonymous FBI sources gave numerous accounts of Ibragim’s death to the press, managing to be both vague and contradictory. The agency claimed that, just before being shot, Ibragim had been sitting at a table, about to write a statement that would implicate both himself and Tamerlan in the Waltham murders. In some reports, he lunged at an FBI agent with a knife, while others said he used a pole or a broomstick. It was an agonizing development: The FBI claimed he had been killed at precisely the moment he was about to give the answers so many of us had been waiting for.
Whatever occurred in Ibragim’s apartment the night he was shot dead, his death put the FBI on the defensive. The agency quashed the coroner’s report, leading media outlets and the American Civil Liberties Union to call for an independent investigation. On its editorial page, the Globe declared that “the agency’s credibility is on the line” due to its lack of accountability in Ibragim’s death. Ibragim’s father accused the agency of “premeditated murder” and released photos of his son’s bullet-ridden corpse, showing that he’d been shot in the top of the head—even though the FBI contended that one of its agents had fired in self-defense. Instead of providing answers, the FBI’s investigation of Ibragim had turned into a sudden dead end.
Bellie was infuriated. “Oh, I was so angry,” she said. “That was just horrible, because here we had an opportunity, they were starting to make connections and tie people and find out more information… and the man that could’ve given us answers is no longer available to us.”
She added, “Where is there for us to go?”
But there was at least one person who might know more about Ibragim. At the time of his death, he had been living with a woman named Tatiana Gruzdeva. I found her on Facebook: a slight 19-year-old with bleached blond hair and huge green eyes. She posted a lot of selfies. I sent her a friend request. On the night of September 18, she accepted it.
We corresponded for a few minutes, and then she sent me her number. When I dialed, she picked up right away. Her voice sounded small, but she talked rapid-fire, her Russian accent thick but understandable. I told her I was a reporter, and that I wanted to hear her story.
Two days later, I flew to Orlando to meet her.
By the front door of 6022 Peregrine Avenue, a wire statue of a cow held a pink sign with the word “Welcome.” The apartment was all one room, with a lofted bed surrounded by a waist-high wall. Tatiana invited me in, and I looked around, taking in the sliver of a linoleum kitchen, distinguished from the carpeted living room by a small island. Tatiana slept in an upstairs loft, in a bed covered in stuffed animals, watched over by a poster of Muhammad Ali. The back wall was all windows, looking out on a black pond a few yards off, where a bale of turtles broke the surface to take in the evening air. Tatiana pointed out the place in the living room where the carpet had been cut out, because it had been stained with Ibragim’s blood.
She had met Ibragim through a mutual friend, Khusen Taramov. Then she moved in. “First it was just friends,” she said, “and after, we starting having relationship and we were sleeping together like boyfriend and girlfriend.” She cooked him meals. Together they adopted a cat, Masia. “It was like a small family, me and him and the cat, he was like a little baby for us.”
Tatiana knew that Ibragim had been married to Reni. She believed they were divorced.
After the Boston bombings, Tatiana recalled, Ibragim seemed upset. “He didn’t tell me it was his friend, he just was so sad. I said, ‘What happen with you?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ Long time he don’t want to tell me. And after, he tell me, ‘My friend is dead.’”
The day after Tamerlan was identified as a marathon bombing suspect, Tatiana was washing the dishes when Ibragim stepped outside. Then she heard shouts outside the house: Get down! Get down! She saw Ibragim on the ground, surrounded by six or seven men. She didn’t know who they were, because they weren’t wearing uniforms. She says they told her they were FBI agents.
They handcuffed Ibragim and made him sit in the middle of the room, and began questioning him about the Boston bombings, asking him what he knew and where he was on the day of the attack. Tatiana spoke up: “He was with me, he was in the house, we didn’t do anything wrong,” she told the agents.
“They just kept asking again and again, the same questions,” she said. They asked if he knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He replied that the two of them had been friends. Tatiana said this was the first time she had heard the name.
Eventually the FBI left with Ibragim, confiscating his phones and computers. About six hours later, Tatiana said, Ibragim came home, reassuring her that everything was okay. The next day, she said, agents returned their electronics.
As best as I can tell, the FBI arrived on Ibragim’s doorstep looking for a terrorist. The marathon bombings had been the largest act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11, and if there were any chance that the Tsarnaevs had ties to a terrorist organization, federal agents had to find it. Wrapping up a drug murder was not their top priority.
For the next month, Ibragim and Tatiana were under intense surveillance. Agents intercepted Ibragim’s wife, Reni, in an airport and questioned her for five hours; she was later interviewed several more times. They even tracked down his old Boston roommate.
Meanwhile, Tatiana said, agents contacted the couple regularly on the phone, visited their home, and on several occasions called them into the local field office for more questioning. They asked Ibragim about a call from Tamerlan a month before the bombings, just after Ibragim had undergone knee surgery. “He asked how he feels after surgery and Ibragim tells him, ‘I’m better, what about you? How is your family?’ So they would talk just a little bit and that’s it,” Tatiana said. At some point, Ibragim deleted the call from his phone’s memory. “FBI asked him, ‘Why did you delete this phone call?’” Tatiana said. “And he said, ‘I was scared.’”
When Ibragim and Tatiana left the house, he would point out cars to her. “When we go to the workplace or we go hang out with him, he show me in the street, ‘Look, look, they’re following us,’” Tatiana recalled.
On May 4, according to an arrest report, Ibragim got into a fistfight over a parking space, beating a man unconscious. He fled the scene in his white Mercedes, pursued by Orange County Sheriff’s deputies. When they caught him, Officer Anthony Riccaboni got out of the car and drew his gun. Ibragim put his hands up, and Riccaboni got a good look at him.
“I could see the features of the suspect’s ears. I immediately recognized the marks on his ears as a cage fighter/jujitsu fighter,” Riccaboni later wrote in his report. “I told this suspect if he tried to fight with us I would shoot him.”
He made the suspect lie on the ground, but when he got up, he told Riccaboni something unexpected.
“Once on his feet, the suspect commented that the vehicles behind us are FBI agents that have been following him,” Riccaboni wrote. “I noticed 3 (three) vehicles with dark tint. These vehicles began to leave the area. I noticed one vehicle was driven by a male, had a computer stand and appeared to be talking on a radio.”
If Ibragim was right, FBI agents had just watched him beat a man bloody without intervening.
Then they turned the pressure up higher.
About two and a half weeks after Ibragim was first interrogated, the FBI called him back to their office yet again. While he was being interviewed, Tatiana said, two agents took her into an office, where they questioned her for three hours. At first they continued to ask her about the Boston bombings. The agents wanted to know if Ibragim was planning another attack.
“They asked me, ‘Can you tell us when he will do something?’” Tatiana recalled. “I said, ‘No! I can’t!’ Because he wasn’t doing anything, and I didn’t know anything.”
Then they brought up a new topic: a triple murder.
“They said, ‘We think he did something else, before.’ They said he killed three people in Boston 2011 with a knife. I said, ‘It’s not true! I can’t believe it.’ You know, I was living with him seven months, and we have a cat.”
Throughout the course of my reporting, Tatiana is the only one of Ibragim’s associates who recalled being questioned about the Waltham murders before Ibragim’s death.
When agents didn’t get the answers they wanted, Tatiana said, they told her they would call immigration officials to detain her. Her visa had expired weeks before. “I said, ‘Come on guys, you cannot do this! Because all this two and a half weeks, you know my visa was expired and you didn’t do anything. And [now] because you need me and I say I don’t want to help you, you just call to immigration?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ And they called immigration and immigration came and they took me and they put me in the jail.”
For a week, she said, she was kept in an immigration detention facility. She was allowed to talk to Ibragim every day on the phone. She said he told her that when he had come to find her in the lobby the day she was detained, FBI agents mocked him, saying, “Where’s your girlfriend?”
He told her he was so angry, he felt like hitting them for lying to him and stealing her away.
Later that week, the facility had a visiting day, she said. Ibragim came to see her.
“He kissed me, he hugged me like never, it was so sweet, like always. And he tell me, ‘I will marry you when you get out of here, or in the jail, whatever. If we can marry in the jail, we will marry in the jail.’”
On May 21, the last night of his life, Ibragim was hanging out with friends when the FBI called him again. It was an agent Ibragim’s friends were by now familiar with, but knew only by his first name: Chris. The agent told Ibragim that men from Boston were here to ask him a few questions. Ibragim got nervous. He was afraid of a setup, he told his friend Khusen Taramov.
“And I said, ‘All right, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. But if you don’t do it, they’re not gonna leave you alone. They’re gonna get more suspicious.’ And so he decided to go, and he wanted me to go with him,” Khusen told reporters later. Despite his temper and proclivity toward violence, Ibragim had stayed relatively calm under weeks of questioning and scrutiny. But now, heading to meet the “men from Boston,” his demeanor changed. Ibragim gave Khusen his family’s phone number back in Chechnya, and told him about the $4,000 he had in his apartment, inside his jacket pocket. In case he got locked up, Khusen thought. Then Ibragim said something strange: “Worst-case scenario,” he told Khusen cryptically, “forgive me.”
When Khusen and Ibragim got to the apartment, Chris was with three other officers—an FBI agent from Boston, and two Massachusetts state troopers. Orlando police were on the scene as well.
The officers took Ibragim into the apartment and Chris said he needed to interview Khusen outside.
It was 7:30 p.m. At the same time, at two different locations in Georgia, agents were interviewing Reni yet again, and questioning Reni’s mother, Elena Teyer, for the first time.
Agent Chris asked Khusen a few questions, “Like what do you think about bombings, or do you know these guys, blah blah blah, or what is my views on certain stuff. You know what I mean, lotta stuff, different questions,” Khusen said. Chris didn’t mention a triple murder.
Khusen waited outside the house for four hours. Then at 11:30 p.m., he was told to leave, and that the agents would drop off Ibragim back at the plaza where the friends often hung out.
What happened next inside the condo is known only to the officers who were there.
Pictures later released by Ibragim’s family, of his inert body, show that he was shot four times in the chest, twice in the arm, and once in the top of the head.
Neighbors remember hearing shots a little after midnight. One of them looked out the window to see the parking lot filled with police cruisers. Then he heard an ambulance coming.
At Glades County Detention Center, in Moore Haven, corrections officers were suddenly hustling Tatiana from an immigration jail to a cell in solitary confinement.
She didn’t know why they had moved her. When she asked, they said, “We’ll tell you tomorrow in the morning.”
The next morning immigration officers came to her cell. They told her Ibragim was dead.
“They said, ‘He’s gone.’
“I said, ‘Come on, what do you mean? That’s not true.’
“They said, ‘He died yesterday.’
“I said, ‘No! I just talked with him.’
“They said, ‘We have a paper, and it says that he’s dead, and you can make a phone call.’”
She called Khusen. He told her it was true: Ibragim was dead. “And I’m screaming. I have panic attack. I realize, I realize, he is really dead. And it’s true, you know, it’s true. And I will not see him anymore. It’s not like a movie, it’s not like we broke up or something, I will not see him anymore, for all my life. And everything is flush in my heart, my heart was broken, because me and Ibragim, we had a plan, we had a plan to be together, we had a plan to have a family…. And now he’s not here and we’re not going to be together anymore.”
She told me she was given a sedative, and was kept in solitary confinement for four more days before being returned to an immigration jail. Her detainment stretched for months longer. Finally, on August 9, she was released. Ibragim’s friend Ashurmamad Miraliev came to pick her up, along with Ibragim’s father, who had flown to Florida from Chechnya.
They drove her back to the apartment she had shared with Ibragim, where he had been killed. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, the house is clean, and we cleaned everything.’”
But the cat, Masia, was gone. With Ibragim dead, and Tatiana in jail, there was no one to feed it, and it had run away into the swamp.
When FBI agents came to tell Reni Manukyan that her husband was dead, they claimed they had hard evidence of his guilt in the Waltham murders. “We have DNA that proves he was involved in that triple murder,” she remembered them saying. “The only thing I was telling them is, ‘This is not true, this cannot be true.’”
With the exception of Ibragim’s alleged confession, no agency has ever offered an official explanation of how it connected either him or Tamerlan to the Waltham murders. Reni’s account is the only one that even suggests the FBI has physical evidence linking her husband to the crime. Last July, the New York Times quoted an anonymous official suggesting that DNA evidence may have linked Tamerlan to the crime scene. But as for Ibragim, the official said, they made their case based merely on “a lot of circumstantial pieces.”
If, in fact, the FBI had only circumstantial evidence against Ibragim at the time they shot him, it might explain what happened next. Investigators who had previously asked Ibragim’s friends only about the bombings suddenly returned to ask them about the murders. Even though their suspects were both dead, the case remained open. After Ibragim’s death, the FBI continued its take-no-prisoners approach: Several of Ibragim’s friends found themselves detained, interrogated, and ultimately deported.
The first to go was Tatiana. On October 1, after I’d published an account of my interview with her, she called me collect from Glades County Detention Center. She’d been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and placed back in solitary confinement—and, she says, immigration agents told her repeatedly that she was about to be deported for talking to Boston magazine. By October 11, she was on a plane back to Russia. An official from ICE confirmed that Tatiana had been in the country legally on what’s called a “deferred action” extension of her expired visa. The official could not tell me why she had been deported.
Others felt the scrutiny of the FBI as well. Several of Ibragim’s Orlando friends worked in a pizza shop; the owner told me that after the FBI came to question him, he fired them. Reni’s mother, Elena—a noncommissioned officer with the U.S. Army—says she was told that she would be flagged as a security risk, preventing a promotion. Khusen left the United States in mid-June, to attend Ibragim’s funeral in Chechnya, but when he attempted to return to the U.S. in December, according to several sources, he was blocked from boarding a plane, despite having a green card.
In one case, I was able to catch a glimpse of how the agency was maneuvering behind the scenes—and how, after Ibragim’s death, its focus seemed to shift from looking for a terror cell to investigating the Waltham murders. When it came to Ibragim’s friend Ashurmamad Miraliev, the agency worked clandestinely with local, state, and federal agencies to manufacture a charge against him, interrogate him without a lawyer present, and ultimately get him out of the country.
After Ibragim’s death, Ashurmamad had come to live with Tatiana, supporting them both with pizza-delivery work. On September 18, while Ashurmamad was driving Tatiana to an appointment with her immigration officer, he was pulled over on an expired driver’s license. But this was no ordinary traffic stop. Between five and seven unmarked law-enforcement vehicles were present; Ashurmamad says FBI agents and local police took him out of his car and escorted him to the Orlando police headquarters. Tatiana never saw him again.
Contacted later, Orlando Police Sergeant Jim Young looked up the arrest record and said it looked like a routine traffic stop—with no mention of FBI involvement. But Ashurmamad says he was questioned by the FBI for hours—he’s not sure exactly how long—and was denied requests to speak to his attorney. (The FBI has declined to comment on this case, but a Tampa Field Bureau public-affairs official told me it is their policy to question individuals “with their consent, or in the presence of their attorney.”)
Agents had previously interviewed Ashurmamad and two of his roommates two days before Ibragim died. They questioned him about his own religious beliefs, the Boston Marathon bombings, and about Ibragim. Now, four months later, the interrogation was different. This time, agents were mostly interested in Ibragim and his involvement in the triple murder in Waltham. They wanted to know if there was someone else who might have been involved in the killings, and who else might have information.
But after hours of questioning, when Ashurmamad asked to leave, the agents told him he was going to jail—on a state charge they claimed to have nothing to do with. That turned out to be an outstanding warrant for a witness-tampering charge. It was the first Ashurmamad had heard of it—but the next thing he knew, he was behind bars.
The trumped-up charge stemmed from an incident the previous summer, when his friend Ibragim had gotten into a fight at a hookah bar with a manager named Youness Dammou. The next day, Youness walked into the pizza shop next door, where Ashurmamad worked. A screaming match ensued; Ashurmamad was angry that Youness had called police after the fight. At the time, police weren’t able to identify Ibragim as the assailant, and Youness never mentioned his confrontation with Ashurmamad, so the case was closed. Then almost a year later, on May 17—five days before Ibragim was shot—the case was suddenly reopened. I wanted to know why.
I found Youness working in an Orlando strip mall. He told me it hadn’t been his idea to reopen the case. Instead, he had been approached by an FBI agent in May, who took him to meet with an Osceola County Sheriff’s Department detective in an unmarked cruiser in a Burger King parking lot. The agent sat in the front seat, Youness sat in the passenger seat, and the detective sat in the back. They showed him a picture of Ibragim. They told him about another fight Ibragim had been in recently—the incident in which agents apparently watched him beat up a man over a parking space without intervening. When he heard about the other assault, Youness was eager to press charges.
The law-enforcement officers did not mention that Ibragim was involved in a larger investigation. A few days later, however, Youness saw Ibragim’s face on the news and learned his aggressor was a murder suspect—and dead.
That was the last he heard about it until the end of August, when the detective came back with another request: The last time they’d met, Youness had recounted the incident with the man who’d screamed at him in the pizza shop, Ashurmamad Miraliev. (Youness hadn’t actually known the man’s name; in the case file the detective wrote that an “Agent Sykes” provided the identification.) The detective said Ashurmamad could be charged with a crime. Would Youness like to pursue charges against him? At first Youness said he wasn’t so sure, but then he agreed.
So the FBI had been matchmaking: They had helped the sheriff’s department go fishing on a long-closed case to find a victim and a charge with which they could pressure or detain first Ibragim, and later Ashurmamad. The witness-tampering charge the FBI brought against Ashurmamad was so flimsy that it was dropped in just a month.
And yet it didn’t matter. Although he had never been to Boston and never met the Tsarnaevs, Ashurmamad was nonetheless flagged—according to a note on the booking sheet—“ON TERRORIST WATCH LIST/PLACED PROTECTIVE CUSTODY AND HIGH RISK. HOUSE ALONE.” Ashurmamad was taken from the Orlando Police Department to the Osceola County jail, where he was kept alone in an 8-by-10 room. To meet with his lawyers, he had to have his hands and wrists shackled and be chained to the ground. Ashurmamad told me there were no windows, the light was always on, and he was always cold. He was there for a month until the tampering case was dropped. But he wasn’t released. His student visa had expired, and he’d missed a court date while he was in jail. So he was moved directly to an immigration detention facility, and on November 4, he was ordered to be deported back to Tajikistan.
Nine months after Ibragim’s death, the FBI still hasn’t put the Waltham case to rest—or offered any further insight into the death of the man who might have closed it. Back in January, FBI director James Comey claimed the agency had completed its report on Ibragim’s shooting and was “eager” to share it—but almost two months later, the report somehow still hadn’t been released. The Florida prosecutor’s office was also investigating the shooting—but at the end of 2013, shortly after speaking with the Department of Justice, it announced the report would be delayed.
When I spoke to Ibragim’s father in February, he said he was waiting to hear the FBI’s findings before deciding whether to file a wrongful-death lawsuit. But that account is unlikely to shed significant new light on Ibragim’s death: The FBI has a long, unbroken history of clearing its agents of wrongdoing in shooting incidents, the New York Times found in a review of 150 such cases over the past two decades. And according to WBUR’s David Boeri—quoting unnamed “law-enforcement sources familiar with accounts of what happened” that night—the FBI has little to add to the story it peddled to reporters on background shortly after the killing. Boeri’s sources told him that during the interrogation, Ibragim admitted to being present at the crime scene but “blamed Tsarnaev for the murders.” He also quoted law-enforcement sources saying that Ibragim had knocked over a table and come at the FBI agent with a pipe.
According to a statement by the Middlesex County DA’s office, the triple-homicide case is “open and active” and state police, Waltham police, and the FBI are conducting a “thorough, far-reaching” investigation. “This investigation has not concluded and is by no means closed,” it said.
They have not updated the statement in nine months.
In late September, Aria Weissman and Dylan Mess invited me to accompany them to the annual Garden of Peace ceremony, which is held beside a dry, stone-lined riverbed near the State House to honor Massachusetts homicide victims. As she does every year, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley presided over the event. “We have more people who are here to listen and to find some peace tonight,” she said to the crowd that evening.
Afterward, Aria, Dylan, and I approached Coakley and asked her why there hadn’t been any progress in the Waltham case. “We haven’t been getting any answers,” Aria told Coakley.
Coakley was calm and respectful. “I know how frustrating and how difficult it is for you,” she told us. The triple murder, Coakley explained, was not her investigation—it was the Middlesex County DA’s concern. She said that she could and would follow up to make sure state police were working with Waltham police on the murder case. “The Waltham PD and the state police should be working together,” she told us.
But two weeks later, Detective Patrick Hart of the Waltham police, who has been investigating the murders since before the Boston Marathon bombings, told me his department had not been contacted by Coakley’s office. “No one here knows,” he said at the time. “I think I would have been told.”
Two days after I reported on Coakley’s exchange with Aria and Dylan, a victims’ advocate from the Middlesex County DA’s office reached out to Aria. The advocate said officials from the DA’s office were looking to sit down with the victims’ families and provide more information soon. But they never did.
After Ibragim was killed, Bellie Hacker’s friends congratulated her. The case had been solved—she must be so relieved!
“I’d say, ‘Don’t pay any attention, nothing is solved,’” she said.
She’s still waiting to be shown evidence—to know, finally, what truly happened to Erik. “I was told that once they knew something, someone would knock on my door in the middle of the night,” she said. “I was told that I would be contacted even in the middle of the night.”
State officials once told Bellie that they were waiting for a lead to shake loose, maybe from another case.
They were right. But by then it was too late.
By Susan Zalkind | Boston Magazine | March 2014
Find this story at 7 March 2014
Copyright © 2014 Metrocorp, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Did FBI Focus on Controversial Stings Distract from Pursuit of Tsarnaev Before Boston Attacks? (2013)
April 25, 2017
Questions are mounting over whether U.S. security officials failed to heed warnings that could have foiled the bombing of the Boston Marathon. After news emerged that the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was on the intelligence radar in the United States. As a result, there have been growing calls for federal agencies to re-examine their priorities, particularly to focus on sting operations that critics say constitute entrapment. We speak with Trevor Aaronson, author of “The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism,” published in January. He is co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer at Mother Jones. His most recent article is called, “How the FBI in Boston May Have Pursued the Wrong ‘Terrorist.'” In the piece, he writes while the FBI “decided to stop tracking Tsarnaev — whose six-month trip to Russia at that time is now of prime interest to investigators — the FBI conducted a sting operation against an unrelated young Muslim man who had a fantastical plan for attacking the U.S. Capitol with a remote-controlled airplane.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today with mounting questions over whether U.S. security officials failed to heed warnings that could have foiled the bombing of the Boston Marathon. This comes as authorities say the surviving suspect behind the bombing, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has confessed to planning further attacks in New York City. Speaking Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the suspects intended to detonate the rest of their explosives in Times Square.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Last night we were informed by the FBI that the surviving attacker revealed that New York City was next on their list of targets. He told the FBI, apparently, that he and his brother had intended to drive to New York and designate additional in Times Square. They had built these additional explosives, and we know they had the capacity to carry out the attacks.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: According to New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the two brothers abandoned the plan only when they realized that the car they had hijacked did not have enough gasoline for the trip. In addition to carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings that left three dead and over 170 wounded, the brothers are also accused of shooting dead an MIT campus police officer last Thursday before being apprehended.
Meanwhile, at a news conference on Thursday in the Russian republic of Dagestan, the mother of the suspects, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, denied her sons had anything to do with the bombings and blamed the United States for robbing her of her children.
ZUBEIDAT TSARNAEVA: I’m like sure that my kids were not involved in anything. Yes, I, like, would prefer not to live in America now. Why did I even go there? Why? I thought America is going to, like, protect us, our kids; it’s going to be safe for, like, any reason. But it happened opposite, like it’s just—America took my kids away from me. Only America.
AMY GOODMAN: After news emerged that the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was on the intelligence radar in the U.S., there have been mounting calls for federal agencies to re-examine their priorities, particularly a focus on sting operations that critics say constitute entrapment. In an editorial on Wednesday, The Washington Post wrote, quote, “The FBI has devoted considerable resources to sting operations against people it judges to be terror suspects, sometimes on what look like dubious grounds. … [I]t’s not clear that a sometimes far-fetched plot would have gone forward without the encouragement and help of FBI informants,” they wrote.
For more, we go to Tampa, Florida, to talk to Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism. He is co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a contributing writer at Mother Jones. His most recent piece is called “How the FBI in Boston May Have Pursued the Wrong ‘Terrorist.'” In the piece, he writes, while the FBI, quote, “decided to stop tracking Tsarnaev—whose six-month trip to Russia at that time is now of prime interest to investigators—the FBI conducted a sting operation against an unrelated young Muslim man who had a fantastical plan for attacking the US Capitol with a remote-controlled airplane.”
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Trevor. Why don’t you lay out your point in this article? Who was this other person? And what happened to the tracking of the Boston bombing suspect?
TREVOR AARONSON: Well, what we know is that in January 2011 the FBI in Boston investigated two men that they suspected could be involved in terrorist organizations or somehow sympathetic to terrorist organizations. The first was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and we all know the story. They investigated him, looked at his web traffic and decided that he wasn’t a threat. And that’s where their trail essentially ended. In the same month, in January 2011, an FBI informant who was a heroin addict and was being paid thousands of dollars by the FBI came to the bureau and said, “I know a man named Rezwan Ferdaus. Rezwan Ferdaus said he wanted to commit an act of terrorism.” And it was a ridiculous idea. He wanted to fly a remote-controlled airplane into the U.S. Capitol building and have it laden with grenades and and then explode it over the—or detonate it over the gold dome.
But if it wasn’t bad enough that his idea was patently ridiculous, Rezwan had no capacity to even move forward in it. He didn’t have any money. He didn’t have any access to explosives. He didn’t really have any capacity at all to commit even the most minor crime. And yet, the FBI, instead of choosing to pursue Tamerlan Tsarnaev, chose to start a nine-month sting investigation, sting operation on Rezwan Ferdaus. They gave him $4,000, which he used to purchase a remote-controlled airplane. They then paid for a trip for him to scout out locations in Washington, D.C., where he could launch the airplane. And then, in the final stage, they gave him all the explosives he needed. They gave him C-4. They gave him grenades. And they delivered it to him. And at that point, the FBI arrested him and charged him with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. He did plead guilty to that, and he’s serving 17 years in prison. But what’s interesting about it is that the evidence in his case clearly showed that without the FBI’s assistance, without the FBI providing all of the means and opportunity, he never would have been able to commit his crime. And yet, at the same time, the FBI chose not to pursue the person who ultimately detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Trevor, we’ve seen this over and over again, and you’ve looked at it, the tendency of the FBI to use undercover informants who actually become instigators or co-conspirators in a plot to snag folks who otherwise would not be able to commit these crimes.
TREVOR AARONSON: That’s right. You know, since 9/11, there have been more than 175 defendants who have been caught in terrorism sting operations. And this is due to a very aggressive policy that has its roots in the current FBI mission of preventing the next attack at whatever cost. And so, what the FBI is looking for are men who they believe, you know, will become the terrorists of tomorrow. They want to catch today that terrorist of tomorrow. And so they look for people who are espousing radical beliefs, who say they want to commit some sort of act of violence, and then they set up, through undercover agents and informants posing as al-Qaeda operatives, these elaborate sting operations in which they provide everything that the target of the sting operation would need. You know, it can be the transportation. That can be the guns and the weapons. In some cases, that can be even the idea for the terrorist attack. And then they put it all together, let the person move forward in the plot, and when they push the button that would detonate the bomb, they then arrest them and announce to the public another terror plot foiled.
But if you look closely at these cases, it’s very clear that the men caught in these cases never could have committed their crimes were it not for the FBI providing the means and the opportunity. You know, these are men who are far more aspirational than operational, in the FBI’s parlance, and yet the FBI then arrests them and charges them, with the full extent of the law, as if they were terrorists. And, you know, the question I raised in my book, which came out in January before the Boston bombing, is: What are we missing as a result of pursuing these men, who are really of questionable importance, who are really of questionable danger? And I think what the Boston bombing shows is that as we’re—as the FBI has been pursuing these men in sting operations whose danger is very questionable, perhaps we’re missing the real dangerous guys, such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar.
AMY GOODMAN: The FBI has come under criticism after reports emerged, of course, that the agency interviewed the Boston suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in January 2011 and decided not to pursue his case. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the FBI’s claim it did everything it could with the information it had at the time.
PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: You know, all of these—all of these issues are obviously under investigation. What we do know is that the FBI took action in response to that notification, investigated the elder brother, and investigated thoroughly, and came to the conclusion that there was no derogatory information, no indication of terrorist activity or associations, either foreign or domestic, at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: That was White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Your response, Trevor Aaronson?
TREVOR AARONSON: I think what this suggests is that the FBI is pursuing people for the wrong reasons. You know, for example, the FBI is limited in the law in how it can pursue people. It has 72 hours to do what’s called a threat assessment, to figure out if there is information that will allow them to establish a predicate to move forward in an investigation. And what’s ultimately happening is that the FBI is finding people like Tsarnaev, who may not have direct—you know, that they can’t find direct information on that they’re involved in crimes, and yet instead they’re finding these loudmouths who say they want to commit an act of terrorism, and then they move forward in these elaborate sting operations.
And I think what we really need to examine here is how the FBI targets and how the FBI puts on suspicion lists people they suspect might be involved in terrorism. I mean, saying you want to commit some sort of act of terrorism, being a loudmouth, is really enough to launch these elaborate sting operations. And yet, the people who are committing the real offenses, the real acts of terrorism, the, you know, Tamerlan Tsarnaevs or Faisal Shahzads, who—the Faisal Shahzad who delivered a bomb to Times Square that fortunately didn’t go off—the really dangerous guys aren’t being trapped in these sting operations, in part because, in a way, they’re not dumb enough to go into the local mosque or into the community and talk to an informant about how they want to commit an act of terrorism. The really dangerous guys aren’t being detected by the FBI. And so, I think we really need to examine how we consider the targets, how we target the targets, and ultimately, who we should be investigating for possible terrorist operations.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what have you been able to tell from the information that’s come out so far about this age-old problem of lack of coordination between the FBI and the CIA—the Russian intelligence actually contacted both agencies separately at different times about their concerns about Tamerlan—and whether there’s been any progress in terms of these agencies being able to coordinate their activities?
TREVOR AARONSON: Well, what is interesting in the Boston case, for example, is, you know, the Russian government contacted both the FBI and the CIA and expressed a concern about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. That wasn’t enough for them to really pursue an investigation against him any more than they did. And yet, you know, the nine-month sting operation they conducted on Rezwan Ferdaus was brought to them through an FBI informant who had a heroin addiction and was working for money for the FBI. I mean, I certainly think a threat—a possible threat coming from the Russian government is much more credible than an informant, but yet the FBI chose to follow the informant’s tip over the Russian government’s.
But what this also gets at, as you mention, is that there has been—has long been competition between the intelligence agencies in the United States. The CIA doesn’t get along well with the FBI; the FBI doesn’t get along well with the CIA. The FBI also doesn’t get along well with the NYPD’s intelligence division. There’s a real competition here. And that was illuminated very clearly in the 9/11 report, where lack of communication really exacerbated the problems of intelligence at that time. And while we’ve seen improvements, what clearly this shows is that those improvements haven’t been good enough.
AMY GOODMAN: We hear you fine.
TREVOR AARONSON: Those improvements haven’t been good enough.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Trevor. We hear you fine.
TREVOR AARONSON: OK. Those improvements haven’t been good enough. I mean, the problem has been that the—that here’s a case where both the CIA and the FBI were looking at the same defendant, both from information from the Russian government, and they weren’t communicating at all. And I think, you know, this really needs to be addressed, which is, you know, shouldn’t we have been pursuing someone much more thoroughly who was—came to our attention through the Russian government, as opposed to coming to our attention through an FBI informant who, you know, has a financial incentive in finding terrorists and, you know, knows he can get a payday if he can bring someone to the FBI who says he wants to commit some sort of act of terrorism?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the question of informants, that you’ve been discussing, and how they’ve been used by intelligence agencies in counterterrorism work, especially after 9/11. We have been reporting on this for years. I’m going back to 2010 to Imam Salahuddin Muhammad of Newburgh, New Jersey, about—of Newburgh, New York, about FBI informants within the Muslim community.
IMAM SALAHUDDIN MUHAMMAD: I believe that what we are seeing today with the FBI surveillance and the FBI allowing for agent provocateurs to enter into Muslim communities is the same thing that happened in the ’60s with a lot of the black nationalist organizations. That’s what I see happening today in the Islamic community. The FBI, they are sending these agent provocateurs into the community, and they are cultivating and nurturing and actually creating situations that would never have occurred if they didn’t have their man in there to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Imam Salahuddin Muhammad of Newburgh, New York. Trevor Aaronson, your final comment?
TREVOR AARONSON: You know, it’s important to realize that since 9/11 we’ve had an explosion of informants. You know, in the COINTEL days of the ’60s, there were 1,500 informants. Today there are 15,000. And most of them are targeting Muslim communities, and many of them are acting as agent provocateurs. Their mission is to go into Muslim communities, find people who are espousing violence or say they want to commit some sort of act of terrorism, even if they have no means, even if they have no capability of committing that crime, and then putting everything together—you know, getting the idea, then saying to them, “Well, I can provide the bombs, I can provide the weapons,” and then the FBI, in an elaborate sting, provides the transportation, provides the weapons and everything that they need to move forward in a terrorism sting operation. And then, when they arrest them, they announce to the public: “Another terrorism plot foiled. Here’s the FBI. Here’s us keeping you safe. Here’s us doing our jobs.” But I think the real question we need to ask is, you know: Through these sting operations, have we exaggerated the threat of Islamic terrorism in the United States, while at the same time missing the real threats, missing the Tamerlan Tsarnaevs, missing the Faisal Shahzads, missing the Nidal Hasans? Because the FBI has a clear record of being able to set up in sting operations people who want to commit violence but don’t have the means, while at the same time it misses the really dangerous threats, like what we saw in Boston.
AMY GOODMAN: Trevor Aaronson, I want to thank you for being with us, author of The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism, also co-director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and contributing writer at Mother Jones. We’ll link to your piece, “How the FBI in Boston May Have Pursued the Wrong ‘Terrorist.'” Trevor Aaronson’s work has won more than two dozen national and regional awards, including the Molly Prize and the Data Journalism Award.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to rural Georgia, where young black and white women have decided that they’re not going to go to segregated proms any longer, and they’re having their own prom tomorrow night. We’ll speak with them. Stay with us.
Friday, April 26, 2013
Find this story at 26 April 2013
Stakeknife: Spy linked to 18 murders, BBC Panorama finds
April 25, 2017
The British spy Stakeknife – described by an Army general as “our golden egg” – is now the subject of a £35m criminal inquiry called Operation Kenova.
The inquiry has been triggered by a classified report which Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC has told Panorama “made for very disturbing and chilling reading”.
What Stakeknife actually did has been wreathed in speculation since he was identified in 2003 as Belfast bricklayer Freddie Scappaticci.
The one stand-out fact, however, has not been in doubt: for over a decade Scappaticci maintained his cover in the IRA by interrogating fellow British agents to the point where they confessed and were then shot.
One British spy was preparing other British spies for execution.
Step back over Stakeknife, PPS deputy asked
Chief investigator calls for witnesses
New investigation into Stakeknife launched
Stakeknife linked to up to 50 murders
And there were a lot of executions: 30 shot as spies by the IRA’s so-called Nutting Squad which, I am told, Scappaticci eventually came to head.
Panorama has learned that Scappaticci is linked to at least 18 of those “executions”.
Not all the victims would have been registered agents like him who produced the best intelligence.
Some were akin to “informers” – people with close access to IRA members, or who passed on what they saw and heard to the security forces.
A few were innocent of the IRA’s charge of spying.
Still, the spectacle of one British agent heading an IRA unit dedicated to rooting out and shooting other British spies is so extraordinary that I’ve often wondered how exactly the state benefitted by the intelligence services having tolerated this for the whole of the 1980s.
The obvious person to ask is Scappaticci himself – but a draconian injunction stops journalists from approaching him, even to the point of making any enquiries about where he now lives or what he does.
The Chief Constable of Bedfordshire Police, Jon Boutcher (left), is leading the investigation with the delegated authority of the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton
Scappaticci was recruited by a section within military intelligence called the Force Research Unit, or FRU.
I’m told the Army have assessed his intelligence as having saved some 180 lives.
Can Scappaticci’s intelligence have been so valuable that the sacrifice of other agents was a price worth paying to maintain his cover?
It’s not quite that simple.
Had the cavalry been sent in every time Scappaticci tipped off his handlers about who was at risk, he himself wouldn’t have lasted long.
Yet protecting him also meant the murders he knew about – or was even involved in – were never properly investigated, driving a “coach and horses” through the criminal justice system, according to Mr McGrory.
Barra McGrory said the report made for “disturbing and chilling reading”
Also, the Army’s assessment that Stakeknife saved 180 lives doesn’t translate to the number of actual lives saved as a direct consequence of actioning Stakeknife’s intelligence by, for example, interdicting an IRA unit on active service.
I understand that figure of 180 is partly the army’s guesstimate of lives that would have been lost had Stakeknife’s intelligence not led to arrests and the recovery of weapons.
Of course Stakeknife also contributed significantly to “building a picture” of the IRA, an insight much valued by the intelligence services.
An ex-FRU operative with access to his intelligence told me: “He knew all of the main players and picked up a tremendous amount of peripheral information.
“As the [IRA] campaign changed and the political side became more important again he was highly placed to comment on that.”
‘Cunning and resilience’
No doubt, but it’s hard to quantify “picture building” in terms of actual lives saved.
One thing is for sure: leading a double life at the heart of an IRA unit with a Gestapo-like hold over its rank and file would have required cunning – and resilience.
Especially since Scappaticci told his army handlers he disliked gratuitous violence.
He seems to have managed the violence bit though, even when it was close to home.
I’m told that in January 1988, Scappaticci sent a young boy up to the home of Anthony McKiernan, asking him to call by to see Scappaticci.
The Scappaticcis and McKiernans were friends – children from both families had sleepovers.
That was the last McKiernan’s wife and children saw of him. Accused by Scappaticci’s Nutting Squad of being a spy – something the family strongly deny – some 24 hours later, he was shot in the head.
Unsurprisingly, Scappaticci’s ex-IRA comrades paint a less flattering picture than his handlers.
They say he was a prodigious consumer of pornography, loved James Bond movies and – although he was on the IRA’s Belfast Brigade staff – was never a “true republican.”
That might explain why, after Scappaticci was released from detention without trial in December 1975, he drifted away from the republican movement and got involved in a building trade VAT scam.
There were family holidays in Florida.
But then he was arrested by the police and agreed to work for the fraud squad as an informer.
His former IRA comrades also speak of a man with an intimidating manner, handy with his fists and a large ego who liked to be at the centre of things.
His appointment to the IRA’s Nutting Squad – a job most IRA members ran a mile from – certainly gave him that opportunity.
It provided Scappaticci with unrivalled access to what the IRA high command were thinking and their war plans.
Mr Scappaticci left Northern Ireland when identified by the media as Stakeknife, in 2003
It also gave him access to the names of new IRA recruits on the pretext of vetting them, plus details of IRA operations on the pretext of debriefing IRA members released from police custody to establish whether they gave away too much to their interrogators.
That explains why military intelligence was so eager to recruit Scappaticci when, in September 1979, he graduated to the FRU from spying for the fraud squad.
He got an agent number – 6126 – and a codename. Stakeknife.
His luck ran out in January 1990 after police agent Sandy Lynch was rescued from the clutches of the nutting squad.
The police thought Lynch was about to be shot, Scappaticci having got him to confess. The ordinary CID who did not know Scappaticci was a spy found a thumb print in the house where Lynch had been held.
Scappaticci fled to Dublin. However, a senior police officer who was in the know advised the FRU to get Scappaticci to concoct an alibi for his thumbprint.
It worked. On his return to Belfast in the autumn of 1992, Scappaticci was arrested and then released without charge.
His handlers hoped he could return to spying. But by now the IRA were suspicious and removed him from the security unit.
With Scappaticci’s access to IRA secrets gone, the FRU formally stood him down as an agent in 1995.
How did he escape the same treatment at the hands of the IRA that he had helped mete out to others?
Probably because the sight of his body dumped on a roadside would have provoked a slew of questions about those IRA leaders who appointed him to protect the IRA from spies like him – and who also ignored warnings from their more sceptical comrades along the border that “Scap” was not to be trusted.
That did not stop the IRA in Belfast from putting Scap in his place.
After being sidelined, he agreed to help the staunchly republican Braniff family clear the name of a brother, Anthony, who was shot as a spy in 1981. He was eventually exonerated by the IRA.
But when Scappaticci spoke up for Anthony at a private meeting of republicans, to his embarrassment, the IRA’s most senior man in Belfast, Sean “Spike” Murray suddenly appeared and slapped him down.
When Scap was eventually outed as Stakeknife by a former FRU operative in 2003, he was spirited to England where MI5 told him the IRA knew he had been a spy.
He rejected MI5’s offer of protective custody, flew straight back to Belfast and sought a meeting with the IRA.
He gambled on not being shot because he calculated the IRA now had every reason to support a denial that he was a spy – even though he knew they didn’t believe him.
His gamble was based on the fact that the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein were now engaged in the peace process.
Scappaticci calculated that were the IRA to admit they’d long suspected he was a spy, it would undermine the official line that they’d fought the British to an honourable draw.
Any such admission would provoke the rank and file into questioning whether the IRA had been pushed into peace, paralysed by the penetration of agents like him.
His gamble paid off.
After meeting two of the most senior representatives of the IRA leadership, Martin “Duckster” Lynch and Padraic Wilson, I’m told Scappaticci and the IRA came to an understanding: Scappaticci would issue a firm denial which the IRA would not contest.
To this day, that’s been the IRA’s official position – even though, as they say in Belfast, the dogs in the street know it’s nonsense.
Once again, Agent 6126 had relied on his wits and native cunning.
Whether the 71-year-old Scappaticci now outwits the 50 detectives trawling over everything he did, what his handlers allowed him to do, and what the IRA leaders authorised him to do, is another question.
You might say he’s the spy who knows too much – because he knows the answers to all these questions.
By John Ware
Reporter, BBC Panorama
11 April 2017
Find this story at 11 April 2017
watch the documentary
Stakeknife: double agent in IRA ‘was given alibi by senior British officials’
April 25, 2017
Panorama documentary claims agent who leaked secrets to British army is
linked to 18 murders in 1980s and 90s
One of Britain’s most important agents inside the IRA has been linked to
18 murders and was provided with an alibi by a senior police officer to
avoid getting him arrested during the Troubles, it has emerged.
Army whistleblower to testify on IRA double agent Stakeknife
The Guardian can also reveal that the informer codenamed “Stakeknife”
reported directly to the late Martin McGuinness in the 1980s and 90s
when the man who would become Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister
was the IRA’s northern commander and army council member.
Stakeknife, whose real name is believed to be Freddie Scappaticci, was
the IRA’s chief spycatcher, briefing McGuinness, all the while betraying
some of the most important secrets to the British army.
Further light is shone on the career of Stakeknife in the BBC Panorama
documentary titled The Spy in the IRA to be broadcast on Tuesday night.
The programme focuses on Scappaticci’s role as head of the IRA’s
so-called “nutting squad”, whose task was to smoke out, interrogate and
in most cases kill members suspected of being informers.
Panorama claims to have linked Stakeknife directly to 18 murders of IRA
members accused of being agents, with Scappaticci’s unit responsible for
30 deaths overall.
In the film, a retired Royal Ulster Constabulary DI, Tim McGregor,
claims that a superior officer in the force thwarted his and his
colleagues’ efforts to arrest Scappaticci. McGregor and fellow RUC
officers wanted to question Scappaticci after a forensic investigation
found his thumbprint in a Belfast house where the police believed one of
their agents was about to be shot by the IRA.
The programme alleges that an army report stated a senior police officer
told Scappaticci’s handlers about the pending arrest and an alibi was
concocted by them to prevent Stakeknife being taken into custody.
McGregor tells Panorama that without that alibi Scappaticci would have
been arrested and charged in connection with the other informer’s
IRA informer accuses police of abandoning him to die
Northern Ireland’s director of public prosecutions, Barra McGrory, who
was once a solicitor for the president of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams,
described any move to “allow” certain informers to die in order to
promote and protect Stakeknife within IRA’s ranks as having “driven a
coach and horses” through the criminal justice system.
McGrory refused to comment on allegations aired in the programme over
the retirement of the deputy director of public prosecutions after
reviewing her decision in 2007 not to prosecute Scappaticci over claims
he committed perjury in court. The Belfast-born son of Italian
immigrants denied in court he was Stakeknife.
The then senior DPP lawyer, now deputy DPP, who made that decision was
Pamela Aitchison but her former boss McGrory tells the programme he
could not discuss “personnel issues”.
A former RUC assistant chief constable, Raymond White, also declines to
state how many of his agents or informers he lost while Scappaticci led
the IRA’s internal security unit.
Meanwhile, the whistleblower who first exposed the existence of
Stakeknife back in 2003 accused the agent’s associates of “turning a
blind eye” to the corruption of the criminal justice system.
Ian Hurst, a former military intelligence operative for the army’s Force
Research Unit, told the Guardian: “The political class created this and
other similar intelligence problems. That said, they needed and relied
upon weak-minded or selfish people in sensitive positions to facilitate
“The aim of the state cover-up was to degrade the available evidence and
make it almost impossible to portion blame upon culpable individuals.
The state succeeded on both points,” he said.
‘Stakeknife’: police spy in IRA to be investigated over murders
The “Stakeknife” scandal is being investigated by an independent police
team led by former counter-terrorism detective John Boutcher, now chief
constable of Bedfordshire. Boutcher’s Operation Kenova has a budget of
£30m but has so far been unable to interview Ian Hurst, the man who
first made public the existence of Stakeknife.
A Ministry of Defence court injunction still bars Hurst from talking to
police officers about his knowledge of Stakeknife from his time as a FRU
Another military intelligence officer who operated in the region when
Stakeknife was being managed as a high-grade agent, compared the IRA
relationship between Scappaticci and McGuinness respectively to that of
the “operation manager” and the “managing director” in terms of deciding
on the approach to suspected spies and their fate once unmasked.
Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent
Tuesday 11 April 2017 06.02 BST
Find this story at 11 April 2017
Copyright The Guardian
TRIAL AND TERROR The U.S. government has prosecuted 796 people for terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Most of them never even got close to committing an act of violence.
April 25, 2017
The U.S. government segregates terrorism cases into two categories — domestic and international. This database contains cases classified as international terrorism, though many of the people charged never left the United States or communicated with anyone outside the country.
Since the 9/11 attacks, most of the 796 terrorism defendants prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice have been charged with material support for terrorism, criminal conspiracy, immigration violations, or making false statements — vague, nonviolent offenses that give prosecutors wide latitude for scoring quick convictions or plea bargains. 523 defendants have pleaded guilty to charges, while the courts found 175 guilty at trial. Just 2 have been acquitted and 3 have seen their charges dropped or dismissed, giving the Justice Department a near-perfect record of conviction in terrorism cases.
Today, 345 people charged with terrorism-related offenses are in custody in the United States, including 58 defendants who are awaiting trial and remain innocent until proven guilty.
Very few terrorism defendants had the means or opportunity to commit an act of violence. The majority had no direct connection to terrorist organizations. Many were caught up in FBI stings, in which an informant or undercover agent posed as a member of a terrorist organization. The U.S. government nevertheless defines such cases as international terrorism.
415 terrorism defendants have been released from custody, often with no provision for supervision or ongoing surveillance, suggesting that the government does not regard them as imminent threats to the homeland.
A large proportion of the defendants who did have direct connections to terrorist groups were recruited as informants or cooperating witnesses and served little or no time in prison. At present, there have been 32 such cooperators. By contrast, many of the 296 defendants caught up in FBI stings have received decades in prison because they had no information or testimony to trade. They simply didn’t know any terrorists.
DATA LAST UPDATED ON APRIL 20, 2017
Find this story at 20 April 2017
Copyright The Intercept
THE RELEASED More Than 400 People Convicted of Terrorism in the U.S. Have Been Released Since 9/11
April 25, 2017
Trial and TerrorTrial and Terror
The U.S. government has prosecuted almost 800 people for terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Most of them never committed an act of violence.
OVER THE LAST 15 years, the U.S. government has quietly released more than 400 people convicted on international terrorism-related charges, according to a data analysis of federal terrorism prosecutions by The Intercept. Some were deported to other countries following their prison terms, but a large number of convicted terrorists are living in the United States. They could be your neighbors.
The release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges with little if any monitoring by law enforcement might suggest U.S. government officials believe they can be fully rehabilitated following minor prison terms. A more likely explanation is that many of these so-called terrorists weren’t particularly dangerous in the first place.
Among them is one of the Herald Square bombers, who plotted to attack the New York subway in 2004. Shahawar Matin Siraj and James Elshafay, egged on by informant Osama Eldawoody, conspired to plant bombs at the Herald Square station. They drew rough plans on napkins, surveilled the station, and discussed how they might acquire explosives. It was all talk. The two alleged bombers took different paths after their arrests. Siraj fought the charges and went to trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He won’t be released until 2030. Elshafay pleaded guilty and received a comparably modest sentence of five years in prison and three years of supervised release. He’s been a free man since January 28, 2009.
Or consider the case of Wassim I. Mazloum, who was part of an alleged terror cell in Toledo, Ohio, with Mohammad Zaki Amawi and Marwan Othman El-Hindi. The group’s leader was Darren Griffin, a former U.S. Army Special Forces member who became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI following a drug arrest. As part of a sting, Griffin trained the three men to use firearms, watched jihadi videos online with them, and conspired with Amawi in a half-baked plot to smuggle laptops from Jordan to Iraq. Mazloum, who was convicted at trial for his role, was released in April 2014.
Others convicted on terrorism-related charges were more blustery than dangerous. Two of the men who operated the website RevolutionMuslim.com — Jesse Curtis Morton and Joseph Cohen — were released. Morton and Cohen (who went by Younus Abdullah Muhammad and Yousef Mohamid Al-Khattab, respectively) were converts to Islam and encouraged violence against various people, including Jewish-American community leaders and the creators of “South Park.” Cohen was released in August 2016. Morton became an FBI informant and was released in February 2015. He was a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, which described him as a “reformed” extremist, until December 2016, when local police in Virginia arrested him for bringing crack cocaine to meet a prostitute. Because the drug and prostitution arrest violated his parole terms, Morton went back to prison — but he’s scheduled to be released again on April 23.
Some of the more than 400 people convicted on terrorism-related charges and freed since 9/11 appear from government evidence to have been involved in genuine plots or to have been connected to dangerous actors. For example, Hassan Abu-Jihaad was a Navy signalman who was convicted at trial of providing material support to Al Qaeda by disclosing the location of the USS Benfold in an online forum. Using coded language, he also provided an FBI informant with information about the movements of U.S. Navy ships. He was released in January 2016.
Still others are quietly reintegrating into society through halfway houses, or “residential re-entry management centers,” in the language of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, for instance, was once in the national spotlight as the co-conspirator of Colleen LaRose, better known by her online moniker, “JihadJane.” LaRose and Paulin-Ramirez were part of a small group that went to Ireland and plotted to murder Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist best known for his drawing of the Prophet Mohammed’s head on the body of a dog. In Ireland, Paulin-Ramirez married Ali Charaf Damache, who was arrested in Spain in December 2015 on a U.S. warrant alleging he was a terrorist recruiter. While Damache was fighting extradition from Spain, Paulin-Ramirez was finishing her prison term in a halfway house in Philadelphia, where she was released on March 21.
IN THE WAR on terror, U.S. District Courts have represented the primary stage of what can fairly be described as national security theater. With a near-perfect record of conviction, the Justice Department since the 9/11 attacks has hauled into court nearly 800 people on terrorism-related charges. While Justice Department and FBI news releases and press conferences heralded the arrests of such defendants, the U.S. government has said precious little about the hundreds of people convicted on terrorism-related charges who have been released back into the United States or deported to their home countries. During the remainder of President Donald Trump’s first term in office, for example, 67 people convicted on terrorism-related charges are scheduled to be released, according to The Intercept’s data analysis.
Those being released today, and the ones who will be released tomorrow, were yesterday examples the U.S. government held up as thwarted enemies caught by newly aggressive counterterrorism agents. One-fourth of those so far released were targets of FBI sting operations, in which an informant or undercover agent, posing as a terrorist operative, provided the means and opportunity for otherwise incapable individuals to move forward in terrorist plots. In congressional testimony, FBI Director James Comey and his predecessor, Robert Mueller, have specifically mentioned foiled plots from sting operations as examples of jobs well done, all part of a larger, ongoing pitch to justify to Congress and the public the more than $3 billion the FBI spends every year on counterterrorism efforts.
The FBI declined to answer specific questions about the release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges and did not provide any information about programs or policies to monitor those who have been released. “The FBI’s mission is to stay ahead of threats to the U.S. and its interests in order to protect the American people and uphold the U.S. Constitution,” FBI spokesperson Carol Cratty said, offering instead a blanket statement. “It is our duty to follow up on information we receive by using all lawful investigative techniques and methods to ensure public safety.”
The so-called Liberty City Seven case is indicative of how the U.S. government plays up the dangers of terrorism defendants when they are arrested but then never acknowledges that such purportedly dangerous individuals are routinely returned to their homes in the United States, in some cases just a few years after their arrests. As in other stings, the defendants in the Liberty City Seven case had no connection to terrorists. An undercover FBI informant, pretending to be an Al Qaeda agent, was the only alleged connection to terrorism. The case, one of the earliest of the FBI’s informant stings, was sloppier than most as well, because much of the bureau’s evidence seemed to support the men’s steadfast assertion that they were street hustlers trying to scam a big-talking Middle Easterner out of his money, not terrorists on the make. In fact, despite the government’s efforts to obfuscate this inconvenient fact, the seven men weren’t even Muslim; they considered themselves members of the Moorish Science Temple, blending together elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in their belief system.
“The Liberty City case was a bellwether for the FBI and the Justice Department,” said James J. Wedick, a former FBI supervisory agent who was hired by the defense team to review the evidence. “If they could get convictions based on a thin case like this, they had a green light to be even more aggressive with terrorism stings.”
MIAMI – JUNE 23: Media stands outside the warehouse that the FBI raided last evening June 23, 2006 in the Liberty CIty neighborhood of Miami, Florida. The U.S. Justice Department was expected to provide details of an alleged plot to attack the Chicago Sears Tower, in which at least seven people who were staying in the warehouse were arrested in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Members of the media stand outside the warehouse raided by the FBI in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Florida, June 23, 2006. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
IN 2004, THE brothers Burson and Rothschild Augustin lived in a Miami apartment above Narseal Batiste. Batiste, a former Chicago street preacher, operated a small drywall and construction business and considered himself a student of Western religions, studying the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran. Inspired by the Guardian Angels he had seen patrolling in Chicago, Batiste also fashioned himself something of a community activist and guardian.
The Augustin brothers joined up with Batiste and, along with a half-dozen others, worked in his drywall business and together rented a warehouse in the Miami neighborhood known as Liberty City, where they offered martial arts training and religious studies to neighborhood kids. They called themselves the “Seas of David” and would sometimes wear military-style uniforms as they marched through the streets. The group was largely Batiste’s personality cult. He described himself as the “divine leader” and suggested once that “man has the authority to, on a certain level, be God.”
A Yemeni man named Abbas al-Saidi ran a convenience store in Miami that Batiste and his guys frequented. Al-Saidi, who had worked as an informant for the New York Police Department, got in touch with the FBI and reported a suspicious group of men from Liberty City, who he claimed had sent him to Yemen to make connections with Al Qaeda. FBI agents turned al-Saidi into a paid informant, and on instructions from the bureau, he introduced Batiste to a second informant, Elie Assaad, who was posing as a representative of Osama bin Laden. Assaad was a seasoned hand for the FBI, having conducted another terrorism sting in South Florida that lured a young man named Imran Mandhai into a bomb plot. (Mandhai was released from prison in March 2015 and deported to Pakistan.)
For Batiste, who is now incarcerated in a low-security facility in Texas, what happened next was nothing more than a street hustle; according to the U.S. government, the interaction between Batiste and Assaad was far more sinister.
“Al-Saidi made it perfectly clear that he was dealing with the police, and if we played the game the way he would lay it out, we’d be able to get a certain amount [of money] and then just basically break off and just go about our business and do all the things that we wanted to do,” Batiste said in a phone interview from prison.
FBI video footage of a meeting between Narseal Batiste and Elie Assaad, an informant posing as a representative of Osama bin Laden.
Batiste and Assaad met in a hotel room to discuss their future together. A hidden FBI video camera recorded their meeting. Following al-Saidi’s advice to dress the part of a Muslim extremist, Batiste wore what appeared to be a turban and carried a walking staff. He looked more like a Halloween partygoer than an Al Qaeda operative. “I’ve never met someone like you,” Batiste confessed to Assaad. “Someone on a mission.” They both sat at a table, where Assaad was eating a room service meal.
“I am a man that is determined. Whether I get any help from you or not, I’m going to do what needs to be done,” Batiste continued in the video, being as vague as possible. “And I’m well on my way of accomplishing that. I’m not far right now.”
“You’re not far? So I’m not wasting my time,” Assaad said, holding a french fry. He then added: “They didn’t bring me from over there just to hear words. I will see some action, or no?”
“Yeah, you’re not wasting your time,” Batiste said. “Absolutely, absolutely.”
MIAMI – JUNE 23: The inside of a warehouse that the FBI raided is viewed through a hole in the door June 23, 2006 in the Liberty CIty neighborhood of Miami, Florida.The US Justice Department was expected to provide details of an alleged plot to attack the Chicago Sears Tower, in which at least seven people who were staying in the warehouse were arrested in Miami. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Inside the Liberty City warehouse rented by the FBI for Narseal Batiste and his friends, viewed through a hole in the door, June 23, 2006, Miami, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
BUT THE LIBERTY City Seven plot consisted mainly of words. Assaad kept promising to transfer $25,000 to Batiste, who in turn said what he needed to say to string along Assaad. They talked about a harebrained plot to bomb the Sears Tower in Chicago. Batiste even boasted he could raise an army in Chicago. As time went by and no money arrived from Assaad, however, Batiste and his group became frustrated. So the FBI, through Assaad, rented them a newer, larger warehouse, complete with a refrigerator stocked with food and a new van they could use — all to keep them on the hook and to keep them plotting.
“At that time, we were just thinking, OK, we got the warehouse, and then inside the warehouse, they had food and everything,” Rothschild Augustin remembered. “Like frozen food, fish and stuff. So we were thinking, wow, the money is coming. Then they had a van in there. So we were thinking that all that was ours, so we just kept going along with it.”
The FBI had wired the new warehouse with cameras. Once they were in the warehouse, Assaad asked Batiste and his guys to swear a “bay’at,” or oath of allegiance, to Al Qaeda.
“It was kind of like we got blindsided. We just show up and, ‘Hey, you are going to take this oath.’ What? What oath? Whatever, we just went through it, uncomfortable,” Rothschild Augustin said.
Batiste was still trying to do whatever was necessary to sucker Assaad out of his money. Here was a guy giving them a warehouse, a van, and a promise to provide $25,000. So what if they had to pledge an oath like Boy Scouts? Each of the men stood before Assaad, gave his name, and then pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. The hustle was finally working, everyone thought.
“The so-called bay’at, oath thing, that was placed upon us — all that was basically acting, just making up stuff,” Batiste recalled.
After the oath, Assaad asked Batiste to do one more thing: take pictures of the FBI office and federal courthouse in Miami. So Batiste and two of the guys gamely drove around Miami taking photographs from their van, with a camera provided by the FBI.
FBI video footage of Elie Assaad administering an oath of allegiance to Al Qaeda.
AT THIS POINT, Batiste’s spiritual adviser, a Chicago preacher named Sultan Khan Bey of the Moorish Science Temple, arrived in Miami and the case transformed into theater of the bizarre. An FBI surveillance vehicle recorded Batiste and his guys picking up Khan Bey and his wife, both dressed in colorful flowing African-inspired garb, from the airport in Fort Lauderdale.
When Batiste explained to Khan Bey what had been happening — the generous Arab guy who gave them a warehouse with a refrigerator full of food in exchange for the oath and taking a few pictures — Khan Bey told the group what should have been obvious all along: They were fools being played by the feds. Khan Bey then held a trial of sorts for Batiste, banished him, and took possession of the warehouse and control of the small group. Another of Batiste’s spiritual advisers, Master G.J.G. Atheea, who unbeknownst to the others had agreed to wear a wire for the FBI, confronted Khan Bey at the warehouse and advocated for Batiste’s return as leader of the group. An argument erupted, and Khan Bey grabbed a gun and shot at Atheea, narrowly missing him.
The gun was legal and registered to Lyglenson Lemorin, a Haitian-born member of the group who had carried it for security detail work in the past. Lemorin had mistakenly left the gun at the warehouse, where Khan Bey found it.
Miami police arrested Khan Bey for the shooting, and federal prosecutors took over the case. Khan Bey cooperated by talking to agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. It wasn’t his first run-in with the law. Khan Bey had been convicted of rape in 1977 and attempted murder in 1973. He pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a sentence of 14 months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, with the stipulation that his sentence be served at a facility near his home in Chicago.
During the madness in Miami, the group was falling apart. Lemorin, frustrated by Batiste and his ill-conceived scam, moved to Atlanta. Some of the other guys began to distance themselves from Batiste after the oath, believing he’d pushed the hustle too far. Patrick Abraham ignored all the folly around him by focusing on jobs with the drywall company.
IMG_20160515_192731-1492629195 Patrick Abraham now lives in Haiti, where he teaches English at a school in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Trevor Aaronson
ON JUNE 22, 2006, Abraham was driving to a worksite when he saw a Chevrolet Suburban accelerate past his van and then quickly stop in front of him. “I see people come out of everywhere and pull out guns, aiming at my window,” Abraham remembered. After the FBI agents rushed the car, one asked Abraham a question that perplexed him: “Do you have a bomb in the car?”
“What?” Abraham asked, confused.
“Do you have a bomb in the car?” the agent repeated.
Abraham shook his head, exasperated. “Go ahead with the bullshit, man,” Abraham said, giving the agents permission to search his vehicle.
The others were arrested in similarly dramatic ways. Seven agents, for example, arrested Rothschild Augustin while he was shopping for clothes.
After their arrests, the FBI brought each of the Liberty City Seven individually into interrogation rooms at the bureau’s Miami office. Stanley Phanor, one of the guys who had remained loyal to Batiste throughout, didn’t understand why he had been arrested when he wound up in an interrogation room. A slender, soft-spoken man of Haitian descent, Phanor had gone by the nickname Sonny since he was a child. In the indictment, prosecutors listed him as “Brother Sunni,” perhaps as a way of making him seem more menacing and Islamic.
None of the men accepted a plea deal, and they all stood trial together. The case was bullshit, they agreed. The first trial resulted in a hung jury for six of the seven defendants. Because he’d abandoned the group during the sting, Lemorin was acquitted — but was immediately detained by immigration officials for deportation.
“On the one hand, they just seemed like a hapless group of guys and their defense all along was that they were just going along with it because they were going to rip off [the FBI informant],” said Jeffrey Agron, who was the jury foreman. “There were a fair number of people on the jury who believed that it was a scam. … On the other hand, when asked to pledge an allegiance to Al Qaeda, they did it. When asked to take pictures for the plot, they did take the pictures.”
Family members of some of the seven men charged with plotting to destroy the Sears Tower in Chicago and other buildings, center left in white t-shirts, look on during a news conference where activists spoke, Thursday, June 29, 2006 at the Liberty City neighborhood warehouse in Miami where the FBI arrested most of the men. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) Family members of the Liberty City Seven look on during a news conference on June 29, 2006, at the warehouse in Miami where the FBI arrested most of the men. Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP
IT TOOK THREE trials to convict five of the seven men. While Lemorin was acquitted in the first trial, Naudimar Herrera, a bit player in the group, was acquitted following the third trial. But five others — Narseal Batiste, Patrick Abraham, Stanley Phanor, Burson Augustin, and Rothschild Augustin — were convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, among other charges, and sent to prison. Following their convictions, Jeffrey Sloman, who was then the acting U.S. attorney in Miami, said the prosecution “helped make our community safer by rooting out nascent terrorists before they could carry out their threats.” The convicted men received sentences ranging from six to 13 years. If the Justice Department thought the men were dangerous, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons seemed to disagree. The Liberty City Seven members were incarcerated in medium and minimum security facilities once in BOP custody. The FBI paid Assaad $85,000 and al-Saidi $21,000 for their work on the sting.
Burson Augustin was the first of the convicted Liberty City Seven defendants to be released, on September 21, 2012, after serving six years in prison. Instead of returning to Miami, he chose to move to Fort Myers, where he had an aunt and where no one else knew him. “I thought my best bet is to go to a place I don’t know,” Augustin said. “To get a fresh start.”
A well-built man who wears thick dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail, Augustin tried to make an honest living in Fort Myers, but he found it impossible to land a job with a terrorism conviction on his record. So Augustin went back to his old trade, hustling, and was soon busted for dealing cocaine. Because he was on supervised release at the time of the drug deal, his case went to federal court and he was sentenced to another four years in prison.
Lemorin, a Haitian national who had fathered two children in Miami, fell victim to a unique kind of double jeopardy. After being acquitted in the first trial, the evidence from that trial was used against him in immigration court. It proved enough to justify his deportation order.
His deportation was delayed because of the 2010 earthquake, which devastated Haiti. But one year after the earthquake, with the island still recovering from the destruction, Lemorin was on one of the first deportee planes to Port-au-Prince. In some ways, despite being acquitted, his punishment was in line with that of the other defendants: Between the time he was in a holding cell awaiting trial and his time in an immigration detention center, Lemorin spent nearly six years behind bars.
When he arrived in Haiti, he found himself detained yet again. Not knowing who among the deportees was a violent criminal and who wasn’t, Haitian officials threw everyone into detention cells. Those whose families had money could offer bribes to get loved ones released. The ones without family or means were at the mercy of Haitian officials in a filthy prison where cholera was spreading and some detainees had already died.
“There’s feces everywhere,” Lemorin remembered. “Feces on the wall, feces on everything, feces on the place where you take a shower.”
When Lemorin finally got out of detention, his relatives in Leogane gave him a small plot of land on which to live. His mother in Miami collected old cellphones and other electronics and shipped them to Lemorin, who sold them to buy the concrete and rebar to build his new home. He only has walls around the bedroom, but the foundation is laid. In time, he hopes to build up the walls around a small living room and kitchen.
In the United States, he was not only forced to leave behind his mother, but also his son and daughter. In April 2011, Lemorin learned that his 15-year-old son, Lukenson Lemorin, had been killed in a car accident in Miami. U.S. authorities denied Lemorin’s visa application to attend the funeral, he said, and he was forced to observe the service through a grainy Skype connection.
“I got robbed of my son’s life because I beat the case,” Lemorin said, tears welling in his eyes. “Twelve jurors found me not guilty. … And when I’m supposed to be home with my son, I’m in Haiti, deported, sent back for the same trial I beat.”
Two years after arriving in Haiti, Lemorin learned that his old friend Patrick Abraham had also been deported. Patrick had only distant relatives to help him in Haiti. But he had Lemorin, who offered to share his one-room home. On a recent evening, Abraham brought home a watermelon from Port-au-Prince. They sliced up and ate the watermelon together as they watched the kids from the village playing soccer with a deflated ball. Impoverished and isolated from the rest of the world, the pair seemed the world’s least probable terrorists.
For his part, Lemorin isn’t bitter about his circumstances. He doesn’t blame the United States. “I love America,” he said. “America is a great country. But what happened to us, it’s not America that did it. It’s not America — it’s a few people in America that others put their trust in.”
IMG_20160512_153116-1492629193 Burson Augustin is now back in South Florida, where he is trying to rebuild his life after serving a decade in prison. Photo: Trevor Aaronson
ABOUT 700 MILES away, in Miami, the rest of the Liberty City Seven are mostly together. Burson and Rothschild Augustin live in a small studio apartment in Broward County, north of Miami. Burson landed a job as a valet on Miami Beach; these days, having learned from his experience in Fort Myers, when he fills out job applications, he just leaves the question about felony convictions blank. It’s best not to try to explain. Rothschild has bounced from job to job; he’s done stints sewing body armor in a factory in an industrial part of town and working in a juice bar in a trendy section of Miami.
Stanley Phanor was released on June 28, 2016, after a short stay at a halfway house. He’s living with his mother in Little Haiti, where Burson and Rothschild Augustin sometimes visit. If the FBI is at all concerned with members of an alleged terror cell associating again in the city of their crime, the three are unaware of it. The Bureau of Prisons does not treat the release of people convicted on terrorism-related charges any differently than that of other criminals, and the FBI does not have a program to track and monitor released terrorists, at least not that it has acknowledged publicly. Phanor and the Augustin brothers haven’t been prohibited from seeing each other, and none of them have seen anything to suggest they are under physical surveillance. As far as they can tell, no one is paying any attention to them at all.
They’ll have a new addition soon. The Liberty City Seven’s alleged ringleader, Narseal Batiste, will be released to a halfway house this summer, a little more than a decade after he purportedly tried to wage a ground war against the U.S. government.
April 20 2017, 7:12 p.m.
Find this story at 20 April 2017
THE COOPERATORS Terrorism Defendants With Concrete Ties to Violent Extremists Leverage Their Connections to Avoid Prison
April 25, 2017
Trial and TerrorTrial and Terror
The U.S. government has prosecuted almost 800 people for terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Most of them never committed an act of violence.
˅ EXPAND ALL PARTS
SINCE THE 9/11 attacks, at least 30 people convicted of international terrorism-related offenses have become informants and/or cooperating witnesses in exchange for leniency in sentencing, according to an analysis by The Intercept of federal terrorism prosecutions.
Using the threat of criminal prosecution to encourage someone to cooperate is a well-worn tactic that long predates the war on terror. But this tactic has been used to great effect by federal prosecutors in the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. There’s a cruel irony in this system. The misguided men, and sometimes women, who are caught up in counterterrorism stings — where an undercover agent or informant encourages or facilitates plans for an attack — are often sentenced to decades in prison because they have no information to trade. Members of the so-called Liberty City Seven, a group of Miami men who discussed a bomb plot with an undercover informant posing as an Al Qaeda operative, spent six to 13 years behind bars; they couldn’t become cooperating witnesses, because they didn’t know any real terrorists. But the more dangerous a defendant, or the more extensive his contacts with terrorists, the more likely he can leverage his connections for leniency.
One early informant was Mohammed Junaid Babar, an Al Qaeda operative who provided material support to efforts against U.S. forces in Pakistan. In exchange for more than six years of cooperation, Babar received a sentence of time served and 10 years of supervised release. As part of his supervised release, Babar was required to continue to cooperate with the government. His whereabouts have never been disclosed publicly, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has no public record of Babar having entered custody at any point during his cooperation.
The case of Najibullah Zazi offers another example. Zazi trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and then mixed beauty-supply chemicals for backpack bombs in a motel outside Denver. He was arrested in September 2009, before he could drive to New York and place those bombs on the subway. Zazi, whose sentence has been pending since he pleaded guilty in February 2010, is currently working for the government as a cooperating witness.
Some of the government’s cooperating witnesses have been plucked from far-flung battlefields. Bryant Neal Vinas, who went by the name Bashir al-Ameriki, was captured in Pakistan. After admitting that he fired rockets on a U.S. military base in September 2008, Vinas turned informant. He provided information about a plot to blow up a Long Island Rail Road commuter train in New York’s Penn Station as well as information about Belgian and French men who attended the same training camp he did. Vinas pleaded guilty in January 2009 to an indictment charging him with, among other offenses, conspiracy to kill Americans and material support for terrorists. His sentence has been pending since then, and there is no record of him ever being turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, suggesting he is in a witness security program.
One of the most colorful and revealing cases of a terrorism defendant-turned-cooperator is that of Earnest James Ujaama, perhaps the most prolific cooperating witness in the war on terror. A would-be entrepreneur with an explosive temper and a penchant for running minor scams, Ujaama became a close associate of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the radical imam of the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, whom a senior Justice Department official once called “an unrepentant all-purpose terrorist.” But while Abu Hamza is now serving a life prison sentence, Ujaama is free, living in idyllic Berkeley, California, collecting approximately $2,000 per month from the federal government, at least until recently, and looking to tell his story to a receptive audience.
I first heard from Ujaama on November 12, 2015, when he sent me an email. “I’m looking to tell the story of a case that I think you will be most interested in,” he wrote. Later that day, in another email, Ujaama disclosed the primary condition of his cooperation. He wanted me to write a book with him about his life. “I’ve listened to you speak,” he wrote. “I’ve watched your presentation. I like your work.”
In a series of phone and email conversations, Ujaama described how he also wanted compensation for his story. “I don’t pay for access to people,” I told Ujaama.
This sort of back-and-forth continued for months. Sometimes I initiated contact, because I was intrigued by Ujaama’s story. Sometimes he reached out to me, for reasons that were not always clear. Our exchanges always were short-lived. Ujaama is a chameleon-like man who has been many things: entrepreneur, author, college student, religious scholar, newsletter publisher, aspiring movie producer, website designer, even a mule carrying cash into Afghanistan. Now, it seemed, he was attempting to fashion a new career as a terrorism expert, but at his core, the slender 51-year-old with close-cropped hair and braces on his teeth is a hustler — someone who, in the words of one federal judge, always plays “fast and loose.”
During his 13-year cooperation as a witness for the government, Ujaama has testified in two terrorism trials — including that of Abu Hamza, who was also known as Mustafa Kamel Mustafa — and would have testified in a third had the defendant not pleaded guilty. In a court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan called Ujaama’s cooperation with the government “extraordinary.”
Finally, in October 2016, Ujaama wrote me once again. He was irritated by a 60 Minutes story about Mary Quin, a New Zealander who was kidnapped in Yemen by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group and portrayed by CBS News as the U.S. Department of Justice’s star witness in Abu Hamza’s trial. This was outrageous to Ujaama, because in his view, he was the star witness against the religious cleric with connections to Al Qaeda. “You should come see me. I’m in the Bay Area until November,” Ujaama wrote. We agreed to meet the following month.
LONDON, United Kingdom: (FILES) Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri addresses followers during Friday prayer in near Finsbury Park mosque in north London, in this 26 March 2004 file photo. Hamza al-Masri was found guilty Tuesday 07 February 2006 of incitement of racial hatred and soliciting murder charges after a criminal trial in London. Hamza, 47, was convicted of six out of nine soliciting-to-murder charges and two out of four charges of “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up racial hatred”.AFP PHOTO/ODD ANDERSEN/FILES (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images) Imam Abu Hamza al-Masri addresses followers during Friday prayer near Finsbury Park Mosque in north London on March 26, 2004. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
BORN IN DENVER as James Earnest Thompson, Ujaama moved to Seattle as a boy. “I grew up under the Black Panthers,” he said in court testimony. By most accounts he was whip-smart, driven, and eager to make a mark on the world.
But Ujaama also had a fiery disposition. Once, when his girlfriend called police and reported that he had a gun, Ujaama got into a scuffle with a cop and broke the officer’s watch. Enacting revenge on his girlfriend for the incident, Ujaama poured a five-pound bag of sugar into her car’s gasoline tank.
In the mid-1980s, Ujaama moved to Pelican, Alaska, to take a job at a seafood company, where he said he struggled with a racist culture there. “I just got tired of being called nigger,” he recalled. One day, frustrated by the racism, Ujaama grabbed a .375 Winchester rifle and shot out the window of the housing unit where he was staying. He went to jail for the incident.
By the early 1990s, he’d returned to Seattle and joined the personal computer industry. Ujaama was a partner in Olympic Computers, which sold IBM clones at wholesale. But the company didn’t last; Ujaama began a scam, telling customers to send him checks so that he would get the money rather than his partner. In all, Ujaama raked in about $10,000 from the ploy.
Then Ujaama switched to writing books, positioning himself as a motivational speaker and community activist. One book, “The Young People’s Guide to Starting a Business Without Selling Drugs,” encouraged young black men to become entrepreneurs. “When a person lacks knowledge and vision,” Ujaama wrote in the foreword, “that person becomes a soldier in the wrong war, an enemy to others and to themselves.”
Ujaama followed these efforts with a work of fiction, “Coming Up,” a semi-autobiographical story about two friends — one becomes a drug dealer, the other a successful businessman. Ujaama moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of turning “Coming Up” into a movie. Although he claimed to have received a commitment for half of the money to produce the film adaptation, the promised funds were contingent on Ujaama raising the second half from other sources, which he couldn’t do. It was a flop, like most of Ujaama’s business ventures.
Despite characterizing himself as an entrepreneur, Ujaama has never run a successful business, at least not according to any measure the IRS would endorse. He has never paid taxes, and in some years did not file tax returns at all. “The understanding I had was that I did not owe taxes,” he said.
At a low point after failing to turn his book into a movie, Ujaama returned to Seattle and converted to Islam in late 1996. Ujaama devoted himself to Islam and moved to England to study under Abdullah El-Faisal, a Jamaican-born cleric who was imam of the Brixton Mosque in South London. Ujaama became something of an apostle for El-Faisal, traveling back and forth from London to Seattle, where he’d sell tapes of El-Faisal’s sermons. Yet rather than providing a portion of the sales to El-Faisal, Ujaama pocketed the proceeds.
While in London, Ujaama married a Muslim woman from Somalia, and they had a child. El-Faisal had taught Ujaama that jihad training was a Muslim’s obligation, so in late 1998, Ujaama traveled to Afghanistan for training. “I was looking to learn physical jihad training, which would include hand-to-hand combat, how to use weaponry, and live as a Muslim,” Ujaama explained later in court testimony. He made his way to a training camp run by a conservative Muslim missionary group. The camp used an aging Soviet-built military barracks, a soccer field, a large artillery gun, and some broken-down tanks. Ujaama received weapons training and learned how to recite the Quran. But he wasn’t much of a militant. One night, while in the bathroom, Ujaama accidentally fired his rifle. He soon fell ill and left the camp after just two weeks.
Ujaama returned to London and continued his studies under El-Faisal. At the time, El-Faisal was badmouthing Abu Hamza, the religious leader in London who would later be prosecuted in New York. Some of El-Faisal’s students asked Ujaama to meet with Abu Hamza and help mediate the dispute.
Abu Hamza commanded a mysterious aura because, well, he looked like a James Bond villain. He had one eye and was missing both of his hands, forcing him to use a prosthetic hook. Born in Egypt, Abu Hamza studied civil engineering before coming to the United Kingdom in 1979. Various stories have circulated about how Abu Hamza sustained his injuries, including one that alleged his hands were chopped off after he was caught stealing in Saudi Arabia. In truth, according to Abu Hamza, he lost his hands and an eye during an explosives accident while assisting the Pakistani military in a road-building project.
Ujaama recalled being “very impressed with Sheikh Abu Hamza” from that initial meeting. After listening to Abu Hamza’s taped lectures, Ujaama turned his back on El-Faisal. “I decided that he wasn’t a good person to follow,” Ujaama said. His spurned mentor began telling people that Ujaama had stolen money.
But it didn’t matter. Ujaama had his new teacher, Abu Hamza, who had a growing international following through the website of his organization, Supporters of Sharia. When Ujaama decided to return to the United States in 1999, Abu Hamza gave him about a dozen tapes of his lectures. The tapes bore Supporters of Sharia’s logo — a shackled man behind bars reaching out of the cell with a Quran in hand. The lectures were “very angry, but serious,” according to Ujaama, who distributed copies in Seattle’s Muslim community. As he did with El-Faisal’s tapes, Ujaama pocketed the profits.
It was during this return trip to Seattle that Ujaama heard about a ranch in southern Oregon. The entrepreneur in Ujaama saw an opportunity: He could build a training camp for Muslims and advertise it to Abu Hamza’s followers. Ujaama sent a fax to Abu Hamza describing his idea, but he also exaggerated the progress he’d made in turning the ranch into a training camp. He claimed he had secured weapons and recruits and had already started to build structures. He asked Abu Hamza to send two men from London to assist him.
Oussama Kassir, center, Lebanese-born Swedish citizen wanted in the United States on suspicion of plotting to set up a terrorist camp there, is escorted by heavily armed policemen to the courtroom in Prague on Wednesday, April 25, 2007. The Czech court ruled today that Oussama Kassir can be extradited to the USA however he immediately appealed the decision of the Municipal Court in Prague. Kassir is charged in the USA with conspiracy aimed at providing material support to terrorists for which he faces up to a life sentence if found guilty. Kassir was arrested by the Czech police upon an international arrest warrant at Prague’s Ruzyne airport during a stop-over of his plane flying from Stockholm to Beirut in December 2005. (AP Photo/CTK) ** SLOVAKIA OUT ** Oussama Kassir, center, a Lebanese national and Swedish citizen wanted in the United States on suspicion of plotting to set up a terrorist camp, is escorted by armed police officers to the courtroom in Prague on April 25, 2007. Photo: CTK/AP
THE MEN ABU HAMZA sent were Oussama Kassir, a Lebanese national and Swedish citizen who claimed to have been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and Haroon Aswat, a slender British man. The brawny Kassir was to be a physical trainer at the camp, while the studious Aswat would act as a religious and Arabic tutor there. They flew to New York on November 26, 1999, and then took a Greyhound bus across the country to Seattle.
After they arrived, Ujaama drove the two men for eight hours to southern Oregon, where Ujaama showed them the ranch. Instead of having the makings of a training camp, it was desolate. There were no stockpiles of weapons. There were no recruits. The only structures were dilapidated trailers.
Ujaama, true to his roots, had been running a hustle. He just needed Abu Hamza’s stamp of approval and support, and he figured if he could get a couple of Abu Hamza’s guys on site, he could line up investments to get the weapons he claimed he already had and start the construction he said was already underway.
But Kassir, realizing that Ujaama had lied about the camp, became angry. “He got in my face and began to point his finger at me,” Ujaama later testified.
His training camp scheme dashed following the argument with Kassir, Ujaama fled back to Seattle, leaving behind the two men Abu Hamza had sent. Ujaama never returned to the ranch.
Instead, Ujaama moved back to London in the spring of 2000 and returned to his studies under Abu Hamza. If the religious cleric was irritated by Ujaama’s overselling of the training camp, or his dispute with Kassir, he didn’t seem to show it. He took in Ujaama as a close aide, and Ujaama began to work on the Supporters of Sharia website, expanding the English-language portion in order to reach non-Arabic speakers.
Eventually Abu Hamza had a mission for Ujaama. He asked him to travel to Afghanistan to deliver money and escort a member of the London mosque, a Ugandan-born British man named Feroz Abbasi. Abu Hamza gave Ujaama a letter addressed to the foreign minister of the Taliban government to guarantee safe passage into Afghanistan.
Ujaama and Abbasi purchased plane tickets and traveled to Pakistan. After checking into a hotel in Quetta, Ujaama snuck away without telling Abbasi and headed to the Taliban embassy. “I decided that because he would interfere with what I was doing,” Ujaama said. At the embassy, Ujaama handed the Taliban representative the letter from Abu Hamza.
The Taliban escorted Ujaama in an SUV across the border and to the Kandahar compound of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan who ran a training camp in Afghanistan. Following Abu Hamza’s instruction, he gave al-Libi an envelope containing 500 British pounds. Ujaama then traveled to Khost to find a girls’ school to deliver another envelope of money, but wasn’t able to locate it. Instead, he encountered a man who wanted to send Ujaama to the front lines in the Taliban’s war against the Northern Alliance. Ujaama called Abu Hamza in London to intercede. “I’m not here for that purpose,” he said.
The call prevented Ujaama’s military conscription, but Abu Hamza asked him about Abbasi. “I left him behind,” Ujaama said. Angry, Abu Hamza demanded that Ujaama go back to Pakistan and bring Abbasi to Afghanistan. Ujaama told Abu Hamza that he would collect Abbasi, even though he had no intention of doing so.
Back at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, Ujaama continued to assist Abu Hamza and work on the Supporters of Sharia website. In early September 2001, Ujaama agreed to travel once more to Afghanistan to deliver money.
On September 11, 2001, on his way to Afghanistan, Ujaama was awoken to the Pakistani military police knocking on his hotel door. “They asked me if I needed protection,” Ujaama recalled. He learned that hijacked airplanes had been turned into weapons in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
Abu Hamza wanted Ujaama to continue into Afghanistan and deliver the money, but Ujaama refused. The U.S. military had begun bombing the country. Instead, Ujaama made his way to the United States, with 1,000 pounds of Abu Hamza’s cash in hand.
Ujaama was arrested in July 2002 at his grandmother’s former home in Denver, Colorado. “The government is conducting a witch hunt,” Ujaama said in a public statement at the time. The federal government first held Ujaama on a material witness warrant, then indicted him on material support charges related to the supposed training camp in Oregon.
Though he seemed destined for a lengthy prison sentence, Ujaama’s life was about to take a new turn.
AFTER HIS ARREST, Ujaama followed a path similar to those of other post-9/11 terrorism defendants. As part of a plea deal, Ujaama admitted that he conspired to aid the Taliban. In exchange for a sentence of two years in prison, Ujaama agreed to be a witness in the U.S. government’s prosecutions of Abu Hamza and the two other men who collaborated with Ujaama on the purported training camp in Oregon — Oussama Kassir and Haroon Aswat. In 2004, prosecutors in Manhattan charged Abu Hamza, Kassir, and Aswat with terrorism-related charges.
When they were indicted, Abu Hamza was in the United Kingdom, Kassir in the Czech Republic, and Aswat in Zambia. All three fought extradition to the United States, creating a prolonged legal battle that meant Ujaama would wait years to fulfill his obligation to testify in their cases.
By December 2006, Ujaama grew impatient and frustrated by what he viewed as the government forcing him to testify against Abu Hamza. He fled to Belize, where he hoped he could be reunited with his wife and child, but he was arrested by local authorities. Since he violated his plea deal in Washington, federal prosecutors indicted Ujaama again in Manhattan, this time with additional charges. As part of a second cooperating agreement, Ujaama pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts, including a conspiracy to build the training camp in Oregon. He served an additional four years in prison.
Ujaama testified against Kassir in 2009, helping the government to win a conviction and ensuring that the man he’d argued with on the ranch received a sentence of life in prison.
Five years after Kassir’s trial, federal prosecutors finally put Abu Hamza on trial in Manhattan. Ujaama testified for four days in the spring of 2014, describing in detail how he helped his former mentor with the Supporters of Sharia website and newsletter, how he asked him to send two men to the ranch in Oregon, and how he delivered money to Afghanistan.
Abu Hamza was convicted on May 19, 2014, and sentenced to life in prison. He is reportedly in solitary confinement and without his prosthetic limbs.
Haroon Aswat pleaded guilty in March 2015 following the successful convictions of Kassir and Abu Hamza. He received a sentence of 30 years in prison.
On October 23, 2015, Ujaama was sentenced, for the final time, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. “I wish I would have never gotten involved with Abu Hamza,” Ujaama said at his sentencing. “And I think he’s a bad man.”
Judge Katherine B. Forrest said she did not believe Ujaama posed a terrorist threat. If he posed any threat to society, she said, it was “petty fraud or something like that.” She sentenced Ujaama to time served, and in recognition of Ujaama’s years of cooperation with the government, she declined to give him any term of supervised release.
For the first time since 2002, Ujaama was free.
ujaama_edit-1492629291 Earnest James Ujaama poses for a photograph at the University of Washington, where he became a graduate student while serving as a government witness in terrorism prosecutions. Photo: Wikipedia
UJAAMA NOW DIVIDES his time between Berkeley and Seattle. He’s collected at least $100,000 in payments from the government for his cooperation and has amassed student loan debt, which, as of late 2015, had reached $86,000. He expects to finish his doctoral studies at the University of Washington.
Following my year of on-and-off exchanges with Ujaama, we met for the first time in Berkeley in December 2016. I agreed to one condition: We’d keep the first day off the record, and then once we’d gotten acquainted, our conversations thereafter would be on the record.
But after speaking with me over coffee and lunch in Berkeley, Ujaama still wasn’t willing to participate in an interview for an article he couldn’t control. After several hours, I told him it was now his choice. I walked toward the Berkeley BART station. Ujaama followed. We chatted for another hour, standing in the train station lobby. I finally told him that if he wanted to be interviewed, he could come see me in San Francisco the next day.
That evening, I emailed Ujaama to give him one last chance to talk, and to let him know I’d be writing about him, regardless of his cooperation.
“Have a safe return home, bro,” was his only reply.
The next week, I sent Ujaama a list of questions for this story. “I’m in the middle of a research project for my doctoral studies and am very busy,” he wrote. He didn’t respond to any of the questions.
Ujaama doesn’t want to be seen as just another snitch in the ongoing war on terror. He clings to a personal brand of exceptionalism that paints him as both a victim of overzealous prosecution and a star actor on the larger stage of U.S. terrorism prosecutions. And while he insists he wants to spark reform, his case best illustrates the injustice of a system that gives light sentences to those who trade terrorist contacts and cooperation for leniency, while sending those with no such connections to prison for decades.
In the meantime, during my discussions with Ujaama, his Wikipedia entry was being updated almost daily with granular detail about his life.
The entry at one point refers directly to the editor responsible for the frequent updates: “This author is in possession of all court transcripts, sentencing memorandums, and primary documents related to United States vs. Earnest James Ujaama,” the entry read, noting that many of the documents are filed under seal. “Most of what is found on the Internet is piece-meal journalism, speculation or theory, and is outdated,” the entry continued.
I sent Ujaama one final question. “Are you the one writing your Wikipedia entry?” I asked. Ujaama never responded.
April 20 2017, 7:14 p.m.
Find this story at 20 April 2017
Copyright The Intercept
THE NEW TARGETS FBI Stings Zero In on ISIS Sympathizers. Few Have Terrorist Links.<< oudere artikelen
April 25, 2017
Trial and TerrorTrial and Terror
The U.S. government has prosecuted almost 800 people for terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Most of them never committed an act of violence.
˅ EXPAND ALL PARTS
BOSTON POLICE CAPT. Robert Ciccolo was one of the first responders to the Boston Marathon bombings. When his 23-year-old son, Alexander, who had converted to Islam and given himself the name Ali Al Amriki, began telling his father he was “not afraid to die for the cause,” Ciccolo became alarmed. Alexander had a history of mental illness, and his interest in Islam had become an obsession. In October 2014, Ciccolo contacted the FBI about his son.
The federal agents could have monitored Alexander, or perhaps confronted him. Instead, as the bureau does in most such cases, agents launched an investigation. They found Alexander’s Facebook page, listed under his nom de guerre. There was a photograph of a young man in a wooded area wearing a head covering and holding a machete. “Another day in the forest strengthening myself,” the caption read. Another photo on his Facebook page appeared to show a dead American soldier. “Thank you Islamic State!” read the caption.
As part of a sting, an FBI informant contacted Alexander and offered to provide him with guns for an attack. After Alexander collected the weapons on July 4, 2015, FBI agents arrested him and charged him with terrorism-related offenses. As he was being processed at a detention center, he stabbed a nurse with a pen, causing a minor injury. His case made national news, and FBI Director James Comey told reporters that Alexander Ciccolo’s was among several plots related to the Fourth of July holiday that were foiled by counterterrorism agents. “I do believe that our work disrupted efforts to kill people, likely in connection with July 4,” Comey told reporters during a July 7, 2015, briefing.
Alexander Ciccolo is among 63 men and women who have been arrested in FBI stings targeting ISIS sympathizers, according to an analysis of federal terrorism prosecutions by The Intercept.
Demonstrating the evolving threat of terrorism in the United States, alleged ISIS sympathizers are now the primary targets of FBI stings, upstaging Al Qaeda, the Shabab, and all other terrorist groups. The first ISIS case in the United States culminated in an arrest in March 2014, and the number quickly grew. Fifty-eight people were charged in 2015 for alleged ISIS affiliations. In 2016, 32 FBI cases involved ISIS sympathizers, compared to just one each that year involving Al Qaeda and Shabab sympathizers.
But as with earlier FBI stings that primarily targeted Al Qaeda sympathizers, most of the targets of the bureau’s ISIS stings are aspirational, not operational.
In the majority of ISIS stings, targets were not in direct contact with ISIS representatives and did not have weapons of their own, government evidence showed. Instead, these targets were inspired by online propaganda to join ISIS and either made arrangements on their own to travel to Syria or were aided by FBI informants or undercover agents in their attempts join ISIS or plot attacks inside the United States.
BOSTON, MA – JUNE 24: Boston cab drivers rallied this morning before attending a hearing, chaired by Capt. Robert Ciccolo, seen here, with Boston Police Hackney Division at Roxbury Community College regarding a proposed fare increase. (Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) Capt. Robert Ciccolo chairing a hearing at Roxbury Community College. Photo: George Rizer/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
After Alexander was arrested, FBI agents read him his Miranda rights. He then sat for an interview with FBI agents Paul Ambrogio and Julia Cowley.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, he refused to talk about the guns, but he defended ISIS as a just organization, even as he demonstrated his ignorance about the group. The FBI recorded the interview.
“ISIS claimed responsibility, right, for a lot of beheadings?” Ambrogio asked. “There’s someone who names himself Jihadi John and he beheads people, right? He does it in an online way so that people can see it. So what’s your feeling about that? They represent themselves as ISIS; they’re ISIS. What’s your feeling?”
“The people that you see being executed are criminals,” Alexander answered. “They’re criminals. They’re the lowest of the low.”
According to his family, Alexander, a high school dropout, had battled off and on with alcohol addiction. He was also admitted to a psychiatric institution when he was a teenager.
As a child, he went back and forth between the homes of his father, a stern cop who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and his mother, something of a free spirit. Alexander followed in his mother’s footsteps.
“I raised him Catholic; he was baptized Catholic,” said Shelley MacInnes, his mother. “He stayed with his Catholic beliefs for quite a long time. I would say he is a very religious person and very spiritual, but as he got older, I think he started searching.”
Alexander Ciccolo first gravitated toward Buddhism and spent time at the Grafton Peace Pagoda in Petersburgh, New York. In 2012, he and other members of the Peace Pagoda walked around Lake Ontario to raise awareness of the dangers of nuclear power. A photograph from the time shows him wearing a green V-neck T-shirt and holding a handwritten sign that reads: “Peace walk for no more Fukushima.”
Shortly after, he returned to Massachusetts and announced that he would become a Muslim. “One day we were out having dinner, and he went to the bathroom,” MacInnes recalled. “He ran into an imam. … He was so excited. ‘Mom, you’re aren’t going to believe what just happened.’”
Alexander became fixated on Islam and ISIS, and he would talk often with his parents about his newfound beliefs. “He’s always been an investigator, never takes anything at face value,” MacInnes said. “As far as ISIS goes, my personal opinion is that he was investigating the validity of that organization, rather than taking the media’s answer for it.”
Following its sting playbook, the FBI introduced to Alexander an informant posing as an ISIS sympathizer. The informant and Alexander met for the first time in person on June 24, 2015. The young man told the informant that he wanted to travel to another state and use pressure cooker bombs to attack two bars and a police station. Over the course of a week, his plan changed from bombing bars and a police station to attacking a university. He boasted that he knew how to use sniper rifles and had grown up with guns. “I know what I’m doing,” he said.
But Alexander didn’t have any weapons, aside from a couple of machetes. His only would-be bomb components were a pressure cooker purchased from Wal-Mart and some half-made Molotov cocktails.
That’s where the FBI stepped in again. The undercover informant provided Alexander with two assault rifles and two handguns. As soon as Alexander took possession of the guns, FBI agents arrested him, charging him with attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization and attempting to use weapons of mass destruction. He was also charged with being a felon in possession of firearms, owing to an earlier state conviction of driving under the influence.
BRIGHTON — Buddhist nun Jun Yasuda, left, Lauren Carlbon and Alex Ciccolo on their recent peace walk through Brighton. Ms. Yasuda and her fellow walkers are traveling 600 km around Lake Ontario to spread awareness about the dangers of nuclear energy and weapons. July 26, 2012. Alexander Ciccolo, right, along with Buddhist nun Jun Yasuda and Lauren Carlbon, on a peace walk through Brighton, Mass., July 26, 2012. Photo: Dave Fraser/Metroland Media/The Independent
WHETHER OUT OF mental illness, immaturity, or naiveté, Alexander Ciccolo professed support for ISIS, but it’s unclear whether he would have posed a threat had the FBI informant not encouraged him and provided him with weapons. In this way, Ciccolo’s case is prototypical of ISIS stings.
In these cases, the FBI provides encouragement and capacity to otherwise hapless individuals.
For example, in a similar case in April 2016, the FBI arrested a South Florida man who allegedly plotted to bomb a Jewish community center. An FBI informant gave James Medina, a homeless man with a history of making baseless threats of violence, the opportunity. It was in fact the FBI informant who first came up with the idea of crediting their attack to ISIS. Farther north, in upstate New York, Emanuel L. Lutchman, another homeless man, told an FBI informant that he had received directions from an overseas ISIS member and was planning an attack, using a machete and knives, on a New Year’s Eve celebration in Rochester. The FBI’s informant provided the $40 Lutchman needed to purchase the machete and knives.
In other ISIS stings, the FBI has encouraged and helped to facilitate the international travel of would-be ISIS recruits. An example is the case of Jason Michael Ludke, a Milwaukee man who made contact with an FBI undercover employee through social media. The FBI undercover employee, pretending to be affiliated with ISIS, encouraged Ludke and his friend Yosvany Padilla-Conde to join the terrorist group. The pair drove from Wisconsin to Texas, where they were arrested. According to Padilla-Conde’s statements after the arrest, they were under the impression that the FBI undercover employee was going to assist them in crossing the border into Mexico and then traveling to Iraq or Yemen. Ludke and Padilla-Conde are facing charges of material support for terrorists.
The analysis of terrorism prosecutions by The Intercept shows that federal judges have wrestled with appropriate punishments for those convicted of ISIS-related terrorism offenses.
Some defendants who were arrested before they had an opportunity to travel to Syria have received relatively lenient sentences. Mohammed Hamzah Khan, of Bolingbrook, Illinois, was arrested as he attempted to board a flight to Turkey at O’Hare International Airport. He received about three years in prison. Shannon Maureen Conley, who lived in Colorado, received about four years after she was arrested at the airport in Denver, on her way to Turkey.
At the same time, defendants whose support for ISIS consisted of online activity, such as distributing propaganda on social media, have received comparable sentences to, and in some cases more prison time than, defendants who tried to join ISIS on the battlefield. Heather Elizabeth Coffman, of Glen Allen, Virginia, used several social media accounts to communicate with FBI informants posing as ISIS agents. She was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. Ali Shukri Amin, who also lived in Virginia, admitted that he operated a pro-ISIS Twitter account and blog and provided instructions to ISIS supporters on how to use Bitcoin to avoid currency transfer restrictions. He was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
But the most significant prison sentences await those who, like Alexander Ciccolo, moved forward with terrorist plots in the United States, even if it was the FBI making them possible. Christopher Cornell, of Cincinnati, Ohio, plotted with an FBI informant to travel to Washington, D.C., and attack the U.S. Capitol. He was arrested as he was leaving a gun store. After pleading guilty to terrorism-related charges, Cornell was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Lutchman, who was involved in the purported plans to attack a New Year’s Eve celebration in upstate New York, pleaded guilty to material support and received a 20-year prison sentence.
It’s still too early to establish conclusive trends about the sentencing of ISIS defendants in U.S. District Courts. Of the 110 ISIS defendants charged, only 45 have been sentenced.
Yet the arrests of ISIS sympathizers continue at a steady clip, even when the targets of stings have proven themselves to be incompetent ISIS recruits.
An example is Mohamed Rafik Naji, of New York, who attempted five times to travel to ISIS territory but never made it. That’s when an FBI informant, posing as an ISIS affiliate, contacted him through Facebook.
The informant told him that ISIS needed someone to attack Times Square with a garbage truck. “I was saying if there is a truck, I mean a garbage truck, and one drives it there to Times Square and crushes them,” Naji told the informant, repeating the idea. Naji was indicted in November 2016 on a charge of material support for terrorists, the 93rd person to be charged in federal court in an ISIS-related case.
Alexander Ciccolo is now undergoing psychological evaluation; his trial is pending. MacInnes, Ciccolo’s mother, believes he was an impressionable young man manipulated by the FBI and set up with weapons that he never could have obtained on his own. “I don’t think he even knew what his plan was,” MacInnes said.
April 20 2017, 7:15 p.m.
Find this story at 20 April 2017