Tsarnaev Conspiracy Central

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In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, some members of the Tsarnaev family resolutely refused to accept the charges against the two brothers, and hinted at dark official conspiracies. I know exactly why they are so suspicious.

Please understand, I do not personally accept any allegations of official conspiracy in this affair. In my view, law enforcement agencies acted as bravely and efficiently as they possibly could against two truly dangerous terrorists. But here's the problem. Over the past twenty years, the independence struggle of the Chechens and neighboring peoples of the North Caucasus has involved ferocious violence, frequently directed against innocent civilians. Throughout, this has been an ugly and confusing clandestine war, marked by repeated acts of deception and provocation. Russian forces assuredly have engaged in false flag actions, seeking to blame atrocities on rebel forces. Chechens naturally assume that American agencies follow the same tactics.

However poorly reported in the West, the scale of terrorism resulting from this Caucasian conflict has been horrendous. If the United States or a European ally suffered such carnage on a regular basis, we would be wondering if the nation in question could escape total collapse.

As the Russians tried to suppress the insurgency, so Caucasian forces -- usually Muslim -- took the war to the enemy, carrying out mega-terror attacks on Russian soil. Among the worst incidents, we think of the terrorist takeover of a Moscow theater in 2002, which killed 130 hostages, in addition to forty militants. In 2010, two women suicide bombers killed forty commuters on the Moscow subway. The following year, forty civilians perished in the bombing of Moscow's Domodedovo airport. Suicide bombers have also brought down airliners. Most notoriously, the Islamist seizure of a school in Beslan (North Ossetia) in 2004 killed almost four hundred, including two hundred children. And those ghastly "spectaculars" were just the tip of a very large iceberg of continuing murderous attacks.

In most cases, there is no reason to doubt the attribution of blame, particularly when actions were publicly claimed by terror leaders like the monstrous Shamil Basaev (who was probably assassinated by Russian forces in 2006). Sometimes, though, attributing responsibility is close to impossible.

The most troubling such incident occurred in September 1999, when huge bombs detonated in apartment blocks in the Russian cities of Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buynaksk. Three hundred innocent civilians died, most of whom were sleeping in their beds. (Other simultaneous attacks were planned, but prevented). Popular fury about the atrocity gave an enormous boost to the new government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This patriotic upsurge gave the Russian state the justification it needed for a renewed offensive in the Caucasus. The resulting conflict -- the Second Chechen War -- lasted a decade and killed perhaps a hundred thousand.

As the apartment bombing story developed, though, it became still more sinister. Government critics noted implausible elements in the official account, and they noted the highly convenient timing of the crime, just as the regime needed an excuse to renew its war effort. These suspicions were further publicized when billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky fell out with the Putin government, and used his wealth to promote a media campaign denouncing the official version. Berezovsky's propaganda war against Putin ended this year when he died in England, the victim of a highly controversial apparent suicide. Another prominent advocate of official conspiracy in the apartment bombing case was intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, who also died in England, murdered by exposure to a rare radioactive isotope. British law enforcement and media have widely attributed the Litvinenko murder to the Russian government.

Although the apartment bombing case remains the most controversial, it's not hard to find activists who accuse the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, of covert involvement in virtually all the major terror attacks in recent years.

The notion of false flag provocateur terrorism might seem like gross paranoia, but it has been a well-known intelligence strategy through the years, and one highly familiar to Russia. In its modern form, the method was largely devised by Pyotr Rachkovsky, who served as head of overseas operations for the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. Later Soviet agencies like the KGB imitated their Tsarist predecessors enthusiastically, and the FSB has inherited much of the old KGB world-view. (Putin himself served as a KGB officer for sixteen years).

False flag actions have various goals. At the simplest level, an intelligence group might set up a front organization to allow the perpetration of a violent act in such a way as to escape responsibility -- in other words, to achieve deniability. Alternatively, an agency can carry out an outrage in a way that places the blame on some hostile group or nation, so that this enemy will be stigmatized. In extreme cases, an outrage might even justify a military response or a declaration of war.

The clandestine structure of terrorist groups makes such false attribution easy enough. Hypothetically, imagine a situation in which Russian agents have penetrated the command structure of a hostile terrorist movement, such as a Chechen Muslim group. A low-level operative receives an order to carry out an act and obeys it, knowing nothing of the real purpose he is serving. Truthfully, then, we could say that the actual crime was the work of a Chechen group and a Chechen terrorist -- but the orders came from Moscow. As English thriller writer Eric Ambler observed, the important thing is not who fires the shot, what counts is who pays for the bullet.

Matters become still shadier when we think of the clandestine underworld of rogue intelligence agents and would-be spooks, double agents and independent contractors, lone wolves and petty criminals, any of whom would carry out the bloodiest atrocity if sufficiently well paid. In some cases, neither intelligence agencies nor terrorists might be entirely sure who actually orchestrated a given attack.

The more widely conspiracy charges circulate in a society, the harder it becomes to accept any act at its face value. An intelligent or well-informed person will respond suspiciously to virtually any official statement or attribution of responsibility. And that is why some people around the world, however improbably, will always regard the Tsarnaev affair as a manifestation of American manipulation and dirty tricks.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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