Home European News What A Missed Terror Warning Says About U.S.-Russian Ties And Putin’s Thinking

What A Missed Terror Warning Says About U.S.-Russian Ties And Putin’s Thinking

What A Missed Terror Warning Says About U.S.-Russian Ties And Putin’s Thinking

In December 2017, just a few weeks before millions of Russians were to begin celebrating New Year’s — one of the country’s most beloved holidays — Russia’s main intelligence agency announced it had foiled an Islamic State plot to kill revelers as they visited prominent attractions in the country’s second largest city, St. Petersburg.

While it was far from the first time the Federal Security Service had claimed it had thwarted a terrorist attack, the announcement was unusual for its acknowledgment of where it got the tip from: the United States.

And the Kremlin even went so far as to note that President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, personally thanked then-U.S. President Donald Trump. A month later, the directors of Russia’s three main intelligence and espionage agencies all traveled to Washington, a highly unusual occurrence.

A similar thing happened just two years later.

These may have been highwater marks in U.S.-Russian intelligence sharing.

Three weeks ago, in early March, a warning about an “imminent” terror plot was transmitted to Russian intelligence agencies. The U.S. Embassy also went public with a warning to American citizens. The warning, which was picked up by other embassies, apparently infuriated the Kremlin.

At a March 19 meeting with security officials, Putin confirmed that Russia had received the intelligence tip — but dismissed it as “outright propaganda” and “blackmail” intended to “intimidate and destabilize our society.”

Three days later, more than 140 people at the Crocus City Hall, an upscale concert venue on Moscow’s outskirts, were killed when gunmen opened fire on concertgoers and then set the venue ablaze. It was worst terrorist attack in Russia in two decades.

For some former U.S. intelligence officers, blame for poor cooperation falls squarely on Moscow’s shoulders: Russian security services see intelligence sharing as an opportunity for strategic and political gain above all else, they say.

Russia’s security services are ““very predatorial. They’re not interested in collaboration, but use such engagements to develop targeting information and to harass,” said Douglas London, a retired senior CIA operations officer who was involved in the December 2017 information exchange.” That’s just the nature of their creed, their business.”

Russian agencies would rather pursue U.S. intelligence help with Kremlin opponents living in the West, labeling them terrorists or criminals, he said.

It’s “misleading” to look at the St. Petersburg success as an indication of the state of the intelligence relationship, he told RFE/RL.

“Daily engagement was never good and it never got better. And anytime a U.S. administration said [the lack of cooperation] ‘doesn’t make sense. We should try harder,’ it just blew up,” said London, now an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Suspicions, Misgivings, Doubts, And Old Habits

Following the Soviet collapse, as Moscow and Washington sought to bury the Cold War hatchet, the two sides sought to encourage a way to share intelligence in an array of areas: terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and cybercrime, among other illicit activities.

Those efforts ramped up after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Putin became the first leader to call the White House and offer Russian assistance in what the United States dubbed the “global war on terror.”

But old habits were hard to break for some Russian officials and officers, particularly hard-liners in the security and military establishment. This includes Putin, a 16-year KGB veteran who headed the Federal Security Service, or FSB, before becoming president.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

That was doubly true where Islamic extremists were concerned. For Kremlin hawks, the war in Chechnya, where Islamic radicals from the Middle East had gained a foothold in the 1990s, was ground zero.

A sore point for the Kremlin was that some Chechen political leaders, and even militants, sought refuge in the United States and Europe. Moscow saw them as terrorists. Washington, not so much.

Russia was plagued by a raft of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in the 2000s. The worst came in September 2004, when Chechen and Ingush attackers seized an elementary school in the southern town of Beslan, holding more than 1,100 people hostage for nearly three days, until the standoff ended in a botched rescue attempt. More than 330 people died, the majority of them children.

Until the March 22 attack on Crocus City Hall, it was the deadliest terrorist attack of Putin’s presidency — and Putin suggested the West was partly to blame.

A decade after Beslan, U.S. intelligence officials complained about a lack of cooperation with their Russian counterparts in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Moscow later acknowledged U.S. and other Western help in preventing attacks.

One bright spot: in 2011, the FSB tipped off the FBI and the CIA about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-born man who, along with his brother Dzhokhar and the rest of his family, received asylum in the United States in the 2000s. The FSB warned that Tsarnaev had embraced radical Islamism and feared he planned to return to Russia to join a militant group.

Two years later, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar set off two homemade bombs during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 281. A three-month FBI background check triggered by the Russian inquiry did not turn up any terrorism links.

A report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General found flaws in how U.S. agencies handled the Russian information, but also pointed out that the FSB failed to respond to a follow-up request by the Americans.

The FSB used to cooperate regularly with FBI counterparts on cybercrime issues. That blew up in 2016, when officers at the FSB’s cyberunit were arrested and charged with treason. Leaks to Russian media suggested the FSB officers were targeted for working with U.S. officials, and a rival intelligence agency may have orchestrated the investigation.

‘Mind-Boggling’ Behavior

U.S. and Russian intelligence services operate on different value systems, seriously complicating cooperation, said Steven Hall, who retired in 2015 after running Russian operations at the CIA.

Russians see intelligence sharing as a “Trojan horse” at times, he said in a 2017 report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Russia understands our Western, optimistic, hope-to-share approach, and will use it to what Putin views as his advantage, in a way the United States and the West would find mind-boggling,” he said.

Putin has reinvigorated Russia’s sprawling military and intelligence apparatus, which includes the FSB as well as the military intelligence agency known as the GRU, the foreign intelligence agency, or SVR, and other entities with overlapping priorities and budgets.

It’s resulted in competition and bitter rivalry, with some agencies undercutting one another as they seek primacy or bragging rights. Corruption is a consistent problem, as is the willingness of some agencies to enlist criminals or organized crime groups.

On several occasions, the two sides would be cooperating on a case when all of a sudden, the Russian side would stop sharing information.

The FBI was “left with the strong sense that the investigation was getting too close to individuals or organizations in Russia with ties to the Russian government,” Hall wrote.

Crocus City Attack

In December 2016, U.S. officials kicked out dozens of Russian diplomats, many believed to be intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, and shuttered two Russian properties allegedly known as intelligence gathering facilities. Russia retaliated in kind.

U.S. officials later concluded that Russian intelligence, with Putin’s approval, had engaged in a sweeping campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Long-simmering tensions over Ukraine erupted in full with the Russian invasion of February 2022, sending bilateral relations plummeting. The United States stepped up sharing military intelligence with Kyiv, some of which has been used to target Russian forces.

Three weeks ago, on March 7, the U.S. Embassy issued its warning about a possible “imminent” attack within 48 hours. The day before, according to The New York Times, a CIA official in Moscow passed along a warning to Russian authorities, along with the details that IS-K, an offshoot of the extremist group Islamic State, was the organizer.

The Crocus City Hall attack occurred about two weeks later on March 22. Islamic State claimed responsibility, and the four men Russia has charged with carrying it out are from Tajikistan, one of the Central Asian countries whose citizens have boosted the ranks of IS-K since its founding in Afghanistan in 2014.

Important for Russian officials was that the public warning by the U.S. Embassy came a week before Russia’s presidential election, in which the Kremlin was determined to ensure a high turnout to help portray wide support for Putin.

“I think the Americans clearly gave this warning in good faith,” said Mark Galeotti, a British expert on Russian security agencies. “I think [Putin] got angry and thought this was, in fact, an attempt by the Americans to rattle Russians before the election.”

“Remember, one of the key Kremlin goals was precisely to ensure that there was a high turnout,” Galeotti said in an interview with RFE/RL. “If people are worried that some place where you cluster together might become a terrorist attack, then conceivably it might have affected turnout. So, I think Putin, imputing on Americans precisely the kind of goals that he might have had, decided to angrily strike back.”

In the aftermath, Putin and FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, along with other officials, have continued to insist that Ukraine, and the United States, had a role to play, despite the absence of evidence.

Bortnikov acknowledged the U.S. intelligence warning but discounted it, calling it “of a general nature.”

“We reacted to this information, of course, and took appropriate measures,” he said on March 26.

Still, on the day that the U.S. Embassy warning went public, the FSB itself announced that it had foiled what it said was a plot by an Islamic State cell to attack a Moscow synagogue.

Intelligence And Disinformation

The United States may have chosen to make the threat public this time around because it was imminent and Washington did not have enough detail that would allow Russian services to foil the attack, London said.

Adding further nuance: a U.S. executive order dating back to 2015 mandates that U.S. intelligence agencies share warnings about possible terror attacks with other nations, even if those nations are adversaries, like Russia or Iran.

On January 4, twin suicide bombings in the Iranian city of Kerman killed 95 people, an attack Islamic State claimed responsibility for.

Three weeks later, U.S. officials said they had provided Iran with advance warning about a possible Islamic State attack inside the country.

The U.S. warning was never confirmed or publicly acknowledged by Tehran.

Another problem that has undermined U.S.-Russian intelligence sharing, U.S. officials asserted, is Russia’s willingness to inject the information with propaganda or outright disinformation.

Russia has pushed the narrative that the United States created Islamic State as a pretext to maintain a presence in the Middle East, London said. That claim has been echoed by Iran’s state-controlled media for years, and even embraced by some Pakistani spy officers.

Glenn Corn, another former CIA agent who served in Russia, argued in a March 26 analysis for the Cipher Brief newsletter that the Russian intelligence claim about Islamic State was also aimed at deepening Moscow’s military presence in Central Asia.

Putin “projects. Everything nefarious [that] he does, he’s assuming we’re doing,” London said.

In a sign that some sort of sharing of classified information continues, Russia’s Interior Ministry on March 28 announced the extradition from the United States of a Russian man who had been accused of abusing his daughter in Florida, where the man lived.

The man was detained by U.S. authorities and extradited to Russia “as a result of interaction between law enforcement agencies of the Russian Federation and the United States.”

RFE/RL correspondents Todd Prince and Mike Eckel reported from Washington, D.C. and Prague, respectively


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