Long before the marathon bombing, Islamists in Massachusetts were helping militants in Chechnya.
- By J.M. BergerJ.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
When Boston Marathon runners rounded the bend from Beacon Street last week, they were in the home stretch of the race. As they poured through the closed intersection, they ran past a nondescript address: 510 Commonwealth Avenue.
The location was once home to an international support network that raised funds and recruited fighters for a jihadist insurgency against Russian rule over Chechnya, a region and a conflict that few of the runners had likely ever given any serious thought.
One mile farther, life in Boston was transformed in an act of horror that killed three and injured scores. And one week later, everyone in Boston and around the United States is thinking and talking and asking about Chechnya.
The investigation into alleged marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is still in its infancy, but a press release issued by the FBI late Friday suggested that at least one of the brothers may have had some kind of connection to Chechen Islamist militant networks, a suspicion heightened by the fact that elder brother Tamerlan spent about six months in Russia in 2012. (The most important Chechen jihadist group has disavowed the attack, but has not unequivocally ruled out the possibility of some kind of contact with Tamerlan.)
It will take time to discover whether there was a militant connection and, if there was, to what extent it is pertinent to the Tsarnaevs’ decision to bomb the marathon.
But if the lead pans out, it won’t be Boston’s first brush with that faraway war. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, Islamist foreign fighters operated robust recruiting and financing networks that supported Chechen jihadists from the United States, and Boston was home to one of the most significant centers: a branch of the Al Kifah Center based in Brooklyn, which would later be rechristened CARE International.
Al Kifah sprang from the military jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Through the end of the occupation, a network of centers in the United States helped support the efforts of Afghan and Arab mujahedeen, soliciting donations and recruiting fighters, including at least four from Boston who died in action (one of them a former Dunkin Donuts employee). When the war ended, those networks did not disappear; they refocused on other activities.
In Brooklyn, that network turned against the United States. The center’s leaders and many of its members helped facilitate the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and they actively planned and attempted to execute a subsequent plot that summer to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels in New York, which would have killed thousands.
When the FBI thwarted the tunnels plot, the Brooklyn Al Kifah office and most of the other satellite locations were shuttered. But in Boston, the work continued under a new name and with a new focus: supporting foreign-fighter efforts in Bosnia and Chechnya.
The following narrative is derived from interviews and thousands of pages of court exhibits, including correspondence, Al Kifah and CARE International publications, and telephone intercepts developed over a years-long series of FBI investigations into the charity that were made public as part of multiple terrorism-related prosecutions.
Established in the early 1990s, the Boston branch had emerged from the World Trade Center investigation relatively unscathed. Little more than two weeks after the bombing, the head of the Boston office, Emad Muntasser, changed his operation’s name from Al Kifah to CARE International (not to be confused with the legitimate charity of the same name).
Telling the IRS it was a non-political charity, CARE applied for and received a tax exemption, but its operations continued as before — supporting jihad overseas with money and men. Although it was heavily focused on the ongoing conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya, its interests reached around the globe to anywhere mujahideen were fighting. As one associate of the group put it in a phone call recorded by the FBI, “As long as there is slaughtering, we’re with them. If there’s no slaughtering, there’s none, that’s it. Buzz off.”
The name change deflected public scrutiny, and while law enforcement monitored the Boston operation for many years, the Justice Department made no attempt to prosecute the organization’s principal leaders until after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Jihadist propaganda and recruiting didn’t begin with the Internet, as it sometimes seems today. CARE’s tactics included dinner speeches and events at local mosques and universities, among them MIT, Boston College, and Boston University, usually slipping them in under the auspices of the local Muslim Students Association, sometimes as part of Friday services. They ran “phonathons” to contact potential donors at home with urgent appeals for generosity.
The charity also arranged public screenings of jihadist videos, long before the advent of YouTube. One letter to CARE supporters promised to “bring to your [mosque] the latest video tape from CHECHNYA showing how Grouznyy [sic] was recaptured by Muslims and how the CHECHENS are struggling to implement the Islamic rule in their land by help of Allah (S.W.T). It will be a fund raising event. For the Donations we have our direct contact to CHECHNYA.”
When the Internet did come along, CARE was an early adopter, using email blasts and websites to further spread its message.
Although CARE was based in Boston, the radical fundamentalists who ran the charity (a mix of American citizens and immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa) were often disappointed with local Muslims, who were not particularly interested in their cause.
“I hate Boston,” said Mohammed Chehade, a director of the Global Relief Foundation, one of the charities through which CARE laundered its money, in a phone conversation with CARE’s directors that was recorded by the FBI in 2000. “Do you know why I hate it? The men are far from each other, far away, it is a trip between one and another. They are busy. I mean, Boston… if someone wants to stay in America temporarily, it is not a place to be.”
In other conversations, CARE’s leaders bemoaned the fact that area Muslims refused to cough up money for the network’s radical speakers, suggesting that they avoid bringing prominent speakers to the city, or at least characterize the trips as something other than fundraising, for fear of an embarrassingly low result.
Nevertheless, one of those jihadist celebrities traveled to Boston on a number of occasions to raise money and the ire of audiences regarding Islamist conflicts in Chechnya and Bosnia. An American-born citizen of Egyptian descent, Mohammed Zaki sported a long red beard and a broad, engaging smile. He inspired fierce loyalty in those he met. One of his comrades described him as “a man whose like is rare nowadays,” telling a comrade, “You will be amazed by him.”
Zaki was involved in several so-called charities that actually helped finance and supply the mujahideen in Bosnia and Chechnya, while creating and distributing a steady stream o
f propaganda to support these efforts.
Based in San Diego, Zaki frequently traveled to Boston to take part in Al Kifah events and fire up crowds with his charisma and tough talk. At one point, a government wiretap overheard Muntasser, CARE’s leader, asking him to fly to Boston “because we are looking for a brother who knows about matters [in Bosnia] to give an inciting speech.”
Unlike some of his peers, Zaki wasn’t just talk. He had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, alongside other American recruits. In 1993 and 1994, he traveled to Bosnia, where he fought alongside the mujahedeen, becoming well-known as “Abu Umar the American.” He also made videotapes of the mujahedeen camps, which he took back the United States to use for fundraising. When foreign fighters began flocking to Chechnya in the mid-1990s to battle Russian forces, Zaki shifted his focus. In a telephone conversation recorded by the FBI in February 1995, he told one of his followers, “Chechnya comes first.”
Zaki recruited a number of Americans to serve as Islamist foreign fighters, as well as coordinating and supporting recruitment in the Middle East. One of the young men he inspired was Aukai Collins, an American convert from an Irish family, who would wage war in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya. Dismayed by attacks on civilians under the pretext of jihad, Colllins returned to the United States in the 1990s and began working with the FBI as an informant.
A number of other American citizens or long-term residents are known to have played roles supporting Chechen jihadists over the years, although the details are sometimes murky. The exact number who have fought with or otherwise been meaningfully involved in Chechen jihadist networks is unknown, but likely runs into the dozens.
In early 1995, Zaki departed for Chechnya himself, telling a friend, “I hope that I will be granted martyrdom this time.” That wish was granted in May, around a month after he arrived. According to his comrades, Zaki was discussing the Quran with his fellow fighters when the class was shelled by the Russians. Zaki was the only casualty.
Struck by shrapnel, he lingered briefly before dying. On his deathbed, he said he had seen the virgins of paradise promised to jihadist martyrs. “They told me I would follow them,” he said. His supporters back in Boston took up collections for his family, a wife and four children left behind in San Diego.
The major recruiting tool for the Boston office was a newsletter called Al Hussam, which translates as “The Sword.” Published in both English and Arabic, the newsletter was stuffed with short, informative news items from various fronts in the global jihad. Bosnia, the most active theater, took up most of the ink, but updates also flowed in from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere. The authors also tried, with less success, to whip up support for Islamic revolts in Saudi Arabia and Libya.
Correspondents in Chechnya communicated with the writers of Al Hussam by phone with reports from the front lines. From time to time, the newsletter would interview prominent mujahedeen commanders and fawningly profile leaders of the movement, such as Shamil Basayev, mastermind of the notorious 2004 Beslan school massacre that left 331 people dead. One flyer distributed by CARE and affiliated charities described Basayev as “a Muslim hero.”
These endorsements came because of, not in spite of, Basayev’s terrorist tactics. In one issue, Al Hussam ran a glowing review of an incident in which Basayev took hundreds of hostages at a hospital. In the same edition, it praised the formation of Chechen “suicide brigades to carry on suicide attacks,” writing “we have to fight evil with evil.” Another issue praised a terrorist bombing attack against a Russian mediator who was trying to negotiate a ceasefire with the mujahideen.
Checks flowed into CARE from individuals around the United States — sometimes just $10 or $50, with the word “Chechen Muslim fighters” or “martyr’s family” scrawled in the memo line. Sometimes individual donations ran into the thousands. The total collected from 1993 to 2003 was $1.7 million, according to the Justice Department.
Once deposited with CARE, the money was laundered through other fraudulent charities, including the al Qaeda-linked Benevolence International Foundation and the Global Relief Foundation, both in Chicago, and sent to front organizations in Bosnia and Chechnya. In total, hundreds of thousands of dollars passed through CARE for distribution to jihadists and jihad-support organizations overseas.
A significant portion of that money — exactly how much is difficult to determine — went to support Chechen Islamist fighters, although CARE International’s books listed the recipients as orphanages and refugees. Individual transfers could be as low as $1,000 but often ran between $20,000 and $30,000. Funds, and occasionally supplies, were transferred to a contact in Chechnya through an elaborate series of middlemen, including individuals in Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The FBI monitored CARE’s activities, off and on, for nearly a decade, but the Justice Department never made an effort to prosecute, in part because prosecuting foreign-fighter activity was difficult under existing laws.
But after September 11, the U.S. government aggressively pursued anything relating to jihadist extremism, including several cases of foreign-fighter support. Just weeks after the attacks, the Justice Department shuttered the Global Relief Foundation and the Benevolence International Foundation, raiding the latter’s offices in Chicago and Sarajevo, where they found extensive evidence of support for foreign fighters in Bosnia and Chechnya, as well as significant links to al Qaeda. They also found checks and receipts from CARE.
It took longer to build a case against CARE. In 2005, prosecutors in Boston went after the charity’s directors using the Al Capone strategy. Muntasser and fellow Boston-area CARE officials Samir Al Monla and Muhamed Mubayyid were charged with filing false tax returns and related crimes, having misrepresented their political and militant activity as relief for orphans and widows in order to obtain a nonprofit tax exemption.
The strategy was not as successful as it was with Capone. The defendants were convicted but received minimal sentences after years of appeals and legal disputes. Muntasser and Al Monla have since been released from prison and are living in the United States, according to public records databases. Mubayyid was deported after a short sentence and was last reported to be living in Australia.
Some of the group’s other associates, linked to al Qaeda, were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder overseas. But many involved in CARE’s operations at various levels were never arrested.
In some cases, people who were involved in supporting ji
hadist activity abroad came to realize after 9/11 that their often well-intentioned support had been used to support terrorism against civilians and against the United States, and stopped participating in the scene.
Others were simply not implicated adequately to prosecute, although they may have played important roles. Not everyone involved with CARE went to jail, but the organization itself had shut down when the IRS and FBI began investigating it aggressively in 2003, and almost no one involved completely escaped scrutiny.
Although the formal network had collapsed, its activism echoed through Boston’s radical scene for years afterward and those echoes persist today.
In 2008, Boston-area resident Tarek Mehanna wrote a widely circulated piece called “The Aafia Siddiqui I Saw” about local residents’ experience with Siddiqui, a former MIT student arrested in Afghanistan and charged with trying to murder U.S. personnel. Siddiqui had been an enthusiastic volunteer with CARE International.
Mehanna himself was convicted of material support of terrorism, in part for translating and disseminating al Qaeda propaganda online, and in April 2012, he was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison.
Today, traffic on Commonwealth Avenue has returned to normal, and the office building that once hosted CARE International is filled with other people — restaurants, an art gallery, residential apartments, and more. The story that unfolded there more than a decade ago will not be remembered as keenly as what happened last week, and rightly so. But Boston’s first encounter with the Chechen jihad holds a place in the history of that event, a reminder that sometimes what happened behind the headlines can have unexpected resonance with the events of the day.