Pentagon mum on anything Chechnya today

Boston’s not the only thing on lockdown. Inside the Pentagon, lips are as sealed as Watertown. How concerned is the Pentagon about terrorism in Chechnya? How much has the U.S. military kept eyes on the conflict there? What about expatriate radicals who associate with the region and may be influenced by or connected to the ...

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Boston's not the only thing on lockdown. Inside the Pentagon, lips are as sealed as Watertown.

How concerned is the Pentagon about terrorism in Chechnya? How much has the U.S. military kept eyes on the conflict there? What about expatriate radicals who associate with the region and may be influenced by or connected to the conflict?

Did anyone in the Pentagon see this coming? 

Boston’s not the only thing on lockdown. Inside the Pentagon, lips are as sealed as Watertown.

How concerned is the Pentagon about terrorism in Chechnya? How much has the U.S. military kept eyes on the conflict there? What about expatriate radicals who associate with the region and may be influenced by or connected to the conflict?

Did anyone in the Pentagon see this coming? 

Good questions, all of which nobody in the Pentagon is willing to answer.

On Thursday, the United States awoke to wall-to-wall news coverage reporting that police had killed one of the two suspected Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and that his brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was on the run. 

Their distraught uncle faced a bank of news cameras and said the family moved to the United states roughly 10 years ago from Kyrgyzstan, where the older brother was born. The younger brother was born in Dagestan, a Russian region near Chechyna, where anti-Russian separatists have engaged in a violent conflict for years. 

Quickly, the social media world linked the brothers to Chechnya.

From the New York Times: "The brothers have substantial presences on social media. On Vkontakte, Russia’s most popular social media platform, the younger brother, Dzhokhar, describes his worldview as "Islam" and, asked to identify "the main thing in life," answers "career and money." He lists a series of affinity groups relating to Chechnya, and lists a verse from the Koran, "Do good, because Allah loves those who do good." 

Defense Department officials on Friday denied several E-Ring requests to hear from officials who could explain the U.S. military’s current and past concerns about Chechnya or Chechen-related terrorism outside of the region. The E-ring asked just for some basic background facts, unrelated to Boston manhunt, but instead received a firm "no comment" from a DOD spokesman who cited the ongoing law enforcement manhunt in Boston.

DID BILL BURNS WARN US?

To get a sense of how the United States has struggled to approach the Russian-Chechen conflict, read this long 2006 State Department cable, obtained by WikiLeaks and published by the Guardian, in which Deputy Secretary of State William Burns writes, "Is There a Role for the U.S.?"

Burns, who was U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time, argued that the U.S. ability to influence Russia in the region "is small." Instead, he felt the United States should convince key top Russians that their policies only fueled terrorism.

"What we can do is continue to try to push the senior tier of Russian officials towards the realization that current policies are conducive to Jihadism," Burns wrote.

Burns called for the United States to delicately employ European allies to keep talking with Putin, while the State Department found a way to get aid into Chechnya without making the Kremlin look bad.

Then Burns gives a prescient warning: Without Russian help, the conflict likely would worsen, and spread.

"But we must be realistic about Russia’s willingness and ability to take the necessary steps, with or without our assistance. Real stabilization remains a low probability. Sound policy on Chechnya is likely to continue to founder in the swamp of corruption, Kremlin infighting and succession politics. Much more probable is a new phase of instability that will be felt throughout the North Caucasus and have effects beyond."

"He is right. That was a brilliant post," Eric Lohr, director of the Initiative for Russian Culture and associate history professor at American University,, told the E-Ring.

"I’m not sure it took people by surprise that something of this nature might come out of that region, Lohr said,  "not necessarily in Boston or New York or America but there certainly were worries about this spreading beyond Russian borders."

Lohr feels the United States has paid close attention to the conflict as a national security issue since the Burns cable, and particularly since the Obama administration’s attempted "reset" with Russia. "My sense is this has been on the radar screen for quite a while."

Security in the region has worsened since the Burns cable, as has corruption and unemployment under the thumb of "brutal" police and jihadist influences moving north. 

"The disintegration of the situation in Dagestan over the last few years, I think they were worried that this chaotic situation gives [terrorists connected to al Qaeda] a place out of which to operate."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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