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Boston, Russia and Islamist terror

The alleged Boston Marathon bombers came from the troubled region of Chechnya, in the Russian Caucasus. Security experts are asking whether better cooperation with Russia could have stopped them.

After the extensive investigations, followed by the death of one and ultimate arrest of the other suspect in Boston, it looks as if the brothers identified as Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had ties to Islamic terror groups in their home country. The suspects came from Chechnya in Russia. This possible connection to the North Caucasus could have delicate political implications, about which no politician currently wants to speak publicly in Washington. Behind closed doors, the question is being asked as to whether the entrenched difficulties between the U.S. and Russia have obstructed urgently needed cooperation between the security authorities - and had a devastating impact in Boston.

No hasty conclusions

But Matthew Rojansky, Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, warned against jumping to any conclusions: "We have to be very careful about concluding exactly what their linkages are" he said. "It may be that these are individuals who came to the United States with perfectly legitimate purposes, to study, to work as immigrants. And that they became alienated and radicalized after arriving in the United States."

Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of Boston Marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, speaks to the media (Photo: AP/Jose Luis Magana)

The brothers' uncle Ruslan Tsarni urged Dzhokhar to turn himself in

The Chechen government says that the brothers left Chechnya in childhood, then lived in Central Asia and eventually emigrated to the United States.

Nevertheless, there is the possibility that the two alleged assassins had close ties to Chechen separatist groups in Russia, Rojansky said: "If this is the case, then it makes a lot of sense for the United States to be seeking intelligence, or any useful information the Russians have."

Many open questions

Why the two brothers became radicalized, who worked with them, if there are other undiscovered terrorist cells or if Chechen Islamist terrorist groups have other plans - all of these remain open questions. An uncle of the two suspects, Ruslan Tsarni, confirmed that his nephews were Chechens like himself. "But that has nothing to do with religion," he told German news agency dpa.

US President Barack Obama talks with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a meeting at Putin's home Novo Ogaryovo in Moscow. (Photo: EPA/SHAWN THEW/dpa)

Obama and Putin have not had the best relationship

Despite differences on major policy issues, Russian and U.S. security authorities have worked continuously in important matters, such as terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, security expert Joseph Wippl said in an interview with DW. Yet he believes that action is required: "The major consequence is that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are going to be looking more closely at places like Chechnya and Somalia and other areas that could have been radicalized."

New opportunities for cooperation?

This emergency situation may present the opportunity, as did the attacks of September 11, 2001, to reach out to Russia and to obtain comprehensive information. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed solidarity and publicly condemned "all terrorists" could be a signal that the Russian authorities are ready to open their databases to Americans.

In return, the Americans could offer the Russians, in the case of Syria for example, their reconnaissance data. As a confidence building measure this could have a positive and tension-reducing effect on the US-Russian areas of conflict - not least on the previously widely divergent assessments of militant groups in Chechnya. "It's obviously both: There's an independence movement - or, if it is not an independence movement, then an autonomy movement - but at the same time there is a certain amount of Islamic terrorism involved," Wippl said.

Watch video 01:05

Boston bombing suspect captured

From 2009 to 2012, Americans and Russians addressed bilateral issues that were in their mutual interest pragmatically.

But then, in the prevailing opinion of American experts, the approach shifted to "all or nothing."

In particular, the "Magnitsky Act," passed by Congress in December 2012, poisoned the situation. In the wake of this law, intended to punish Russian officials for violations of human rights, 18 Russians were prohibited from entering the United States.

Does politics prevent exchange of information?

This and the preceding discussion about the suppression of the Russian democratic movement have blocked many things, Rojansky said.

He accuses President Obama of failing to take advantage of the political leeway that he previously had - possibly with disastrous effects on cooperation, including between the security authorities.

"We don't know enough to say for sure that something could have been known if we had been cooperating more closely with the Russians," Rojansky said. "If we learn that there was some type of intelligence sharing that did not happen because of politics but should have happened, then I think we have some very serious regrets and some very serious questions to ask ourselves."

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