Could it be the case that Dhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are, in fact, United States intelligence officers seduced into working with jihadist terrorists after going undercover within those terrorists’ networks? According to at least one article by the Israeli-based intelligence and military news blog DEBKAFile, which has since gone viral, the answer is yes:
The big questions buzzing over Boston Bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have a single answer: It emerged in the 102 tense hours between the twin Boston Marathon bombings Monday, April 15 – which left three dead, 180 injured and a police officer killed at MIT – and Dzohkhar’s capture Friday, April 19 in Watertown.
The conclusion reached by DEBKAfile’s counterterrorism and intelligence sources is that the brothers were double agents, hired by US and Saudi intelligence to penetrate the Wahhabi jihadist networks which, helped by Saudi financial institutions, had spread across the restive Russian Caucasian.
Instead, the two former Chechens betrayed their mission and went secretly over to the radical Islamist networks.
By this tortuous path, the brothers earned the dubious distinction of being the first terrorist operatives to import al Qaeda terror to the United States through a winding route outside the Middle East – the Caucasus.
But as any experienced reader of the internet can tell you, just because something appears on the internet, that does not make it true. Many false news stories join the viral rumor mill, and most of them turn out to be either false or based on incorrect information. Nevertheless, many readers of TheBlaze have sent this article to our editors asking us to take a look and see whether there’s any truth to the allegations. TheBlaze has taken a look at precisely that, as well as the website advancing them. The following is what we found:
I. The Source
At first glance, DEBKAFile, the site responsible for this rumor, appears to have an impeccable pedigree, having been founded by two former reporters for The Economist, and claiming that it “has won world-class awards and is frequently quoted in the world media and contemporary documentary literature as a leading authority on geopolitical issues.”
However, a closer look at DEBKAFile’s record reveals that it may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Granted, the site has predicted developments in stories accurately before (for instance, its prediction in 2000 that terrorists would strike the World Trade Center again), but it has also become known (especially recently) for releasing an overabundance of speculation and agenda-driven rumors. In 2007, for instance, the site touched off a bomb scare in New York City by reporting that Al Qaeda had threatened to plant a dirty bomb in the city. At the time, Jewish Journal’s Dan Baron reported this about DEBKAFile:
Critics claim the site, which often relies on anonymous sources, relies on information from parties with an agenda.
“DEBKAfile has frequently promulgated materials put out by rightist elements of the Republican Party, whose worldview is that the situation is bad and is only going to get worse,” Yediot Achronot investigative reporter Ronen Bergman wrote.
Bergman said Israeli intelligence officials do not consider even 10 percent of the site’s content to be reliable, and that the New York alert suggested U.S. authorities are still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
But Shamis and Shalem, both of whom worked for more than 20 years covering foreign policy and intelligence issues for the London-based Economist, have said that 80 percent of what Debka reports turns out to be true.[…]
Debka proceeded on its Web site to slam its critics, complaining of “unbridled, gratuitous assaults on this publication’s credibility from the publications which missed the story, prominently Associated Press, the International Herald Tribune and FoxNews.”
Shalem said the Israeli media in particular “is hostile because we scoop them.”
Like any journalistic enterprise, Debka doesn’t always get it right, Shalem acknowledged, noting the corrections and clarifications found daily in major newspapers.
“What we’re doing is not scientific,” she said. “We specialize in looking a little bit ahead. We don’t claim to be prophets, but we are taking much more of a risk. Most of the time we are justified,” she said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
Now, this last set of claims is especially important. Firstly, while an 80 percent success rate for stories may sound high, it still means that DEBKAFile’s own founders admit that one out of every five stories that DEBKAFile posts turns out to be false. That’s a much higher rate than many other outlets, and the site’s own administrators acknowledge that it happens becuase sometimes they go out on a limb with stories because they like to engage in a bit more prognostication than conventional journalistic websites. That’s fine, but readers should be advised that there may be a bit of a looser fact checking process involved, and thus weight the stories with a little more doubt.
Moreover, the site frequently corrects itself when its angles turn out to be false. As a Wired story from 2001 explains:
Debkafile clearly reports with a point of view; the site is unabashedly in the hawkish camp of Israeli politics and has partnered with the far-right news site WorldNetDaily for a weekly, $120 subscription product.
That slant, combined with Debkafile’s breakneck pace – its eight-person staff updates the site as often as 5 or 6 times per day with terse, one-line tips and sparse news briefs — means it often airs unfounded, inaccurate rumors while breaking legitimate news.
On Thursday at 10:47 a.m. EDT, Debkafile trumpeted in a headline that “U.S. Pentagon Sources Report Siberian Airways Tel Aviv-Novosibirsk Flight Crash Thursday Was Caused by Missile Fired from Russian Ground by Terrorists.”
Mainstream outlets, such as the Associated Press and CNN, shied away from the terror angle when reporting the plane crash. MSNBC said that there may be “indicators” that the flight “might” have been downed by terrorists.
Less than two hours later, at 12:20 p.m. EDT, Debkafile had changed its tune.
Does this mean the story is false? No. Any outlet can, in theory, break a major story, but it does suggest that some doubt and skepticism are called for. And in the case of this story, there are ample reasons to believe that the DEBKAFile story falls into their self-proclaimed “1-in-5 false” category, rather than the “4-in-5” true category.
Why? Read on.
II. The Story
One problem that immediately presents itself when looking at the DEBKAFile story is the lack of named sourcing. There is no way to get in touch with the people DEBKAFile apparently spoke to in presenting this story. In fact, there is no indicator of who they are at all. It only says “counterterrorism and intelligence sources,” which could be almost anyone, including paranoid ex-members of an intelligence agency, or untrustworthy present day operatives, or even perfectly good agents with bad information from untrustworthy sources (as much a problem in intelligence as in journalism, if not more so). As such, there is really no way to verify many of the site’s claims about information that has not been publicly disclosed. The reader is expected to simply take their word on it. In the absence of definitive knowledge of the identity of DEBKAFile’s sources, some readers may be tempted to do this, since without such knowledge, much of the story is not falsifiable.
However, given that there is information that appears to be actually false, or at least misinterpreted to a rather sloppy degree, in the article, this level of trust does not seem warranted.
For instance, the site claims:
The Tsarnaevs’ recruitment by US intelligence as penetration agents against terrorist networks in southern Russia explains some otherwise baffling features of the event:
1. An elite American college in Cambridge admitted younger brother Dzhokhar and granted him a $2,500 scholarship, without subjecting him to the exceptionally stiff standard conditions of admission. This may be explained by his older brother Tamerlan demanding this privilege for his kid brother in part payment for recruitment.
The problem? There’s no evidence that this first “baffling feature” is actually true. That is, the part about a $2500 scholarship is accurate, but the details of how that scholarship were awarded, and why, are completely wrong.
In the first place, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was never, to anyone’s knowledge, admitted to either Harvard or MIT, the two most recognizable elite colleges in Cambridge. The college he did attend, in fact, wasn’t even located in Cambridge, but in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. It is true that Tsarnaev attended the prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, which is a Cambridge-area high school, but there is no evidence that the standards of admission for Cambridge Rindge and Latin School were waived for him. As for the scholarship, it was from the City of Cambridge after Tsarnaev was already a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, and there is no sign that he was unqualified to receive that scholarship, either. His grades in college were, apparently, disappointing, but this says nothing about his grades or record at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. In fact, no source has reported anything about those.
This kind of error suggests one or two things — either the writer of the story didn’t check their information, or the source handing out the information was actively misinterpreting events. Either way, it calls the rest of the story into question.
More to the point, there is a massive logical leap in the story. While it does cite some details that are of interest, for instance the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was interviewed by the FBI in 2011 following a tip from Russia’s FSB intelligence security service, and the fact that the FBI released photos of the brothers asking for details, it then concludes:
We now know this was a charade. The authorities knew exactly who they were. Suddenly, during the police pursuit of their getaway car from the MIT campus on Friday, they were fully identified. The brother who was killed in the chase was named Tamerlan, aged 26, and the one who escaped, only to be hunted down Saturday night hiding in a boat, was 19-year old Dzhokhar.
Our intelligence sources say that we may never know more than we do today about the Boston terrorist outrage which shook America – and most strikingly, Washington – this week. We may not have the full story of when and how the Chechen brothers were recruited by US intelligence as penetration agents – any more than we have got to the bottom of tales of other American double agents who turned coat and bit their recruiters.
Obviously, citing true information that raises questions and then claiming to have the answers to those questions does not make the answers true, especially when the sources for those answers cannot be verified or independently questioned. The fact that the FBI questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev and released him is certainly evidence of administrative incompetence on the part of the FBI at least, and merits further investigation, but just because the FBI did something that appears sloppy does not prove the existence of a deeper story.
Another problem with the article is that it uses examples of previous double agents to try and prove the veracity of its claim in this case, citing double agents like Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed, who offered his service to the CIA while working as a translator for one of Al Qaeda’s leaders. But just because double agents have existed in the past doesn’t mean they exist in this case.
Quite aside from these logical issues with the case presented by the article, there is the basic issue of plausibility. Access to the United States’ clandestine operations is difficult to achieve, and presumably intelligence agents of a high enough caliber to infiltrate terrorist networks are a good deal more experienced than either of the Tsarnaev brothers. Certainly, the idea that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an intelligence agent at just 19 strains belief, and the idea that a 26-year-old Chechen was the CIA’s favored agent to infiltrate terrorist networks in Southern Russia, and that the Saudi government jointly signed onto such an arrangement, is not much better. Moreover, if Tsarnaev were a trained intelligence officer of this level, one wonders why he would leave such a blatant clue as to his true allegiances as he apparently did on his Youtube page. Is it possible? Certainly. However, possible is not probable.
So just to review, this particular story comes from a site that has a history of accepting conjecture, that often posts stories that it later updates when they turn out to be false, whose founders admit that a non-trivial portion of what it posts later turns out to be false. and that has drawn criticism for its alleged agenda-driven reporting. The story itself includes at least one detail that is a misinterpretation of events at best, and an outright falsehood at worst, and relies on sources that cannot be verified.
Is it possible that it’s still true? Yes. Without any further information, should you assume that it’s true? No. Like many rumors, this one is built on questionable facts. Readers should take it, and rumors like it, with a grain of salt.