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Russia had elder Boston suspect under surveillance

Wednesday - 5/1/2013, 5:31am  ET

EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT In this undated photo provided by the Dagestani branch of the Federal Security Service, the body of William Plotnikov, killed in a standoff with police in Dagestan. Security officials suspected ties between elder Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Canadian, an ethnic Russian named William Plotnikov, who had joined the Islamic insurgency in the region. Russian agents placed Tsarnaev under surveillance during a six-month visit to southern Russia last year, then scrambled to find him when he suddenly disappeared after police killed a Canadian jihadist, a security official told The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Dagestani branch of the Federal Security Service via NewsTeam)
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LYNN BERRY
Associated Press

MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) -- Russian agents placed the elder Boston bombing suspect under surveillance during a six-month visit to southern Russia last year, then scrambled to find him when he suddenly disappeared after police killed a Canadian jihadist, a security official told The Associated Press.

U.S. law enforcement officials have been trying to determine whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev was indoctrinated or trained by militants during his visit to Dagestan, a Caspian Sea province that has become the center of a simmering Islamic insurgency.

The security official with the Anti-Extremism Center, a federal agency under Russia's Interior Ministry, confirmed the Russians shared their concerns. He told the AP that Russian agents were watching Tsarnaev, and that they searched for him when he disappeared two days after the July 2012 death of the Canadian man, who had joined the Islamic insurgency in the region. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.

Security officials suspected ties between Tsarnaev and the Canadian -- an ethnic Russian named William Plotnikov -- according to the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which is known for its independence and investigative reporting and cited an unnamed official with the Anti-Extremism Center, which tracks militants. The newspaper said the men had social networking ties that brought Tsarnaev to the attention of Russian security services for the first time in late 2010.

It certainly wouldn't be surprising if the men had met. Both were amateur boxers of roughly the same age whose families had moved from Russia to North America when they were teenagers. In recent years, both had turned to Islam and expressed radical beliefs. And both had traveled to Dagestan, a republic of some 3 million people.

The AP could not independently confirm whether the two men had communicated on social networks or crossed paths either in Dagestan or in Toronto, where Plotnikov had lived with his parents and where Tsarnaev had an aunt.

After Plotnikov was killed, Tsarnaev left suddenly for the U.S., not waiting to pick up his new Russian passport -- ostensibly one of his main reasons for coming to Russia. The official said his sudden departure was considered suspicious.

Plotnikov's father told the Canadian network CBCNews on Monday that his son had broken off contact when he returned to Russia in 2010 and he had no way of knowing whether his son knew Tsarnaev.

In an August interview with the Canadian newspaper National Post, Vitaly Plotnikov said his son, who was 23 when he died, had converted to Islam in 2009 and quickly became radicalized. But he said he fully understood what his son was up to in Russia only when he received photographs and videos after his death.

In one photo, a smiling William Plotnikov is shown posing in the woods, an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder and a camouflage ammunition belt around his waist. In the videos, which the National Post reporter watched with the father, the younger Plotnikov talked openly of planning to kill in the name of Allah.

Plotnikov had been detained in Dagestan in December 2010 on suspicion of having ties to the militants and during his interrogation was forced to hand over a list of social networking friends from the United States and Canada who like him had once lived in Russia, Novaya Gazeta reported.

The newspaper said Tsarnaev's name was on that list, bringing him for the first time to the attention of Russia's secret services.

Novaya Gazeta, which is part-owned by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and wealthy businessman Alexander Lebedev, has regularly criticized the Kremlin. One of its best known reporters, Anna Politkovskaya, angered the Kremlin with her reporting from Chechnya, and her 2006 murder in a Moscow elevator was widely presumed to have been in connection with her journalistic work.

The Islamic insurgency in Dagestan grew out of the fierce fighting between Russian troops and separatists in neighboring Chechnya that raged in the 1990s. Attacks now are carried out almost daily in Dagestan against police and security forces, who respond with special operations of their own to wipe out the militants.

As recently as Sunday, two suspected militants were killed in a shootout after being cornered in a house in the Dagestani village of Chontaul, according to police spokeswoman Fatina Ubaidatova.

Plotnikov was among seven suspected militants killed on July 14 during a standoff with police in the Dagestani village of Utamysh, according to the official police record.

After Plotnikov's death, Russian security agents lost track of Tsarnaev and went to see his father in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, who told them that his son had returned to the U.S., Novaya Gazeta said.

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