Associates of Allakhverdov family puzzle over ‘Misha’ claims

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A red-bearded, Armenian-Ukrainian immigrant described by some relatives as a mentor to the elder suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings has told the New York Review of Books that he was not Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s teacher, and has been fully cooperating with the FBI.

Mikhail “Misha” Allakhverdov, 39, born in Baku, Azerbaijan of an Armenian Christian father and Ukrainian mother, moved with his family to the United States about 15 years ago, associates said.

He converted to Islam in the United States, he told the New York Review of Book’s Christian Carlyl, in an interview Sunday from his elderly parents’ West Warwick, Rhode Island home.

“I’ve been cooperating entirely with the FBI,” Allakhverdov told Carlyl. “I gave them my computer and my phone and everything I wanted to show I haven’t done anything. And they said they are about to return them to me. And the agents who talked told me they are about to close my case.”

Mikhail, in the brief interview, did not deny knowing Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the slain elder suspect in the April 15th Boston bombings, but said he had not seen him for a few years.

“I wasn’t his teacher,” Allakhverdov told Caryl. “If I had been his teacher, I would have made sure he never did anything like this.”

The Allakhverdov family–father Yuri and mother Lidiya, sons Sergei and Mikhail–moved to the United States in the 1990s from Ukraine where they lived for a few years after fleeing anti-Armenian violence in Azerbaijan. Sergei, an historian, was seeking a publisher for an atlas of hand-drawn maps of the ancient world, he told an Armenian diaspora newspaper in 1999.

Mikhail Allakhverdov is listed with his brother Sergei as an officer of a Massachusetts nonprofit corporation called the Educational Organization for Improvements in Historical Studies, Inc. A telephone number listed for the company at a Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts address was no longer in service Monday.

Gennady Napadensky and Victoria Poupko, a Massachusetts couple from the former Soviet Union, who are listed as professional associates of Mikhail’s older brother Sergei, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview Monday that as far as they knew, Sergei was an atheist and the family was of Armenian Christian descent. Mikhail, they thought, converted to Islam after his immigration to the United States.

Gennady Napadensky told Al-Monitor he met Sergei about eight years  ago when he was looking for an historian and found him through a Russian bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts.  They formed a company that produces digital interactive maps.

Victoria Poupko, Napadensky’s spouse and a former Northeastern University math professor who has worked as a human rights activist on behalf of persecuted ethnic minorities from the former Soviet Union, said she believes she met Mikhail Allakhverdov only once several years ago.

An activist on behalf of Chechen refugees, Poupko, of Russian Jewish descent, said she saw Mikhail in a car with a Chechen once, but she did not know who it was.

Azerbaijan brutally expelled ethnic Armenians like the Allakhverdov family after Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh voted in a referendum in 1988 to join Armenia. Subsequently, many Chechens fled to Azerbaijan in the 1990s during the Russian wars against Chechen unrest, Poupko said.

Sergei Allakhverdov-Amatuni (as the brother spells his names in some official listings) is also listed as a director of a Massachusetts non-profit, the Transitional Assembly for Peace and Democracy in Chechnya, Inc. Registered in 2003, the group lists as its president Salman Masayev (or Musayev), who has subsequently appeared in media reports as the deputy head of the Caucasus Muslims Organization, based in Baku, Azerbaijan. 

Nadezhda Banchik, a California-based human rights activist for persecuted former Soviet minorities who is a friend of Poupko’s, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview Monday that she does not know the Allekhverdovs, though she is listed with Sergei Allekhberdov-Amatuni as an officer in the Transnational Assembly. (She thought the group’s listed president Musayev might have been a Harvard student of Chechen descent who later returned to the region. Poupko later said she met Sergei through Musayev, who introduced him as a doctor-professor.)

Banchik noted, in a telephone interview, that the Boston Marathon bombings occurred a few days after the US publication of the Magnitsky list, and suggested that it was strange, if Russia had suspicions about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, that it did not arrest him when he was there for six months in 2012. Similarly, Russia has reportedly shared with the US in the past week alleged recordings of intercepted  phone calls from 2011, in which the suspects’ mother Zubeidat Tsarnaeva is alleged to have “vaguely” discussed jihad. But Zubeidat returned to Dagestan, in southern Russia, in 2012 from where she has given dozens of interviews in recent weeks. Russian authorities have apparently not found her of enough concern to detain her, Banchik noted.

The Russian-speaking diaspora in Boston, much of it Jewish, turned far less sympathetic to the plight of the Chechens after the Beslan school massacre and Moscow theater bombings, said Vladimir Napadensky, who is listed as an associate in the map company his father and Sergei created. He said he did not know Mikhail, and said of Sergei, only, “he makes maps.”

Sergei Allakhverdov described his family’s complicated ancestral geography in a 1999 interview with an Armenian American newspaper about his atlas of maps, for which he was seeking a publisher.

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Former CIA officer: ‘Absurd’ to link uncle of Boston suspects, Agency

20130427-162019.jpgRetired CIA officer Graham Fuller confirmed to Al-Monitor Saturday that his daughter was previously married to an uncle of the suspects in the Boston Marathon attacks, but called rumors of any links between the uncle and the Agency “absurd.”

Graham Fuller’s daughter, Samantha A. Fuller, was married to Ruslan Tsarnaev (now Tsarni) in the mid-1990s, and divorced in 1999, according to North Carolina public records. The elder Fuller had retired from the agency almost a decade before the brief marriage.

“Samantha was married to Ruslan Tsarnaev (Tsarni) for 3-4 years, and they lived in Bishkek for one year where Samantha was working for Price Waterhouse on privatization projects,” Fulller, a former CIA officer in Turkey and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, told Al-Monitor by email Saturday. “They also lived in our house in [Maryland] for a year or so and they were divorced in 1999, I believe.”

“I, of course, retired from CIA in 1987 and had moved on to working as a senior political scientist for RAND,” Fuller continued.

Fuller said his former son in law was interesting but homesick, and moved back to Central Asia after the divorce.

“Like all Chechens, Ruslan was very concerned about his native land, but I saw no particular involvement in politics, [although] he did try to contact other Chechens around,” Fuller continued. “He also felt homesick and eventually went back to Central Asia after the divorce. His English was shaky. (We always spoke Russian together).”

A story on the Internet implying “possible connections between Ruslan and the Agency through me are absurd,” Fuller said.

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Yemeni’s testimony on US drones strikes chord in Washington


Last week, Farea al-Muslimi, a US educated Yemeni youth activist and writer, wrote about what it was like to have his village attacked by US drones, on his Twitter account @almuslimi and at Al-Monitor.

Today, after al-Muslimi’s powerful testimony before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday about the experience, the White House invited al-Muslimi to talk with them too, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports:

Before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.

“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. […]

Still, it’s a dramatic change from the last time al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy, came to Washington. In September…al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another…while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones.

At the Senate hearing Tuesday, al-Muslimi warmed up the room by saying he’d spent some of the happiest years of his life attending high school as an exchange student in California, and considered himself upon his return as a kind of US “ambassador” to Yemen. So our ambassador was upset and horrified, he said, when, sitting at a dinner with American diplomat friends in the capital Sanaa last week April 15th, he started getting calls and texts from people in his remote village of Wessab, a nine-hour drive away. A missile from a US drone had killed a man who village residents told him they had no idea would be a US target, and who could have been easily arrested without endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.

“Just six days ago, this so-called war came straight to my village,” al-Muslimi told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil and Human Rights Tuesday.

“For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States,” al-Muslimi explained. “They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: ‘Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?'”

America’s policy of remote, targeted killings is causing psychological terror and anger that is turning people in his village and country against the United Sates, our ambassador to Wessab warned.

The Obama White House did not send an official to testify on the panel, which was chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. However, another witness who had been active in the Obama administration’s first term national security debates, former Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, did attend, and went to shake al-Muslimi’s hand at the conclusion of the hearing, Ackerman reported.

And in the wake of his testimony, al-Muslimi is being sought by the US media for interviews, following stories on his testimony in the New York Times, Wired, etc. (Apparently deluged with the requests, al-Muslimi on Wednesday tweeted out the email address of a US media handler.) He’ll appear on NBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night.

“The US needs to hear someone who looks like him and sounds like him and has his background say what he is saying,” Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But I am not terribly optimistic that it will make much difference,” Johnsen added. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Why is al-Muslimi’s reception in Washington this time so much more resonant than the gloomy trip he described to Ackerman last fall?

It’s hard to know. Certainly Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster put the issue of the White House’s secretive drone policy on a wider public radar. Perhaps at some level too, some here may be wearily mulling, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon (on the same day as the drone strike in al-Muslimi’s village), the perplexing identity of the suspects in the senseless terrorist attack–two brothers of Chechen descent who had been in the US for a decade. For whatever reason, at the moment anyhow, Washington seems newly ready to at least listen to what an articulate, ostensibly US-friendly person on the other geographical end of US drone strikes has to say, and to ponder whether they are the high-tech, low-hassle solution for counterterrorism without boots on the ground, or contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of terrorists we may yet face. Ambassador al-Muslimi seems to have nudged the debate, if only he could offer the White House a better alternative.