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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US charges Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston Marathon bombing


The United States on Monday charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, with perpetrating the bombings of the Boston Marathon last week.

Tsarnaev, recovering from gunshot wounds sustained in a police chase that killed his brother and accused accomplice, was formally charged and advised of his rights in his Boston Beth Israel-Deaconess hospital bed, by US Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler. In the presence of three federal defense attorneys,  Tsarnaev nodded affirmatively when asked by the judge if he understood the charges and his rights, and said “no,” when asked if he could afford an attorney, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Tsarnaev, a naturalized American of Chechen descent who has been in the United States since he was 9 years old, was charged with the use of a weapon of mass destruction, and malicious destruction of property resulting in death, according to the 10-page federal complaint (.pdf). The charges, if proven, carry a penalty of life imprisonment or, if a jury decides, the death penalty. Additional charges could be added as the investigation proceeds.

The twin bombs, made of pressure cookers and dropped in backpacks near the finish line of the marathon April 15th, killed three people, including an 8 year old boy, and wounded over 200, some of whom were severely maimed.

Reports over the weekend pieced together from interviews with relatives and associates of the Tsarnaev family in North America and Dagestan, Russia, described Dzhokhar as a smart, seemingly well-adjusted and popular teenager, a former captain of his Cambridge high school wrestling team, who was until last week a college sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. However, his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed in a police shoot out early Friday, had a more troubling path and was described as growing increasingly alienated and extreme. Once a talented boxer, Tamerlin quit the sport, dropped out of community college in 2008, got arrested for assaulting a girlfriend in 2009, and was thrown out of his Cambridge mosque twice in the past year for outbursts denouncing the sermons as being “un-Islamic,” the Boston Globe reported.

In 2012, Tamerlin traveled to Dagestan, Russia for six months, as well as to Chechnya, to visit relatives, according to media interviews given by his father, Aznor Tsarnaev. Whether Tamerlin possibly made contact with jihadi radicals on that trip is a focus of US terrorism investigators now. Other accounts, including from a paternal uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, suggest Tamerlan’s radicalization began in Boston, starting years earlier.

Though accounts generally describe Tamerlan as the presumed ringleader of the plot and Dzholkhar as the loyal brother dragged into it, the federal complaint offers a chilling description of Dzholkhar’s behavior on videos the FBI obtained from the scene of the marathon bombings.

After the first explosion went off on Boston’s Boylston street last Monday afternoon, “virtually every head [in the crowd] turns to …that direction in apparent bewilderment and alarm,” the affidavit states.

But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “virtually alone among the individuals in front of the restaurant, appears calm,” the affidavit continues. “He walks away without his knapsack… Approximately 10 seconds later, an explosion occurs in the location where Bomber 2 [Dzhokhar] had placed his knapsack.”

Meantime, the FBI said Saturday that in early 2011 it interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and members of the family at the request of a foreign government, subsequently identified as Russia. The Russian government said it had information that Tamerlan had become “a follower of radical Islam” and “had changed drastically since 2010” as he “prepared to leave the United States and… join unspecific underground groups” in Russia, according to the FBI press release.

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Texas man pleads guilty in plot to assassinate Saudi envoy

A former Texas used car salesman pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring in a plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to the United States.

Mansoor Arbabsiar, 58, a naturalized American from Iran, pled guilty to three counts, including soliciting a murder for hire scheme, and conspiring in a terrorism plot against the United States. He could face twenty-five years in prison and will forfeit his assets.

Arbabsiar was charged last year wth conspiring with four members of Iran’s Qods force-among the, his cousin-in a bizarre plot to recruit members of a Mexican drug gang to blow up a Washington restaurant frequented by the Saudi envoy, Adel al-Jubeir. The plot came on the radar of federal authorities after Arbabsiar attempted to seek the help in Mexico, in May 2011, of a man fhe thought to be a member of the Zetas drug cartel. That man turned out, however, to be a paid informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Federal terrrorism investigators were allegedly monitoring Arbabsiar when he wired $100,000 to the DEA informant in the summer of 2011, as the downpayment for the alleged hit job, for which he had agreed to pay $1.5 million.

Iran’s mission to the UN last year called the allegations ‘baseless,’ and several outside observers have found the details of the allegedly thwarted plot far-fetched.

But in a demonstration of how seriously top US officials have viewed the case, Arbabsiar’s guilty plea was announced Wednesday by a half dozen top US law enforcement chiefs, including Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and DEA chief Michelle Leonhart.

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Rabbi linked to US lawmakers questioned in Israel graft probe


Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a charismatic rabbi with a large and influential following in New York, has been questioned in Israel on allegations that he tried to bribe a senior Israeli police investigator, Israeli media report Friday. The deepening legal scrutiny of Rabbi Pinto in Israel comes as his former top aide appeared in federal court in New York Friday, amid an FBI campaign finance probe of a congressman accused of pressuring Rabbi Pinto’s followers for illegal campaign donations.

Pinto is alleged to have been caught in a sting offering a senior Israeli police investigator a $200,000 bribe for information concerning a money laundering investigation, Ma’ariv reported.

Rabbi Pinto was questioned Thursday by Israeli police “on suspicion of having tried to bribe chief of the Police Investigation Division Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Bracha,” Maariv’s Avi Ashkenazi reported.

“Escorted by detectives and wearing a wire, the officer, [Bracha], received $100,000 in cash from Pinto, in exchange for which he was to provide information about the investigation into Hazon Yeshaya, a charity organization,” Maariv wrote.

Pinto’s attorney told the paper the rabbi has cooperated in answering the police’s questions and has done nothing wrong.The rabbi and his wife have been released to house arrest in Ashdod, Israel to answer additional questions, reports said.

Rabbi Pinto, 38, has developed an influential following in both Israel and the United States, and has close ties to US lawmakers. In August, the FBI arrested the rabbi’s former top aide, who had worked as a fundraiser for New York Congressman Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island). Al-Monitor reported in August that the top seven donors to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s 2008 campaign were from members of Rabbi Pinto’s congregation.

Ofer Biton, the former aide to Rabbi Pinto and fundraiser for Grimm, had a status hearing in his case before US District Court Judge Roslynn Mauskopf Friday, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York told Al-Monitor Friday.

Biton also informed the court Friday that he has retained a second defense lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, who used to be the US attorney in the district.

Biton, arrested on an immigration fraud charge in August, was released to house arrest last week after a former business partner of Grimm’s put up his $1.5 million bail.

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Was video director Nakoula an informant?

Much about the case of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the alleged director of the anti-Islam video, doesn’t add up.

For instance, federal prison records show that Nakoula was released from prison for bank fraud in late June 2011. Yet he was shooting the film that was made into the video that has provoked violent protests across the Middle East just one month later, in July 2011, according to a Craigslist casting call and reported interviews with actors who worked on the low-budget film.

Law enforcement officials, speaking anonymously, also seemed suspiciously quick to ID Nakoula as the filmmaker behind the video, when so many aspects of the video’s provenance are murky.

Criminal records also show that Nakoula had served two other prison sentences, one following his arrest in 1997 for intent to make methamphetamine, and a later one in 2002 for violating the terms of his probation. But much about how those cases remains murky.

Journalists Christine Pelisek and Michael Daly, writing at The Daily Beast, raise the theory, was Nakoula an informant?

Nakoula’s lawyer is not returning phone calls or responding to emails, but it seems reasonable to wonder if Nakoula’s case was not part of this investigation. One question that bears asking is whether Nakoula helped persuade the feds that the drug money was going to Muslim extremists. He is a Coptic Christian. […]

In the court file for the second case, Indictment CR09-00617, the records regarding the plea deal are sealed. That can be construed as another indication that Nakoula had previously been an informant. His lawyer is not responding to calls or emails regarding this, either.

In a case where so little of the official story adds up, this theory seems plausible.

Queries to Thom Mrozak, spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles about the Nakoula case by Al-Monitor were not answered.

NYPD opens Kfar Saba, Israel branch

The New York Police Department has opened a branch in Kfar Saba, Israel, Ma’ariv reports, in a translation published on the front page:

The New York Police Department opened its Israeli branch in the Sharon District Police headquarters in Kfar Saba. Charlie Ben-Naim,  a former Israeli and veteran NYPD detective, was sent on this mission. …

Behind the opening of the branch in the Holy Land is the NYPD decision that the Israeli police is one of the major police forces with which it must maintain close work relations and daily contact. …

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Top seven donors to Eric Cantor 2008 campaign followers of Rabbi Pinto

An influential Orthodox rabbi whose former aide has been arrested in a federal campaign finance probe has ties to one of the most powerful members of Congress: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, I reported on the front page Thursday.

Indeed, further examination of federal campaign filings by Al-Monitor Saturday indicate that the top seven donors to Cantor’s 2008 campaign are followers or associates of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, an Israeli-born mystic rabbi who has acquired a devoted States-side following since he moved to New York in 2005, including among real estate developers.

Together, the group of close Rabbi Pinto associates that made up Cantor’s seven top donors in 2008 gave about $330,000 to the Virginia Republican–almost 10% of the $3.9 million total Cantor raised for the 2008 race. None of them are from Virginia, and some had not previously given to US political campaigns.

Josef Ben Moha, of New Jersey, donated $48,100 to Cantor’s Victory Fund on April 11, 2008–his only campaign donation in US records. Moha is listed as managing director of the company, Livono (or Livorno) Partners, whose CEO Ben Zion Suky donated $48,100 to Cantor’s 2008 campaign on the same date. Suky serves as the “right-hand man…. translator, gatekeeper and conduit to the outside world” for Rabbi Pinto, the Forward reported last year. He also owns property with Rabbi Pinto’s wife, as well as a porn DVD distribution business.

Haim Milo Revah, of California, donated $48,100 to Cantor on April 21, 2008. “When Haim Revah, a real-estate magnate who once owned the Lipstick Building where Bernard Madoff was a tenant, brooded about purchasing the Bank One tower in Dallas two years ago, the rabbi [Pinto] suggested a maximum bid that proved to be the winning price: $216 million,” the Wall Street Journal reported in February 2011, citing Revah: “I don’t know how the rabbi did it, but at the end of the day, it was the best price possible.”

Haim Binstock, and his wife Gallya Binstock, together donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on October 31, 2008. (It was one of only two Haim Binstock campaign donations in US records, following a $300 contribution to the NRCC in 2004.) Binstock’s business partner Ilan Bracha, and his wife Mati Bracha, also donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on the same date, campaign filings show.

In 2008, “Bracha, one of the city’s top-selling residential brokers, and his partner developer Haim Binstock paid $1.65 million” to buy a ground floor space in Manhattan’s the Heritage at Trump Place that “they plan to donate …for [a synagogue for Rabbi Pinto’s] use,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Bracha, “also from Israel, met Rabbi Pinto shortly after moving to New York and struck up a close relationship,” the Journal report said. “‘He’s like a mentor and a father to me,” Bracha told the Journal in 2008 about Rabbi Pinto. ‘He has a red phone to God.'”

Rep. Cantor, the second most powerful member of Congress, is also one of its most successful fundraisers. Since the 2009 party-switch of then Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Cantor is also the only elected Jewish Republican in Congress. Continue reading

Why has so much been revealed about how US/Saudi intel foiled the AQAP bomb plot?

Details are still emerging about the alleged role of an undercover mole in foiling a plot by Al Qaida’s Yemen branch to bomb a US-bound airliner.

But along with the details about the US-Saudi intelligence coup comes the question: why would American officials be seemingly so forthcoming with the methods involved in the highly sensitive counter-terrorism operation, given the threat posed by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is hardly over.

Among the details that have emerged in gripping reports from the Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times among others the past two days: that an apparently Saudi intelligence mole infiltrated AQAP, volunteered for the suicide mission; delivered the sophisticated, metal-free bomb composed of military-grade explosives and sewn into underwear, to the US via the Saudis/UAE;  provided information that allowed the US to target AQAP’s chief of external operations Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso in a drone strike Sunday; and that the Saudis may have several other informants in place inside the terror organization’s Yemen branch.

“Of dozens of AQAP fighters with Saudi backgrounds, ‘at least five or eight of them are undercover’ working for the Saudi service at any point,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing a Middle Eastern official. “’The Saudis have always had a network’ of sources in Yemen, the official said. ‘Now they are expanding its objectives.’”

Former FBI terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt suggested that US officials probably decided to offer more details on the foiled plot only after it was clear the press already had them and was going to report them.

“My instinct is they said as much as they did because it was going to be exposed [in the press] … and they wanted to get ahead of it,” Levitt, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in an interview Wednesday.

The FBI has opened a leak investigation into the disclosures to the press about the foiled AQAP plot, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Perez reported Wednesday: “A person familiar with the investigation said the probe, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been under way for days.”

Levitt said the rather extensive details exposed in press reports, especially concerning the alleged role of Saudi intelligence in infiltrating AQAP, is liable to cause the CIA some real headaches or worse in placating allied Arab intelligence services, which tend to be very discreet.

“I have had calls from people expressing that this is not going to please foreign parters; ‘loose lips sink ships’ and all that,” he said.

Once the operation was going to be exposed in the press, however, he mused, Washington may have resigned itself to “spinning it so that we can inflate ourselves as much as we can,” in the eyes of AQAP, in order to stoke paranoia, fissures and insecurity in the group, he said.

Recently released documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound show that bin Laden thought the US had capabilities beyond what it may have, he noted–microchips, etc..

“It’s clear the enemy does think we are capable,” Levitt said. “At a certain point, we may want to encourage that.”

As to the infiltration operation that reportedly led to the US acquiring AQAP’s latest bomb prototype and to the killing in a drone strike of Quso, Levitt said the achievement “is pretty big.” And he added, we still don’t know all the details of what the US has learned from the operation.

UPDATE: More on this from the Boston Globe’s Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS official, who wonders if a turf battle over control of US CT policy in Yemen explains the leaks:

…What’s worse, the story may not have been the result of a deliberate decision by the Obama administration, but rather prompted by leaks from lower-level officials. That would be a symptom of bureaucratic competition for leadership of the next phase of the fight against Al Qaeda. ….

 

Now, there should be an independent investigation of who, at what agency, was so loose-lipped about a covert mission, and the White House should embrace it. If the leaker was at the CIA, he or she has not only tarnished the agency, but undermined some of the most important tactics that can be used against a flexible enemy.

Turf battles are common, especially in times of transition from one government strategy to another. But rarely do turf battles make someone so easily forget who the real enemy is.

(Photo of Saudi fugitive Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri as seen from a Yemeni police handbook of the most wanted terror suspects. A Saudi bombmaker believed to be working with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing is suspected of designing the bombs used in at least three attempts to bomb US-bound airliners. REUTERS/Yemeni Police/Handout.)