Opinion: What happened when CIA tried to work with the Russians to fight terror

Editor’s Note: Douglas London served 34 years as a CIA operations officer, multiple times as a Chief of Station and ended his career as the agency’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia. London is author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East and Global National Security Institutes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

American officials have been warning of the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISIS-K) aspiration to conduct external attacks and likely capacity to strike the United States within six months since the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021. But neither Russian leader Vladimir Putin nor Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov made any mention of the Islamic State after the terror group claimed responsibility for the March 22 concert hall attack that left 143 dead.

Douglas London - CBC
Douglas London - CBC

Rather, both blamed the attack on “radical Islamists,” with Bortnikov adding that it was “of course aided by Western services,” accusing Ukraine, the US and Great Britain of facilitating the attack.

As reported in 2018, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo welcomed Russia’s three principal intelligence chiefs to CIA headquarters for counterterrorism discussions. Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR, then-Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) Chief Igor Korobov and Bortnikov all participated. But at the agency, we understood Pompeo’s motive was to appease former President Donald Trump, who rejected the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election; the director had a mission to win over Trump by meeting almost every morning at the White House.

At the time, I was the CIA’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia, responsible for ISIS-K. Following the Washington meetings, Pompeo ordered my office to send a team of analysts who studied the Islamic State to Moscow for the beginning of what the director hoped would be a continuing dialogue.

In response to shared concerns about the Islamic State’s external capabilities, Pompeo reasoned that the Russians would be eager for help facing the threat of Central Asian ISIS members returning home from Syria and Iraq with newly acquired skills, battlefield experience and extensive jihadist networks.

The CIA would not permit me to explicitly address the behavior of our Russian interlocutors, nor what they provided. But I can say it was consistent with, if not indeed worse than, how several former colleagues captured Trump’s initiative for a 2020 Washington Post opinion piece, when they said that “the effort to foster (counterterrorism) cooperation proved a failure. The Russian side never provided meaningful intelligence or information.”

The Russians have, however, produced and spread disinformation about ISIS. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul put it plainly, noting that Russian state-controlled media and bloggers had propagated the myth that the US founded the Islamic State under former President Barack Obama. Trump famously echoed the same falsehood publicly made by Russian and Iranian officials.

Russia knows it has a terrorist problem, despite its deflection and spin to preserve Putin’s image, but his priorities are elsewhere. Terrorism is not an existential threat to Putin’s rule. Such a regime-endangering threat could be a cascading set of crises owing to his war against Ukraine that may spark the critical mass of long-repressed fear, anger and wanting change into a popular uprising that overwhelms his security forces.

And Putin believes some of his own rhetoric, tending to project his own behavior onto others. In late 2017, the US quietly shared actionable intelligence that enabled Russia to thwart a planned Islamic State attack in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, critical information sharing that Putin acknowledged by praising the CIA and personally thanking Trump.

On March 7, the US Embassy in Moscow made a public announcement, owing no doubt to its possession of credible albeit limited detail, concerning an “imminent” extremist threat in Russia. While the US shared such awareness with Russia in advance of the public announcement, Putin believed he was being set up for embarrassment and failure because he thought the US was providing a deliberate lack of detail on the threat and short timeline to act on the warning.

Although the US and Russia share a common enemy, they do not share the same circumstances, calculus or capabilities. The Islamic State is better positioned to organize more complex operations in Russia and across Central Asia, like the team of gunmen who attacked the Moscow concert and set fire to the hall.

ISIS is more likely to hit US targets abroad and take aim at the homeland by inspiring lone-wolf attacks. And the political consequences for the US from any attack would be more severe than those faced by Putin, for whom there’s a net gain.

Russians have no outlet for public outrage and Putin has shown with this and previous incidents that he can leverage his massive information enterprise to spin events to his advantage. On the other hand, he understands that Western leaders will be distracted from addressing Russian aggression by dealing with the internal political consequences of such attacks on their home soil.

Russian intelligence also suffers from systemic failings in recognizing, penetrating and dismantling terrorist cells, failings that stem from doctrine and a deliberately stovepiped structure that obstructs information sharing and agility. The Russian security apparatus applies the same scorched-earth tactics to intelligence as its military does on the battlefield. Patience, subtlety and stealth is not the FSB’s style, nor is implementing a hearts-and-minds outreach to win the trust of Muslim and Central Asian Russian communities.

Russians are likely to buy into the Kremlin’s spin about the country’s Muslim communities supported by images of FSB raids, some of which have been shared on social media. Pressure and theater are more expeditious than cultivating relationships, albeit inefficient, but do produce metrics on suspects detained or killed, misleading as they might be concerning the true impact of these operations.

FSB officers will coerce, threaten and intimidate potential sources with diminishing returns that will only fuel ISIS-K recruitment and fundraising, which is no doubt seeing a surge from its Moscow attack. Russian intelligence will be left to depend on the unwilling, ill-informed or duplicitous.

Operating in Russia, where Central Asians are ubiquitous, often speak the language and can blend in, provides valuable operational advantages for ISIS-K. And the terror group’s operatives can come and go on daily regional flights as well as from across the Middle East and Turkey, the gateway to Syria.

According to Turkish officials, at least two of the Moscow attackers were in Istanbul not long before traveling to Russia for the attack, moved freely between the two countries and boarded the same March 2 Istanbul-to-Moscow flight. ISIS-K can also look for support from an indigenous Muslim and Turkic-speaking population bearing the brunt of military conscription to fight in Ukraine. ISIS-K’s Central Asians will have a more challenging time just securing US visas and overcoming screening procedures if they choose to attack here in the US, especially those coming from Turkey and the Middle East.

Central Asians have long held key ISIS leadership positions. At the Islamic State’s height, Tajik Gulmurod Khalimov commanded its Iraqi capital of Mosul. Prior to May 2015, Khalimov led a special police branch under Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry and received training in both Russia and the United States in this role.

In 2016, the Islamic State’s minister of war was Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, better known as “Omar al-Shishani” and “Omar the Chechen.” Batirashvili was a Georgian national with a Chechen background, who fought the Russians in Georgia as an army sergeant. He and Khalimov were both killed in US airstrikes.

After conveying warnings to Iran of ISIS-K’s January 3 Kerman attack, which killed 95 people in twin bombings, and then announcing in advance the group’s plans to attack Russia, it stands to reason that US intelligence has something to offer even nations with whom Washington does not have warm relations in the interest of combating a common enemy. But Putin does not think like most Americans, nor do Iran’s rulers, something American political leaders seem unable to appreciate.

Washington’s extension of olive branches has reaped negligible intelligence returns and little influence on such Russian behavior as the Kremlin’s March 2018 attack against former Russian intelligence officer turned British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, coming on the heels of Pompeo’s outreach.

The US certainly has reason to worry about ISIS, as does Russia, but to different degrees. Practical reasons, apart from the legal “duty to warn” requirement and ethical considerations, will compel us to share knowledge even with adversaries because successful terrorist operations anywhere facilitate influence, fundraising and recruitment that these groups will likewise use against us. But doing so requires open eyes, regard for our sources and methods and overcoming the mistake of applying American logic to Putin and his intelligence services.

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