When defense officials from Russia, the U.S. and Israel met for an unprecedented trilateral summit in Jerusalem recently, it was in large measure another attempt by U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put into practice their long-running belief that Russia will help them deal with Iran and perhaps other counter-terrorist issues in Syria.
As usual, the Russians refused - this time in rather direct language, rejecting point-blank the idea that Iran is "the main threat to regional security," declaring rather that it was "contributing a lot to fighting terrorists," lauding its "stabilizing" effect in Syria and reiterating that Tehran "was and remains our ally and partner."
Their slap down seems to have made no difference, judging by the statement afterwards that all parties remain committed to finding "a way to make [Iran’s departure from Syria] happen." Netanyahu declared that "security cooperation between Russia and Israel has already contributed much to the security and stability of our region."
Finding common interests with the Kremlin on counterterrorism is a recurring notion in Western policy, and a commonly heard idea these days especially in Israeli official statements. But events in a Moscow courtroom last week underlined why Vladimir Putin’s regime will never be a reliable partner.
The Russian court case relates to a terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg metro on 3 April 2017 that murdered 14 people and wounded 50.
By the testimony of the investigative committee, reporting the day after the atrocity, this was a suicide-attack by a 22-year-old ethnic Uzbek named Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, who had moved to Petersburg in 2011 from the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan. CCTV images given to the press "show a young man in a red parka…carrying a rucksack walking through a metro station," which Moscow says is Dzhalilov.
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The prosecution’s case is that one of the men initially arrested in Moscow, Abror Azimov, like Dzhalilov a naturalized Russian from Kyrgyzstan, led the attack cell, training Dzhalilov in terrorist techniques. This training was financed by the other suspect arrested in Moscow, Akram, Abror’s brother, who received money from an Al-Qaida group in Syria, which handed over the cash to Akram in Turkey. The Azimov-led cell is said to have been planning a follow-on attack somewhere in Russia.
The Al-Qaida group in question was named as Katibat Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ), an Uzbek jihadist unit within the Al-Qaida derivative Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The Petersburg attack is said to have been guided by the Syria-based KTJ emir, Sirozhidin Mukhtarov, better known as Abu Saloh al-Uzbeki.
Al-Nusra/HTS has been implicated in planning several foreign attacks. It appears to allow Al-Qaeda to operate unhindered in territory it controls. Al-Qaida officially claimed the Petersburg attack on 25 April, 2017.
But there’s a problem.
In the two years since the attack, every single detail offered by the state prosecution has been called into question, including the identity of the suicide bomber - or if there even was a suicide bombing at all.
First, the ostensible Al-Qaida claim of responsibility is, as The New York Times noted at the time, distinctly odd. It was claimed in the name of the "Imam Shamil Battalion," a never-before-heard-of Al-Qaida faction, and the statement was published on Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI), "a website...associated with Al-Qaida’s branches in Africa [that] is not a normal venue for the terrorist group’s claims of responsibility from elsewhere in the world," as the Times explained.
Moreover, the claim was dated 18 April, yet a week later had not been picked up by the jihadist media ecosystem.
Next, the Islamic State has - twice - heavily implied that it bears responsibility for the Petersburg attack. Guided IS attacks in Russia are not unknown, and - with a small handful of exceptions from late 2017 - ISIS’s outlets have been essentially honest about which attacks the group is responsible for. Interestingly, Dzhalilov’s younger brother was told by authorities his elder sibling was suspected of having ISIS links.
Then there is Abror Azimov’s early statements that he "was involved, but not directly" in the Metro attack. Denying the state’s claim he had confessed to organizing the attack, Abror acknowledged being "given orders" on an encrypted app, but said: "I did not understand that I was taking part in terrorist activity.”
The Azimovs’ family insisted to The Washington Post that the brothers have been set up by the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency. By their account, Akram was abducted from a hospital in south Kyrgyzstan, mistreated, and brought to Moscow, where his arrest was staged.
(A similar claim is made by Mukhamadyusup Ermatov, whom the FSB says had explosives in his home in Moscow: he says he was arrested in St. Petersburg shortly after the attack, tortured in a basement for several weeks, and only in May 2017 taken to Moscow, where his arrest was staged.)
The mother of another defendant, Makhamadyusuf Mirzaalimov, also categorically denied his involvement in court, saying he had dreamed of joining the Russian army, wasn’t even religious enough to know how to pray properly, and had agreed with her after the bombing that whoever had committed it was damned.
The families might be expected to say this, but they’re backed up by Arkady Dubnov, an independent Central Asia analyst with no connection to the case, who is based in Moscow, where his views come with risks. So, when Dubnov tells the Post that there are only "fake details of an investigation and staged arrests" to tie any of the men in custody to terrorism, he has to be taken seriously.
Ten of the defendants denied involvement in the Petersburg attack when entering their pleas in April 2019, and Shokhista Karimov, the only woman arrested, claimed that authorities planted a grenade in her bag.
As far-fetched as this might sound, worse has happened in Western states with far higher degrees of transparency and judicial independence than Russia, notably with the infamous Croatian Six case in Australia, when malevolent intelligence agencies combine with state authorities to ensure they frame the suspects they want.
All of which brings us to the proceedings in a district military court in Moscow on Tuesday, 2 July.
The oddities began with the logistics. Three FSB operatives, purportedly those involved in arresting the suspects and collecting the evidence, were not in the court and were not even visible on the video-link; the judge dismissed defense requests for proof of the men’s identities.
When the defense was questioning the first FSB officer, Maxim Ivanov, it was noted that Ivanov was answering word-for-word from the case file, when he claimed that he was giving his own testimony off-the-cuff. The defense lawyer asked about a rustling sound - clearly papers that Ivanov was reading from. Immediately, the prosecutor demanded the question be struck from the record, which the judge upheld.
Perhaps the most flatly bizarre moment came when a defense lawyer asked Ivanov a question that has come up since April 2017: "Is [main suspect Akbarzhon] Dzhalilov still alive?" Ivanov’s answer was striking: "I cannot answer that question."
The next FSB officer on the stand was Alexey Voronin, in charge of bringing Ermatov in. Voronin claimed to be unable to remember essentially anything, from when Ermatov was arrested to what the weather was like that day.
The judge refused defense appeals to enforce some order, since these claims of a lack of memory made a mockery of proceedings - though the judge did whir into action to strike a facetious question about Voronin needing to be assessed for amnesia.
The last FSB man questioned was Pavel Muskatov, ostensibly the official responsible for the arrest of the Azimov brothers. His memory was much better, until he was asked about the claims that Akram was actually arrested earlier, in Osh rather than Moscow, held for weeks in a basement where he was tortured, and then moved by plane to the Russian capital.
He seemed surprised at the existence of any Russian "secret prisons," which triggered laughter from the public prosecutor. The judge did not press for a fuller response.
The trial has now been interrupted multiple times, once after Karimov fell ill on July 10, prompting the court to call an ambulance, and earlier, when Ermatov became ill on the witness stand after reportedly being held in solitary confinement, postponing the proceedings as an ambulance was called to the scene.
It is unarguable that something is not right with the Russian state’s version of events, and the more one looks the more it seems conceivable that everything is not right. So, what is going on?
It has to be recognized that the independence of Russia’s courts is highly qualified, and that is especially true in cases that involve either the political leadership or anything to do with terrorism. As such, events in the courtroom in such cases are geared towards the imperatives of the Kremlin, rather than getting at the truth.
While discerning exactly what these interests are is impossible - the Russian security services are a notoriously closed book - some trendlines can be glimpsed.
The demonization of Central Asian migrants amidst the economic downturn served its own purpose of rallying sentiment around the Russian government. But the use of the migrants to present as large a conspiracy as possible, extending outside Russia’s borders, served several other purposes, too.
One immediate political motive to the rapid appearance of the claim that KTJ guided the plot from abroad through encrypted apps was to abet the FSB’s campaign to restrict the independence of the online space. The Kremlin’s claim came days after the creator of Telegram had mocked the Russian government’s threats to block his program.
The KTJ dimension is also very helpful to Moscow in its effort to shape a narrative where its intervention in Syria can be presented as a prudent counterterrorism measure, rather than an act of aggression provoking what would be called terrorist "blowback" if it had happened to a NATO country.
There are then more general factors. The rapid arrests - particularly in such an ostensibly vast plot - help to make the security services look capable. Simultaneously, these arrests and the publicly-announced scope of the terrorists’ designs helps foster a sense of instability and threat, particularly when tinged with foreign and alien elements, that seeks to justify to Russians the more heavy-handed domestic tactics of the government .
Given the above, the Russian government’s oft-made argument that it is a natural counterterrorism partner for the West is deeply troubling.
The head of CIA counter-terrorism after 9/11 noted that Moscow is "always in the 'receive mode'...but [is] generally reluctant to offer much in return" when it comes to terrorism. This problem has persisted, as Russia’s behavior around the Boston Marathon bombing showed, where it withheld all kinds of information about one of the key perpetrators despite active U.S. requests.
But what is most important, if there’s to be what Netanyahu calls "security cooperation," to promote - rather than undermine - Western national security interests, is the basic capacity to trust what little information the Kremlin provides.
That is obviously impossible, as the Kafkaesque proceedings in the Petersburg case, among many other examples, demonstrate.
Kyle Orton is a British researcher focused on Syria. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy and The Telegraph. Twitter: @KyleWOrton
Oved Lobel is a Russian linguist and policy analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC)