"I Hope I Didn't Contribute To It" (Part II)
In last week’s issue, we published a piece by Mark Ames entitled "'I Hope I Didn't Contribute To It': Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's High School Mentor Works For The CIA. His Uncle-In-Law Did Too." The "mentor" in the subtitle, Professor Brian Williams, was quick to respond, calling the piece “amusing, conspiracy-laden, totally fallacious”.
While we stand completely behind the piece, it's NSFWCORP policy is always to offer an unedited and un-truncated right to reply to the subject of our pieces. Here then is the Professor Williams' original email, my reply, and his lengthy response to Mark Ames' piece. Mark's comments on the correspondence can be found at the bottom.
You might want to send this one to Instapaper.
Professor Brian Williams writes…
Re: recent amusing, conspiracy-laden, totally fallacious article in your publication about me
It was with a mixture of utter contempt and bemusement that I read the rant you have currently posted on your website about me. Let me clear up a few mistakes in the essay. I am actually Full Professor not Associate Professor, a fact that can be found on my website.
Second of all I was never Dzokhar's "mentor" as the article stated. He sent me an email asking about Chechnya. I was up to my neck in my own work and responded by sending him a copy of the syllabus for my class on Chechen History. I was too busy with my own work to devote any focus on a student from another institute. I wish I'd had more time but I am busy. To criticize me for responding to his email inquiry is to criticize me for teaching. Should I not inform Irish students about their rich history for the fear they may join the IRA? In your article you further state; "What stands out here is that Williams taught Tsarnaev a version of events that, while perhaps true or truer than other versions, is nevertheless highly debatable and most likely exaggerated."
I could not do all this teaching of events in one email wherein I merely sent a syllabus (although I do believe the Soviet NKVD-KGB when they tell us that they killed one out of every four Chechens in a genocidal deportation in 1944). I don't think accounts of the Chechen, Jewish, Armenian, Crimean Tatar genocides are ever exaggerated, they are usually played down by deniers. Are you are genocide denier then?
And by the way Necons, whom I disdain, do not support Chechen separatism. They lump all Chechens and other Muslim insurgents (including Palestinians) into the same Al Qaeda bag as you do. Your fallacious article further states:
"Williams just completed a book about the Chechnya independence struggle that will be published next year — it's called "Inferno in the Caucus: The Chechen insurgency and the Mirage of Al Qaeda" which makes the poorly-timed point that Chechen separatism is not in any way linked to terrorism."
You will be very disapppointed when you read the book and find that is actually all about the origins of Chechen terrorism. It systematically analyzes major terrorist events such as the Beslan school hostage taking incident or the Budyenovsk Hospital taking incident. It however demonstrates that Chechen terrorism is home grown (like say Hezbollah or Hamas terrorism) and is not a subplot of Al Qaeda's jihad against the US. This is not a particularly shocking statement. A perusal of my website will reveal such as articles as Shattering the Chechen Al Qaeda Myth which systematically demolish the notion ' that Chechens are AL Qaeda. Some of them may be terrorists but they are not in league with Bin Laden. I in fact have an entire article on how foreign jihadis came to Chechnya available on my website had you bothered to do your basic research. See for example Allah’s Foot Soldiers An Assessment of the Role of Foreign Fighters and Al-Qa‘ida in the Chechen Insurgency." Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. London; Routledge. 2007.
The following is just made up, a flight of imagination:
"Oddly enough, professor Williams claimed he never met Dzhokhar in person, despite mentoring him through his Chechnya project and communicating with him on numerous occasions via email when he was in high school..." Where does this "communicating numerous times" come from? Or "mentoring him through his project"? This is a flight of fancy to fit your make believe story. It never happened.
This is even richer:
"Instead, according to professor Williams' HuffPo article, the FBI popped by on a Sunday to tap his expertise — on suicide bombers and Chechen radicals. They came to learn, not to question. And what he taught them was simple: Chechens aren't terrorists. Only other Islamic jihadists are terrorists — but not Chechens, April 15-19th notwithstanding."
Contrary to this blatant made up lie (was your author in the room with us?) I spent hours going over various Chechen jihadi terrorists backgrounds with the FBI who I have worked with in other contexts before. As to point
1) I agree that President Mashkadov of Chechnya (look him up) instituted Shariah law in 1996 as you state
2) I agree that Chechens trained in Afghanistan and wrote the most in depth account of it in my article listed above with link
3) This point is bullshit, CIA analysts I worked with know better. Khattab ran his own outfit that competed with Bin Laden's. No one but a dilletante could conflate the two. Read my article to learn more about their competing relationship. This statement is pure ignorant dross
4) Rumsfeld said there were Chechens in Afghanistan (the same guy said there were atom bombs and other WMDs in Iraq??!) so that makes it so?! Please.
5) the agency france piece you quote actually came from my own article on Shattering the Chechen Al Qaeda myth, I mocked it! If Chechens are indeed, as your article states all over the place in Afghanistan, how come not one has ever been captured and sent to Bagram prison or Gitmo? Not one photographed, interrogated, etc. Do you know anyone who speaks their language to interrogate them (let me guess you don't know the name of the Chechen language, Nokchi) By the way the Jamestown Foundation's only link to the CIA is that I once worked for the Agency on Afghan suicide bombers (I found no Chechens) and I also publish articles with them on occasion. I also publish with numerous other think tanks, none of which are linked to CIA!
You further state:
Professor Williams is also known as a leading expert on the Saudi Chechen rebel leader/terrorist, Khattab, the most obvious link between Chechen rebels and Al Qaeda. But because Khattab also confined most of his killing to Russians, civilians and military alike, Professor Williams' expert opinion on Khattab was that he wasn't a terrorist."
Of course Khattab was a terrorist, but he was primarily a front line fighter against Russians engaged in state sponsored terrorism and genocidal assaults. He was NOT AL Qaeda and no one at CIA thinks he was. God your article was drek. Where to begin? I can't believe I wasted half an hour of my life responding to this alternative universe mythologizing you have created.
This is not journalism, its sensationalistic infotainment at its worse. You should have had the courage to interview me directly or read the articles on my website about jihadi terrorism emanating from Chechnya or asked about the actual topic of my book (the origins of Chechen terrorism etc). If you have an ounce of courage or decency (which I doubt) you will post this rebuttal in its entirety.
Brian Glyn Williams
Professor of Islamic History
Paul Carr responds…
Dear Professor Williams,
Thank you for your response to Mark Ames' piece. Of course we'd be very happy to run it in full. Will send you a link as soon as it's published.
Brian Williams replies…
Thanks for getting back to me and for your gracious offer to publish a response. Perhaps I could do something a little more polished to you that goes little deeper into my research?
Full response from Brian Williams…
Conspiracy Theories, Sensationalizing, Myth Making….and Outright Bullshit. A Response to Mark Ames’ “I Hope I Didn’t Contribute to it.”
It cannot be said I’ve lived a dull life and didn’t have Ames’ hack piece from out of the blue coming to me. Having spent two summers living with the larger than life Afghan warlord General Dostum (aka the “Taliban Killer”) while writing my recent book on him titled The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime; having advised Scotland Yard on Chechen links to Al Qaeda while teaching at the University of London; having defended Bin Laden’s driver in Gitmo as an expert witness in the first military tribunal since the Nuremberg trials in Post World War II Germany; having spent time in the Pashtun tribal zones of Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding while researching my book Predators. The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda; having worked for the US Joint Information Operations Warfare Command where I wrote their field manual on Afghanistan recently published in a civilian version as Afghanistan Declassified; having served as advisor to NATO in Afghanistan; having worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center tracking suicide bombers in Afghanistan; having interviewed Kosovo Albanian rebels; having defended a terrorism suspect falsely accused of links to Al Qaeda in the Canadian Supreme Court; and having been contacted by one of the Boston bombers years ago, I was bound to raise some eyebrows. Sooner or later somebody would say that my ‘fieldwork’ was rather unusual for a history professor at a New England university and try to make something conspiratorial out of it.
Prior to this, I have been attacked by the left and the right for my various appearances in the media and have taken it with a grain of salt if not outright bemusement. The loonies on the right and left seem to come out of the woodwork and I never know where the attacks are going to come from when I am in the news.
But I never expected the flight of fantasy that appeared in Mark Ames’ recent column “I Hope I Didn’t Contribute to it” which seems to make the rather convoluted case that because I worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center and, years later, Dzokhar Tsarnaev one of the Boston bombers, briefly contacted me wanting to learn more about my Chechen history class at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth that I was somehow culpable in the bombings. Or that the CIA and every think tank in DC I have ever worked for is somehow tied to the bomber. Even in this world of 9/11 deniers on the left and those on the right who believe the US actually found WMDs in Iraq this article was a conspiracy theory bonanza par excellence.
Simply put, most of the bizarre claims made in Mark Ames’ recent article range from fallacious, to hype, to what can only be described as lies (I have never in my career made that bold accusation before). Please indulge me while I patiently walk you through Mark Ame’s article and point out its numerous, how should I put this delicately, divergences from reality and the truth.
First of all to my interaction with bomber. I was contacted by Dzohkar Tsarnaev via email over two years ago asking for information on Chechnya. I was teaching a class on Chechnya at the time wherein I explored the historical roots of the tragic wars that have swept this small country which sought independence from Putin’s Russia. In this class my students read several books on Chechen history, explored the roots of their terrorism against Russia, analyzed Russia’s state sponsored terrorism against the Chechens which has cost them tens of thousands of lives, explored Josef Stalin’s genocidal assault on the Chechens which cost the Chechens one fourth of their population in 1944, and systematically debunked the misguided notion that Chechen resistance to Russia and terrorism against Russian civilians is a subplot to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s war on the distant USA.
In my class I demonstrated that the roots of Chechen terrorism are actually traceable to the 19th century brutal Russian conquest of their country. Just as Palestinian terrorism is tied to their defeat by the Israelis in 1948 and 1967, Chechen terrorism is dateable to their 1861 defeat and defeat in the recent war. Neither terrorist group is a part of Al Qaeda. Both insurgencies and terrorist movements are about lost land/independence and predate the creation of Al Qaeda in Pakistan in 1988 (both the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Chechen jihadi terrorists of course wrap their struggles in the banner of Islam). Nothing really controversial here, although many people who are ignorant of the Chechens or their ancient highlander struggle with Russia mistakenly conflate them with the Arab Wahhabi fundamentalist terror group Al Qaeda which wanted US bases out of Saudi Arabia (a completely different goal than that of the Chechens who want Russia out of their homeland). In a post 9/11 climate I understand that any Muslim with a gun and grievance can be construed by the uninformed as an American-hating “Al Qaeda/Taliban,” nuances and specificities be damned. Those who probe these murky issues must be “liberals” or “sympathizers of the terrorists.”
In this context of this class, I did not hesitate to send Dzhokhar Tsarnaev my syllabus for my course when he contacted me so he could read such classics as Khassan Baiev’s The Oath. A Surgeon Under Fire (the best book in the world for understanding Chechens because it is written by an actual Chechen doctor. It tells his story of fulfilling his Hippocratic Oath by treating both Chechens and Russians during the recent wars and being wanted by the Russian authorities for treating Chechen fighters as well as Russian soldiers. Please read it!). On my syllabus I also had Allah’s Mountains by Sebastian Smith, the best history of the tragic Russo-Chechen War available. It shows how the independence-seeking, Sovietized Chechen secular secessionists came under the influence of few hundred foreign jihadis led by an independent Arab warrior named Khattab who traveled to Chechnya to assist the Chechens.
At the time that I was contacted by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev I was busy and he was a high school student from another school in Cambridge. For this reason I did not actually spend any real time communicating with him or “mentoring” him, other than letting him learn about his people’s rich and tragic past/background through readings in the syllabus I sent him. While I have been attacked for “indoctrinating” a terrorist by doing so (of course they have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to judge my “irresponsible actions” to help educate someone years ago) in my defense I have said that not sending the syllabus to Tsarnaev for fear he would one daygrow up to become a bomber is as preposterous as the notion that I shouldn’t teach my Irish American students (and I have lots of them here in Massachusetts) about Ireland’s rich and tragic history for fear they will join the Irish Republican Army terrorist group and kill Brits. Trust me, as a Brit who spent much of his youth in Wales in the 1970s and 80s (I am a British passport carrying British Welsh citizen as well as an American) I was taught to fear the IRA, but I do not consider Irish Americans to be potential terrorists, nor do I consider American Muslims to be potential terrorists for that matter.
Regardless, I forgot about this brief email contact with Tsarnaev until the high school teacher who sent Tsarnaev to me years earlier reminded me of it after the bombings. At the time I worried, as did his high school teacher and everyone else who interacted with him, what I could have done differently to prevent the attack. I actually stated my fears to the media (Ames’ spun this to mean I was somehow “down playing” my interaction with the bomber, but I never kept my interaction with the student from the media, I actually spoke about it in such papers as the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post). As it transpires I need not have worried. It appears as if it was the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who radicalized the younger Dzokhar Tsarnaev after watching the internet preaching by an American Yemeni named Anwar Awlaki who was killed by a drone (ironically I analyzed his death in Predators my book on drones). The Tsarnaevs’ half Chechen, half Avar ethnic background had as little to do with the bombings as Timothy McVeigh’s Irish background had to do with the Oklahoma City bombings. Neither of the Tsarnaev bombers had ever been to Chechnya, they grew up in Kyrgyzstan and Cambridge and did not even speak Chechen by all accounts.
Seemingly end of story until Ames’ bizarre diatribe came out.
I read his piece with disgust and realized the real bone Ames has to pick with me was that I have patiently tried to teach Americans (and Brits when I taught at the University of London for two years) about the nuances of Chechen history. You see Ames and his ilk paint in broad brush strokes and want Americans to see Chechens and Al Qaeda as one. They are infuriated by any scholarly efforts to explore the unique historical roots of Chechen terrorism, which I have been studying since the early 1990s, long before 9/11. In his rant, for example, Ames calls the Chechen insurgency “violent, Wahhabi-influenced, funded and tied in with Al Qaeda, the global jihadi network, and even a handful of the 9/11 hijackers.” The picture one gets from this is of Chechens being a part of the 9/11 plot!
In actuality the ties are tenuous at best and have been glibly misrepresented by Ames. Most notably, Muhammad Atta, the 9/11 head hijacker, did in fact aspire to one day travel to Chechnya to fight, like several hundred Arabs led by an independent jihadist named Khattab did, to help out these Chechen Muslims in their lopsided war against Russia. But he did not, its too difficult to get into Russian-encircled Chechnya. That is the so-called “link” to the Chechens and 9/11, that’s it and Ames knows it. The Chechen rebel government actually condemned 9/11 as a terrorist act. And the Chechens never joined Bin Laden’s World Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders like many other terror groups did (which is not surprising since Chechens grew up in the Soviet Union and many know the words of Karl Marx better than the Prophet Muhammad). Ames either knew these facts or, if he didn’t, should have considering he’s writing/misleading on the issue
Can you imagine how frustrating it is for me to have Ames’ disinformation peddled as fact to a trusting readership that does not know these nuances. There are many, many more such examples of deliberate disinformation in Ames’ article that pain me as a scholar of Chechen history who has written numerous articles about Chechen jihadis and terrorism (I have no ideas what Ames’ credentials are other than being anti-Chechen, or what he bases his claims that I don’t acknowledge Chechen terrorism on).
For example, in his piece Ames takes issue with my statement that one fifth of the Chechens died during Stalin’s genocidal attack on them in 1944 (I checked several books on the issue and found I actually made a mistake, it was actually one fourth, if anything I downplayed their tragedy). Ames states “What stands out here is that Williams taught Tsarnaev a version of events that, while perhaps true or truer than other versions, is nevertheless highly debatable and most likely exaggerated.”
Putting aside the false claim that I actually “taught” Tsarnaev anything by simply giving him a syllabus with books on it which do bring this tragic history to life (just as books on the Holocaust bring that tragedy to life), what is the source of his claim that I or the books on my syllabus exaggerated the Chechens’ tragedy? In my own peer reviewed publications on the 1944 deportation, which are based on translated KGB sources, and in the books on my syllabus, they all make it clear that one fourth of the Chechen population died in the 1940s. That’s a genocide, its not a “debatable” point as Ames implies. We have a name for those who (like President Ahmedinejad of Iran in the case of the Jewish Holocaust) deny or “debate” the existence of other people’s genocides, they are called deniers. I am not one of them nor do I exaggerate them, plain and simple.
Also in the recent wars which were fought on Chechen soil, tens of thousands of Chechen civilians have died at the hands of Russian soldiers who tactically obliterated the Chechen capital in the winter of 1999-2000 and carried out grave human rights violations which were later criticized by the Bush administration. That is not a “debatable” fact as Ames suggests. To “debate” that is like debating whether the Holocaust took place, it is revisionist history. No one in their right mind debates this basic issue unless they have (like Ames apparently) a pro-Russian perspective.
Later Ames makes this preposterous statement about my upcoming book Inferno in the Caucasus (he mistakenly calls the Caucasus the Caucus, as in a political caucus, which does not speak well to his credentials for discussing the Caucasus Mountain nation of Chechnya). Ames states;
Williams just completed a book about the Chechnya independence struggle that will be published next year — it's called "Inferno in the Caucus: The Chechen insurgency and the Mirage of Al Qaeda" which makes the poorly-timed point that Chechen separatism is not in any way linked to terrorism. It's patently false, and easy to debunk; but among America's foreign policy elites, it's gospel that Chechen fighters and Chechen separatism are as far removed from radical Islamic jihad as the Mouseketeers.
I should state for the record that the book is not yet complete, nor has Ames read it so how does he know if its “easy to debunk.” If he had read my manuscript as it stands he would have learned that it is, like much of my publications, about how Chechen separatism gradually morphed into terrorism after they lost the second bloody war with Russia. To say my book makes the “poorly timed point that Chechen separatism is not in any linked to terrorism” is, to quote Ames, “patently false.” My book is about the unique, localized historical origins of Chechen terrorism. Ames just made up this “fact” about my book to promote his false narrative. In other words he lied.
And in all my years working in Washington and with the military and intelligence communities (including the Directorate of National Intelligence whom I worked with in 2008) I have NEVER heard someone make the preposterous claim that “Chechen separatism is removed from radical Islamic jihad” as Ames shrilly proclaims. While it certainly had origins in a move for independence from Russia of the sort achieved by the ex-Soviet states of Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan etc. Chechen and Dagestani separatism has become more jihad terrorism-based to be sure, and the intelligence community certainly knows this better than Ames. By making these claims Ames is stirring up Islamiphobic hysteria using the same false troupes used by those who hype the fear of “creeping Shariah Islamic law” in the USA, even though no one is his right mind thinks the Islamic Brotherhood is going to overthrow the Constitution. Ames, and he alone, he posits, is exposing the truth about a dangerous Islamic threat that I, as someone who tracked suicide bombers in Afghanistan for the CIA’s CTC, for some reason cannot see.
Moving on in my analysis of Ame’s dross. Later he states “Williams claimed he never met Dzhokhar in person, despite mentoring him through his Chechnya project and communicating with him on numerous occasions via email when he was in high school.” Those of you have been to college know how busy professors are, they often have a hard time making time for students in their own classes, much less students who aren’t even in their classes. Now take that and magnify it times ten for a student who is not only not in my classes and not in my university, but in a distant high school. What busy professor would have the time to “mentor” a high school student and “communicate with him on numerous occasions?” This is a flight of fancy, Ames made it up. As I stated previously, I took the time out of my busy schedule to send one email to this student, that was it.
Back to Ames’ drek. He later states; “And yet he [Williams] missed the jihadi suicide bomber in his Inbox, whose radicalism he may have "contribute[d] to." Last time I checked no one accused the younger Tsarnaev of being a “suicide” bomber, he is still very much alive which would make him a unique suicide bomber indeed. Later Ames states “The day after professor Williams publicly fretted over whether he'd helped "jihadify" Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the FBI paid him a visit on a Sunday.” Let me state for the record, I have most certainly never publicly fretted over whether I helped “jihadify” Tsarnaev by sending him an email with a syllabus in it, and my friends from the FBI visited me on a Tuesday. To put it bluntly, Ames is once again just making things up as he goes to fit his conspiratorial narrative.
Ames then states “Presumably, they [the FBI] talked about professor Williams' relationship with the suspected terrorist. But a few days after their visit, Williams published a piece in the Huffington Post, headlined "Thoughts on the 'Jihadification' of Boston Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev" that made no mention at all of FBI interest in his relationship with the suspect, or how he might have helped radicalize him. Instead, according to professor Williams' HuffPo article, the FBI popped by on a Sunday (sic) to tap his expertise — on suicide bombers and Chechen radicals. They came to learn, not to question. And what he taught them was simple: Chechens aren't terrorists. Only other Islamic jihadists are terrorists — but not Chechens, April 15-19th notwithstanding.”
Since Ames was not in the room with me during the FBI’s visit (I called them by the way to talk to an FBI agent I had communicated with in the past) let me tell you what we actually discussed. I told them about my email (which most certainly did not “help radicalize” the younger Tsarnaev. For all my abilities of persuasion I know that my syllabus was not that powerful, if Tsarnaev even took the time to read it). I then gave the two FBI special agents my read on the small Chechen community in Boston (I know the former Chechen foreign minister who lives in the region, for example, and have found him and the other Chechens to be very pro-American). I also gave the FBI Special Agents an in-depth, four hour expose on the roots of various Chechen and Dagestani jamaats (terrorist/insurgent units) I have carefully followed for years. But yet Ames confidently states “And what he [Williams] taught them was simple: Chechens aren't terrorists. Only other Islamic jihadists are terrorists — but not Chechens, April 15-19th notwithstanding.” Last time I checked it was myself and the two agents from the FBI in my living room in Boston, Ames was not there. So where does he come up with this utter nonsense? How does he have the temerity to insert himself into the meeting and put words into my mouth that I would never say?
Back to Ames’ outrageous rant. He later states “During Chechnya's brief three-year independence, between 1996 and Putin's invasion in 1999, Chechnya was one of the only places on earth that imposed harsh Sharia law.” The truth is more prosaic. As it transpires there were indeed some radicals in Chechnya who forced the moderate Chechen president, Aslan Mashkadov, to briefly proclaim unpopular Shariah law in Chechnya against his will. But Mashkadov knew the Chechen parliament would overthrow this law, and it did. Ames probably didn’t know this and if he did he deliberately misled his readership by overlooking this nuance.
Now back to Ames’ shrill claim that the outgunned, Sovietized Chechen highlanders fighting to defend their micro-homeland and homes from the Russians made the bizarre decision to escape Russian-encircled Chechnya and fly across Eurasia (presumably on Chechen Terrorism Airlines) to defend the doomed Pashtun tribal Taliban regime against America in 2001. I spent years analyzing this bizarre Russian-inspired claim and actually travelled to Afghanistan and interviewed scores of Taliban prisoners of war looking for a single Chechen from this mythical flying army of Chechen super terrorists. I interviewed pro-US Northern Alliance generals, from Dostum “The Taliban killer,” to Massoud the Lion of Panjsher’s commanders in the Panjsher Valley, Afghan intelligence officials, and US troops whom I later served with etc. In every case I asked, “Have you ever personally seen, interrogated, fought alongside or against, or met an actual Chechen?” In my years of fieldwork in Afghanistan I never found a single Afghan or American who had ever seen one of these elusive Chechen Big Foots.
Incidentally, no Chechen Super Terrorists were ever captured in Afghanistan and sent to Gitmo or Bagram Prison, no Chechens were ever killed in Afghanistan and identified as Chechens etc. Now if Ames himself had ever traveled to the Afghan war zone and interviewed or photographed a real life Chechen Sasquatch in Afghanistan I would bow to his expertise. But seeing as he is making his certitude-filled pronouncements from the safety of his living room I am going to have to pass and rely on my own hard earned findings.
To make his preposterous point that Chechens from the micro-nation of Chechnya (less than a million people) are counter intuitively leading the Taliban army against us, Ames then goes on to roll out a quote from none other than Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Get this, he quotes Rumsfeld saying "There's Chinese in there, there's Chechens in there,.." Oh the beauty of it. Rumsfeld, who famously told us that there were atom bombs and other WMDs in Iraq, says that there are Han Chinese in Afghanistan and Chechens so it must be so! I actually laughed out loud with real joy when I read that quote. Imagine the Communist Chinese and the Sovietized Sufi Mystic Muslim Chechen highlanders agreeing to fly to Afghanistan through American controlled airspace to wage a jihad against the Americans and NATO! It captures the absurdity of the whole notion that Connecticut-sized Chechnya has declared war on the distant North American superpower for some reason.
Ames then quotes my own articles "Shattering the Al Qaeda-Chechen Myth (part I) and "Shattering the Al Qaeda-Chechen Myth (part II) which you can easily find by googling, I highly recommend reading them since I use numerous sources to demolish the myth that Chechens equal Taliban tribesmen or Chechens equal Al Qaeda as Ames claims) and he cites the following quote which I ridiculed since it speaks of “fanatical Chechen fighters in Afghanistan who have thrown their lot in with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.” At the time this article came out I asked the Chechen exiled former Chechen foreign minister who lives near me whether or not the Chechen Army had made the bizarre decision to deploy hundreds of desperately needed soldiers from their small force (who were fighting the much larger Russian invasion force) across Eurasia to defend Pashtun tribesmen who make up the Taliban army of 55,000 from America and NATO. He of course laughed at the absurdity of the notion. I remember his answer to this day “Don’t Americans have common sense? Have they ever looked at how tiny the European land of Chechnya is on a map and how big the Texas-sized Central Asian country of Afghanistan is?” I told him no, Americans don’t usually look at maps (as best exemplified by the Czech Ambassador’s need to defend his country from American misconception that it was Czechs who carried out the bombings in Boston).
Lastly, Ames states “when it comes to Chechnya jihadists like Khattab, Professor Williams bends over backwards to deny Al Qaeda ties that really do exist.” Guilty as charged. Khattab, you may recall, was the independent Arab jihadist whom I mentioned previously who traveled to Chechnya to help the outgunned Chechen rebels fight the massive Russian army during the 1994-96 Russo-Chechen War (Bin Laden was in Sudan at this time with his own Al Qaeda organization). I have published a chapter in a book on Chechnya by the imminent Israeli specialist on the Caucasus (not the “Caucus” Ames! That’s a different thing entirely) Moshe Gammer, wherein I delve into the communications between the independent jihadist Khattab and Bin Laden. In it I prove that Khattab ran his own frontline jihadist fighting unit which was waging war against Russia in Chechnya. Khattab rejected Bin Laden’s request to join his terrorist jihad against the US. That is why you have probably never heard of Khattab, if he was our enemy you’d know it. I encourage you to read my article titled "Allah’s Foot Soldiers An Assessment of the Role of Foreign Fighters and Al-Qa‘ida in the Chechen Insurgency." Found in Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. London; Routledge. 2007 This chapter can be found on my website at brianglynwilliams.com under “Publications” along with dozens of articles on foreign jihadists in Chechnya. It is a deep dive into this murky subject complete with dozens and dozens of footnotes (contrary to Ames claim that I deny such jihadis exist, a simple perusal of my website shows that I have published more on this issue than any other scholar).
There are many more flaws and outright bullshit in Ames hack piece but by now you get the point. I rarely respond to the sort of crass, ad hominem attack that Ames (whom I have never heard of in my work with the military, intelligence community or scholarly community) made in his article, but I felt compelled to in this case. Not because I care about his personal attack on me, I have had much worse trust me (try defending Bin Laden’s driver and working for the CIA and watch the nut cases from both sides publish their vomit on the internet), but because so much of what he said was outright false. It was made up and I didn’t want readers to be misled into believing in Ames’ alternative universe.
I realize this is the internet and anything can be passed off as the truth in this medium, but I encourage readers who want to probe deeper than the internet to read scholarly articles on Chechens published in peer reviewed articles or books (including my own articles or Khassan Baiev’s powerful book The Oath) if you want answers. Don’t just rely on my piece here or Ames’ rant, probe deeper. And please rely upon your God-given commonsense when someone makes wild claims about Chechens, who grew up in the Soviet system and are fighting for independence from our former Cold War enemy Russia, suddenly making, as Ames suggests, the bizarre, counter-intuitive decision to leave their embattled homeland and become the “evil henchmen” for Al Qaeda or the Taliban…or the Klu Klux Klan, or anyone else for that matter.
PS I would like to thank two anonymous readers of nfswcorp who read Ames’ piece and were sufficiently bothered by its bias to bring it to my attention. Also thanks to nfswcrop for allowing me to respond to Ames’ counter-factual rant.
Brian Glyn Williams
Professor of Islamic History
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
Mark Ames responds…
I appreciate, genuinely, Professor Williams taking the time to respond in such detail to my piece, and providing not one but two drafts, the second draft far more coherent than the first. I also understand his frustration at being thrust into the limelight following the Boston bombings.
For all of his words, however, Professor Williams actually attempts to rebut very few of the facts outlined in my piece, preferring instead to use words like “conspiracy” to imply a sinister motive for my reporting actual verifiable facts.
(Since we’re exchanging pedigrees here, I should remind Prof Williams that I spent nearly 14 years on and off in Russia until the Kremlin shut down my Moscow newspaper in 2008, and I had to flee. You can read about it at the Committee for the Protection of Journalism, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere.)
My article attempts to explain the murky and cynical geopolitics that made possible such seemingly-bizarre story details such as the sheer number of well-known neocons and military-intelligence figures who promoted Chechen separatism. The fact that Prof Williams works for the CIA as an expert on Chechnya and Islamic terrorism, and that he himself worried after the bombing that he “contributed to it,” are relevant, interesting and newsworthy facts in that story. A journalist who doesn’t report them isn’t a journalist.
Professor Williams’ other major objection is a semantic one over my use of the word “mentor” to describe his relationship with Tsarnaev.
Mentor, as defined by Oxford, is defined in noun form as “experienced or trusted advisor” and in verb form as “to advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).” That seems apt from the picture of their relationship painted by Prof. Williams in the first interview he gave after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested:
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose family fled the horrors of the Russian occupation, was about to learn about some harrowing things he escaped from at a very young age.
Williams, whose classes on the War on Terror are routinely packed, obliged by exchanging emails with the then-17-year-old student.
There was a lot to read about. Especially since the Russians retook the tiny separatist republic, there are stories of mass killings, death camps, mass graves, torture, destruction.
...On Friday morning, Williams awoke to hear that this young man was the suspect being sought in the Boston Marathon bombing Monday.
Williams shot me an email. I phoned him and at one point I heard a rare twinge of worry in his voice. "I hope I didn't contribute to it. That kid and his brother identified with the Chechen struggle," he said.
...Williams recalled the student clearly, though the two never met and communicated by email, Williams sending him links to academic papers he's published and books he recommended.
"He was learning his Chechen identity, identifying with the diaspora and identifying with his homeland," he said.
"He wanted to learn more about Chechnya, who the fighters were, who the commanders were. I sort of gave him background."
Here again is another description, this time in AP, which to me reads like a fair description of a mentoring relationship:
Two years ago, Brian Glyn Williams, a UMass Dartmouth professor of Islamic studies, helped Tsarnaev with a high school project about Chechnya. Williams was put in contact with the student through a friend who's a teacher at Cambridge Rindge & Latin, Tsarnaev's high school. The two communicated via email or telephone and never met face to face, even when Tsarnaev started attending the school.
The project was about Chechen history and the origins of its wars with Russia, and Williams got the impression that Tsarnaev was trying to reconnect with his ethnic identity and homeland.
We can certainly disagree on the word "mentoring," but I think Professor Williams goes a bit too far with it, and I stand by my choice of the word.
One last note: I can't end this without mentioning the big white elephant of irony in this room: In which an employee of the CIA — an agency whose trade is deception, conspiracies, and the odd mass-slaughter or foreign coup — accuses me, a journalist, of conspiracy mongering. That's irony laid on so thick and so dense, I fear it might rip a hole in time-space. It's a first for me, and that makes one thing we share in common at least.
I thank Professor Williams again for his response, and look forward to reading his book on Chechnya.
-- Mark Ames