A Dead Militant in Dagestan: Did This Slain Jihadi Meet Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

Cornered by police at his family home, Islamist fighter Mahmud Mansur Nidal went out in a blaze of gunfire last May. Before he met his end did he meet suspected Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

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A boy exercises in front of the house where Russian police gunned down the Islamist militant Mahmud Mansur Nidal in May 2012 in Makhachkala.

A new character appeared over the weekend in the saga of the Boston bombings–Mahmud Mansur Nidal, a teenage Islamist with a thin black beard, round face and gently slanted eyes. In the months before his death last year during a shootout with Russian police, Nidal reportedly met numerous times with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the prime suspect in the bombing of the Boston Marathon last month. U.S. investigators are now trying to learn more about the alleged contacts between the two men–and to piece together a biography that the police cut short when Nidal hurled a grenade at them last May.

According to Shamil Mutaev, a former investigator who worked on Nidal’s case, Nidal was born in 1992 in the town of Buynaksk in the mountains of central Dagestan. His father, who was of Palestinian descent, left the family when Nidal was a child and moved to Moscow, from where the father often traveled abroad. Nidal’s mother, Zarina Mansur, is an ethnic Kumyk, one of the dozens of ethnic groups that populate Dagestan, a troubled republic in the south of Russia. She raised Nidal mostly on her own after his father left, Mutaev says.

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In his late teens, Nidal got involved with a group of Islamist insurgents based in the forests around the village of Gubden. “He was young and pliable. His father wasn’t around. It didn’t take much to pull him in,” says Mutaev, who worked for 32 years in the justice system in Dagestan, first as a prosecutor and later as a detective. By the age of 18 or 19 Nidal had joined the insurgent group that operates in and around Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, according to statements released last year by Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, which is known as NAK.

One of the bloodiest attacks ever attributed to the so-called Makhachkala Gang took place on May 3, 2012. At around 10 pm that evening, a red Mitsubishi sedan pulled up to a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Makhachkala and its driver set off the payload of explosives that were hidden in the vehicle. About fifteen minutes later, when rescue workers and bystanders gathered around the site of the blast, another bomb exploded at the scene, this one packed into a minivan, NAK said in a statement afterward. The combined force of the explosions was equivalent to 80 kilograms of TNT. Scores of people were gravely injured; 14 were killed.

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Later that month, investigators claimed that the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers, Rizvan Aliev, 23, and his sister Muslimat Alieva, 19. The siblings’ family had reported them as missing about a week before the bombings. Police accused the Makhachkala Gang of recruiting them and orchestrating the attack, and a manhunt began for all of its suspected members, including Nidal.

By that point, Nidal had already left civilian life and “gone into the forest” to live with the insurgents around Makhachkala, Mutaev told TIME. “He had been a wanted man some months before the attack. He had gone underground.” So for him to meet with Tsarnaev, who was in Dagestan between January and July of last year, Nidal would have had to risk arrest by coming out of hiding. “I don’t believe [Tsarnaev] could have been allowed to visit him underground,” Mutaev says. “There would be a serious vetting process if he wanted to go to the forest. They do not just invite outsiders over for tea.”

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The claim that the Nidal and Tsarnaev had met was first reported on April 27 in Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper known for its investigative reporting. Citing a source in the counter-extremism forces of the Interior Ministry police in Dagestan, the newspaper said that Nidal, a suspected recruiter for the Islamist underground, met with Tsarnaev multiple times in 2012. Their meetings prompted the Russian security services to put Tsarnaev under surveillance of the Russian security services. The Russian intelligence officials also sent a request to U.S. law enforcement for more information about Tsarnaev, Novaya Gazeta reported. Several U.S. media outlets reported this week that the FBI is looking into possible links between Nidal and Tsarnaev. So far, there is no clear proof that the two of them ever met.

In a phone interview with TIME, Tsarnaev’s mother Zubeidat said that her son never knew anyone named Mahmud Mansur Nidal. “It’s all nonsense and lies from start to finish,” she said of the article in Novaya Gazeta. “He never met these guys at all, never knew them.” She conceded, however, that Tamerlan did like to socialize with locals and occasionally spent time apart from his family. “I would call him and say, ‘Tamerlan where were you?’ And he said that there are lots of nice places to eat around here, to grill some meat, many places to hang out, talking and meeting people,” she recalls.

Mutaev, the former investigator, says that Nidal may have been able to meet in public places without fear of arrest early last year, in the first half of Tsarnaev’s visit. And even after he became a wanted man, Nidal was not too afraid to emerge from hiding to visit his friends and family.

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On May 18, about two weeks after the twin suicide bombings, police got a tip that Nidal was staying in a house on the outskirts of Makhachkala. At the time, Mutaev was working in the local government’s Committee for Adaptation, which was created in 2010 to lure insurgents out of the forests and integrate them back into civilian life. He was called in to negotiate Nidal’s surrender once counter-terrorism troops had surrounded the house. “He was not panicked. He was even calm,” Mutaev recalls. “He did not whimper or plead for help. He seemed prepared for this.”

Mutaev’s first aim was to secure the safe release of the other people in the house, including Nidal’s mother, his wife and their infant son, as well as two friends–Abdurakhman Magomedov and his wife Fatima. After hours of negotiating over the phone, Nidal agreed to let all of them go as long as Mutaev guaranteed their safety. The three women walked out first toward the lines of special forces troops, Nidal’s mother holding his child in her arms.

By that time, a crowd of about 150 of their relatives, friends and supporters had gathered around the police cordon, at one point even blocking traffic on a major street nearby. The protestors shouted abuse at the masked troops and demanded the release of everyone in the house. At one point, the angry crowd even tried to storm the police station where Magomedov was taken for questioning after his release, according to an investigation of the incident carried out by the local

prosecutor. In a video of the standoff posted on YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEt3k2Pgryg], the crowd of young men chants “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) at the masked commandos, urging them to repent for their sins.

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Meanwhile, Mutaev was on the phone with Nidal. Both of them knew the risks of surrendering. “We’re not children,” Mutaev says. “Whatever we say officially, whatever guarantees we make, they perfectly well understand what goes on in custody.” The International Crisis Group, a rights watchdog, concluded in a report in October that “torture is applied widely for investigative or intelligence purposes” in Dagestan and other parts of the North Caucasus. Capture might also mean that Nidal could be forced, during interrogations, to give up his contacts in the insurgency.

But fear of torture and betrayal was not his only reason for refusing to come out. “These boys believe they win either way,” Mutaev says. “If they are killed in battle, they go to paradise. So he was ready for death.” Over the phone, Nidal told news reporters that he had nothing to do with the May 3 bombings–but he still refused to surrender.

By the morning of May 19, he suddenly began asking Mutaev how far away he was standing from the house, how close the police vehicles were, and whether there were any civilians around. It dawned on Mutaev that Nidal had come to a decision. “It was not easy for him to make up his mind. But when he started asking those questions, I knew.” Seconds later, Nidal threw a grenade out of the house toward a military vehicle. The explosion caused no injuries, but it sparked an all-out assault on the house. The negotiations were over. Nidal was killed and the house was set ablaze.

News of the siege had spread by then throughout Makhachkala. Counter-terrorism raids are common in the city, but never before had a crowd of people shown such resistance to a police raid. It was the talk of the town for days, so it seems unlikely that Tsarnaev would not have heard about it. People came from all over town to have a look at the house on Jubilee Street, a dirt road so badly rutted even the fearless old Ladas have trouble passing it.

Today, the house where Nidal died is a husk of rubble, pocked with shrapnel and bullet holes on every side. In what would have been the living room, the wheels of a toy truck sits amid loose bricks and broken glass. The roof has been completely blown away. Asked whether Nidal’s family had ever come back, the handful of neighbors TIME spoke to on Wednesday said no. They had not seen Nidal’s mother or wife since the siege. One neighbor was not even sure which siege a reporter was talking about. “We had two here recently,” he said. “You mean the one against the counterfeiters or the one against the terrorists?” The counterfeiters had apparently been in a house down the block. It was also blown to bits.

Such is the frequency of these operations that most locals bear them with something approaching indifference. On the weekend Nidal died there were at least three separate shootouts between police and insurgents in other parts of Dagestan. Including Nidal, seven suspected terrorists were killed in those two days; at least one officer was wounded. It was a bloody weekend even by local standards, but hardly shocking.

On Wednesday, May 1, when TIME visited the ruins of Nidal’s house, a bomb exploded outside a hardware store on the other side of town. Two teenagers were killed instantly, and another passerby later died in hospital. A few hours later, the forensic experts and police had cleared away the body parts strewn about the street, leaving shoppers to walk past the bloody puddles and the shopkeepers to sweep up the broken glass. Whether or not Tsarnaev ever encountered Nidal, he would have encountered this side of Dagestan.

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