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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: March 22, 2016

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia's LifeNews Claims Belarusian Brothers Involved in Brussels Attack But Euroradio Interviews Them, Says They Aren't
In the confusion following the terrorist attacks on the airport and metro in Brussels, where 31 have already been killed and at least 130 injured, a strange accusation has emerged: two Belarusian brothers and their Dagestani friend who now has Belarusian citizenship are claimed to be behind the bombings, according to some Russian and Belarusian press sources.

That they are still at large and able to give interviews seems to be the last thing the conspiracy-minded are noticing.

Caucasian Knot, a respected regional news service, reported that a "source in Belarusian law-enforcement" claimed that three Belarusian citizens -- the brothers Ivan and Aleksei Dovbash and Marat Yunusov -- were all arrested on charges of involvement in the terrorist attacks in Brussels.

But a popular Belarusian radio station interviewed them and one commented, "If I am a terrorist and a suicide bomber, how come I'm alive and not arrested?"

Caucasian Knot explained that the publication Sputnik-Belarus cited the Belarusian police source at 14:51 Moscow time, saying Ivan and Aleksei Dovbash were natives of Gomel Region in Belarus and Marat Yunusov was a native of Dagestan who obtained Belarusian citizenship several years ago. 

Dmitry Pobyarzhin, head of the press service for Belarusian intelligence, still named the KGB, said the Dovbash brothers and Yunusov were "known to the KGB" and said the information "was being checked," RBC reported at 15:58. These men were not suspected of the current terrorist attack, according to this report, but were flagged in the past.

According to Sputnik Belarus:

"In December 2015, the FSB of Russia sent the KGB of Belarus an inquiry about the brothers Ivan and Aleksei Dovbash and a native of Dagestan Marat Yunusov about possible involvement of these persons in preparation of terrorist attacks in Belarus."

The site is quoting the time stamps on the publications of these posts to indicate how quickly these stories surfaced after the bomb attacks. The news of the Brussels attack came out very rapidly from LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin TV and news site close to Russian intelligence and police which often seems to appear at the site of breaking news stories even before they break. RenTV, another pro-Kremlin station, appears to have been the first to publish at 14:05 the claim that ISIS had taken responsibility for the attack.

Then in the hands of LifeNews, the story about an inquiry in December concerning these brothers -- even when the KGB press service was saying they weren't implicating the men in the current attacks -- grew into a suspicion that these three were the actual suspects. On March 14, LifeNews wrote (translation by The Interpreter):

The Russian special services [intelligence] have obtained information about preparation of terrorist attacks on the territory of Belgium. The alleged suicide bombers are citizens of Belarus who joined the ranks of the fighters last year. According to the law-enforcers, the young people, who turned out to be brothers, joined the ranks of the terrorists in Syria, and after going through combat training flew to the EU.

"It is known that 27-year-old Aleksei Dovbash first accepted Islam and began communicating with radicals. Under the influence of his elder brother his younger brother, 23-year-old Ivan, began to take an interest in radical movements," the source noted to LifeNews.

FSB officials already sent their Belarusian colleagues information about the movement of the brothers Dovbash. It is known that one other native of Belarus, Marat Yunusov, has been helping them.

So then today, LifeNews rushed out a story at 14:27 headlined "Belarusian KGB Familiar with Alleged Organizers of Attacks on Brussels":

Earlier LifeNews reported that RF intelligence representatives sent Belgian authorities information about the preparation of an attack by three ISIL fighters among whom were two brothers from Belarus. According to available data, Ivan and Aleksei Dovbash accompanied by their fellow Belarusian Marat Yunusov traveled to Belgium at the end of February.

LifeNews was also ready to publish commentary with the headline that "Expert: 911 Terrorist Acts and Brussels Explosions Are All Part of the Same Chain" -- and it's all America's fault.

Currently, Sputnik Belarus now has added a later story quoting "Suleiman Dovbash" accusing the Russian media of "yellow journalism" for claiming his involvement in the Brussels attack. 

These stories have the feel not only of tabloid news but Kremlin disinformation, which fuels conspiracy theories that Moscow either knows more than it is telling or is even colluding in terrorism.

But Euroradio interviewed the Dobash brothers today -- which they would of course not have been able to do if they had been arrested.

Ivan Dobash told EuroRadio that accusations of terrorism against him and his brother began to appear on March 14 and, alarmed, the brothers even turned to the authorities themselves to try to find out where the accusation came from.

"We were told that they don't know anything about it, and they have no claims against us," said Ivan.

Said Aleksei, in response to a LifeNews article claiming an FSB source had said he was an ISIS fighter, said:

"I don't have any problems with the Belgian police, I calmly travel around the European Union. I was told at the police station that information about my involvement in terrorist attacks is local gossip, and they pay no attention to it."
The story came as a shock to the Dovbash's friends in Gomel. While they knew him as a person who had converted to Islam, they said he was "a good guy." Local bikers have nicknamed him "Lyokha the Frenchman."

Lyokha is a variant of the nicknames for Aleksei; Lyosha is another variant.

Nikita Matvienko, a biker in Gomel, had this to say about him:

"This is Lyosha Dovbash, on social networks he goes by the name Khalid. We ride around on motorcycles together in Gomel. He himself is a Belarusian, he comes to visit his grandmother. He was in Gomel all of last summer. He's a normal person. If you ask to borrow money from him he will give you a loan without question and say it doesn't have to be returned."
Others commented that Aleksei had converted to Islam, but they had never heard him talk about ISIS or jihad.

Minsk, the capital of Belarus, itself experienced a terrorist attack in April 2011 at a metro station in which 15 were killed and more than 200 were injured. Two suspects confessed to the crime after which they were swiftly arrested and given the death penalty -- Belarus is the last country in Europe to still implement capital punishment as even Russia suspended the practice when it joined the Council of Europe.

Belarusian opposition publications have long speculated that the people arrested were not involved in the attack which remains a mystery and was a smaller-scale version of the attack on the Moscow metro in 2010 in which 40 were killed and over 100 were injured. Some have implicated the Belarusian government itself.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick