The deaths of three U.S. Marines from a roadside bomb last year are under more scrutiny this week, following news of a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to Afghan militants who killed Americans.
According to NBC News, U.S. intelligence officials were aware in early 2019 that Russians were offering cash if certain coalition forces were killed in Afghanistan, a mountainous central Asian country that the U.S. invaded after the September 11 attacks. The offer included bounties for killing American troops.
Then, in April 2019, a bomb exploded near the Bagram Airfield, killing three Marines in a U.S. convoy. Though NBC News has not confirmed a link to the bombing, the news from the intelligence community has brought new scrutiny to the deaths of the three Marines:
- Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York, Pa.
- Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del.
- and Cpl. Robert Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y.
The Taliban, the ruling force in Afghanistan, claimed responsibility for the attack. The U.S. and the Taliban entered into a truce less than a year later in February 2020.
Slutman, a former FDNY firefighter, was honored at a memorial service last year in Delaware, attended by firefighters, cops and Gov. John Carney. Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at Slutman's funeral in the Bronx.
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"Chris believed in taking care of his family," his wife Shannon Slutman said at the time. "He didn't want an extravagant life, and was a man of very few vices." On Tuesday, she said she was not ready to speak about the emotional situation.
Hines, who joined JROTC in high school, "exemplified both bravery and patriotism," according to his obituary. Hendriks' mother told CNBC that she wants an investigation into the suspected bounties. So do House Democrats, who want to find out "what did the president know and when did he know it?” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said.
NBC News quoted an anonymous official saying the intelligence about the bounties "was out there" before the bombing. White House officials and a House Republican said they did not believe there was a link between the bounty offer and the bombing.
But the New York Times said that U.S. officials were aware of some payments from a bank account controlled by the G.R.U. - a Russian intelligence agency - into a Taliban-controlled account.
A spokesman for the Taliban denied any accusations of Russian involvement in an interview with the Times. He said the Taliban carried out previous attacks on its own, and no longer goes after Americans in accordance with the truce.
And a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin said no American officials had mentioned the issue to the Russian government.
"Maybe I sound a little bit rude, but this is 100% bulls---," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told NBC News in an exclusive interview.
The U.S. and Soviet Russia had military involvement in Afghanistan decades ago in the Cold War, when the U.S. supplied arms to rebels against a Soviet-friendly government.
This article contains information from the Associated Press and NBC10's Tim Furlong.