As the country awoke to the news of a massive manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers in the early morning hours of Friday, April 19, reporters began pressing sources at the FBI and the Justice Department for information on the two attackers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The response, at least to some reporters: We don’t know anything about them.
That claim, like so many that followed, wouldn’t hold up. Just five days later it was clear that the U.S. government generally, and the FBI in particular, had known more than a little about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The FBI had received a warning about the growing radicalism of the elder Tsarnaev brother back in the spring of 2011, two years before the attacks in Boston. The CIA received similar information seven months later. The Department of Homeland Security had it, too. And yet Tamerlan Tsarnaev traveled to Russia, spent six months in the Muslim-dominated region of Dagestan, was further radicalized, and led the plot to bomb the Boston Marathon.
How did this happen?
The standard investigation clichés apply: It’s still early; there are many unanswered questions; it’s unwise to rush to judgment. But the emerging picture is one of systemic failure, human error, and willful ignorance of the threats facing the country.
Just hours after the FBI told some reporters that it had no information on Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the mother of the alleged bombers, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, told Russia Today that the FBI had been in contact with Tamerlan for months. But some of her claims were bizarre and others demonstrably false, leaving reporters unsure what to believe. She contended, for instance, that her sons had been framed and that the FBI had been not only monitoring Tamerlan but “controlling” him.
The FBI soon ended the confusion with a statement in the late afternoon of April 19 acknowledging that the bureau had, in fact, been in touch with Tamerlan. “Once the FBI learned the identities of the two brothers today, the FBI reviewed its records and determined that in early 2011, a foreign government asked the FBI for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev.” The foreign government was Russia, and on March 4, 2011, it reported that Tsarnaev was seeking to link up with Chechen rebels—or what the Federal Security Service (FSB) calls “underground bandits.”
On background, government officials initially downplayed this revelation. They told reporters that the notification from the FSB was little more than routine intelligence-sharing among friendly security services and that the information in the FSB letter was vague and unsubstantiated.
Those claims were only partly true. The U.S. government gets thousands of notifications of potential threats each year, but very few from the Russians. And the FBI’s own statement suggests that the Russians provided some important details, including (1) the nature of the potential threat, (2) the timeframe for Tsarnaev’s radicalization, (3) his plans to travel to Dagestan, and (4) the ostensible purpose of his travels.
The Russian request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.
The problem with this information, however, was that it consisted of the results of some kind of investigation of Tsarnaev without including evidence to support its claims. “The letter didn’t have substance, it had conclusions,” says Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The FBI launched a preliminary investigation, seeking out Tamerlan Tsarnaev and those close to him for questioning. They did not locate Tsarnaev immediately but made it known that they wished to speak with him. He reported voluntarily to the FBI the next day.
The FBI investigation of Tsarnaev turned up no “derogatory information” to corroborate the claims from the Russian security service, though authorities now understand that his radicalization had already begun, as the Russians claimed. Some of those involved in that early look at Tsarnaev wondered if the Russians were overstating the threat. The FSB has long targeted the Muslim-dominated Chechen rebel groups opposed to the central government in Moscow. The FBI went back to the Russians and asked for anything more they had on Tsarnaev and, according to the statement provided by the bureau, did not hear back.