There is still much we don’t know about the Boston Marathon bombers. It will take time to piece together a more complete picture of their backgrounds. But the investigation has taken an important turn since late last week, as U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials are delving into their possible ties to jihadist groups based overseas.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother of the deadly duo, first raised red flags more than two years ago, when Russia alerted the FBI to his increasingly radicalized worldview.
The Bureau has issued a statement explaining that “a foreign government asked the FBI for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev” in early 2011. The Washington Post reports that, according to a “law enforcement official,” the “request came from the Russian government,” which was “concerned about Tsarnaev’s potential ties to Chechen terrorists.” Other press outlets have reported the same.
The FBI says that the request from the foreign government (Russia) “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 Bureau says it sifted through the available evidence and interviewed the Tsarnaev family, including Tamerlan, but “did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign, and those results were provided to the foreign government in the summer of 2011.”
After completing its investigation, the FBI’s statement reads, the Bureau “requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from the foreign government.”
What made Russia initially suspicious of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? What “unspecified underground groups” did Russia think he was attempting to join?
We don’t know the answers to these questions. But in the interest of transparency, both the FBI and Russia should release everything in their holdings concerning the early 2011 warning.
We do know that Tsarnaev’s suspicious overseas ties did not end in 2011.
The year after Russia’s warning, in 2012, Tsarnaev spent six months outside of the U.S. after flying from New York City to Russia. He flew out of JFK airport on Jan. 12, 2012 and returned on July 17.
Tsarnaev reportedly visited Dagestan and Chechnya during this time. He may have traveled elsewhere.
In August 2012, the month after he returned to the U.S., Tsarnaev posted a YouTube page that links to a number of jihadist videos. One playlist was named “Terrorists” and included videos that were disseminated by the “Vilayat Dagestan,” a group that is part of the al Qaeda-linked Caucasus Emirate.
After it was reported that U.S. officials are investigating the possibility that Tsarnaev had ties to Vilayat Dagestan, or related groups, the terrorist organization issued a statement telling the press not to “speculate” about such matters.
The group said its war is with Russia, and not the United States. Vilayat Dagestan did not say, however, that it had only heard of Tsarnaev after the Boston bombings. The group also tried to blame the Boston bombings on Russia’s “special services,” which is entirely inconsistent with Tsarnaev’s known sympathies. It remains an open possibility that Tsarnaev had some dealings with the Caucasus Emirate, but we do not know for certain one way or the other right now.
The reality is that there are a number of jihadist groups based in the Caucasus that also operate elsewhere, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, with logistical support networks in still other countries.
Was Tamerlan Tsarnaev involved with any of these groups? Did any of these jihadist organizations train or otherwise support him?
In the coming weeks we should learn more.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.