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.
Within weeks of hearing from the FBI, the Russians redirected their letter about Tsarnaev to the CIA. “It was basically a duplicate of what they gave the FBI,” says one source familiar with the investigation. The CIA requested that Tsarnaev be placed in the TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment) database, which would, in theory, help U.S. counterterrorism officials monitor his travel in and out of the country.
It didn’t. Sean Joyce, the deputy director of the FBI, told Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, that the bureau did not receive any notification when Tsarnaev departed for Russia or returned to the United States.
Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, appeared to contradict that claim when she testified, “The system pinged when he was leaving the United States. By the time he returned, all investigations had been closed.”
So what happens when “the system” pings to alert counterterrorism officials that someone on U.S. watchlists is on the move? None of the dozen U.S. officials who spoke to The Weekly Standard could say with any certainty, but it appears that the FBI was not included in the alert. “It wasn’t a territorial dispute—‘this is my territory, this is your territory,’ ” says Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “But it clearly was a hiccup in the system.”
“Folks like me thought that if there was a ping like this, it went to everybody,” says Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It didn’t happen, and we don’t know all the details yet. But that’s a real red flag.”
Chambliss was operating on a reasonable assumption. The Russians had provided the FBI with a warning that Tsarnaev was a potential threat who wanted to return to Russia to connect with radical Islamist groups there. What’s the point of adding a suspected jihadist to the various watchlists kept by the U.S. government if the agencies that have investigated him are not alerted when he does what the government was warned he might do?
“After 9/11, we thought we were creating a seamless path to breaking down stovepipes between agencies,” says Chambliss. “The NCTC [National Counterterrorism Center]was established to make sure information was shared. That obviously didn’t happen here.”
Investigators are looking at the possible involvement of others—both at home and overseas. Authorities tell The Weekly Standard that Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell Tsarnaeva, notified him that he had been seen in the photographs and videos the FBI released on April 18. Russell delivered that warning to her husband without “any notion of surprise—just a report that ‘you’re being watched,’ ” according to one official briefed on the investigation. Those details came from the pre-Miranda interviews of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was cooperating with FBI interrogators before the questioning was abruptly stopped by a federal magistrate, who read the younger Tsarnaev his rights.
But it is Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Dagestan that has become a major focus of the investigation into the bombing. U.S. investigators in Dagestan are interviewing friends and relatives of Tsarnaev, trying to determine what contacts—if any—he had with jihadists in the region. Tsarnaev’s father, Anzor, says that his son stayed at his home in Dagestan throughout the entire trip. There are reasons to be skeptical. Among the videos Tsarnaev uploaded to a YouTube channel that officials believe he operated were some featuring Gadzhimurad Dolgatov, a Dagestani jihadist leader who was killed in a gun battle with Russian security forces in December 2012. The two men were in Dagestan at the same time, though it’s not yet clear if they met. As of this writing, the investigation has turned up a number of interesting leads but no concrete evidence that Tamerlan received training or guidance from the jihadists in the North Caucasus. The FBI told Coats that the bureau intended to reconstruct Tsarnaev’s entire six-month trip to Dagestan.
Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says the bombers’ lack of planning for after the attack suggests that the operation lacked the sophistication one might expect from someone with jihadist training. “You had one [brother] go back and start smoking dope, and while we don’t know exactly what Tamerlan did—these guys had no plan.”
But one intelligence official who participated in the briefings for lawmakers on Capitol Hill reached the opposite conclusion. “It’s almost impossible to believe that these two guys pulled this whole thing off.”
Chambliss, the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, agreed. “The guy didn’t spend six months in Russia eating and sleeping, like his daddy said. If you believe that, I’ve got oceanfront property in Nebraska to sell you.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.