CNN’s headline this morning reads, “Boston suspect: It was just us.” The headline links to an article that begins by explaining that the “surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings has told investigators that his older brother, not any international terrorist group, masterminded the deadly attack, a U.S. government source said.” The same source says the “two brothers fit the classification of self-radicalized jihadists.” Other press accounts recount the same story.
This may very well be the case – perhaps no one else was involved in the brothers’ journey to terror. And they certainly appear to have acted by themselves on the day of the attack.
Then again, it was not the younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who may have made contact with professional terrorists overseas. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, is the one whose behavior was especially suspicious in this regard. And Tamerlan Tsarnaev is not around to answer questions about who he may have met with during his curious travels.
In early 2011, according to the FBI, the Russian government warned that Tamerlan “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.” (Emphasis added.)
We still do not know why the Russians issued this warning, or what intelligence they had about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s intentions. Why did the Russians suspect he planned “to join unspecified underground groups,” that is, according to press accounts, Chechen terrorists?
The Russian’s warning is all the more important given that investigators are currently trying to piece together the details of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six months abroad in 2012.
The Wall Street Journal reports: “U.S. investigators are looking into a Russian intelligence report that alleged Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev met with a suspected militant during his six-month visit to Russia in 2012, according to American law-enforcement officials.”
That report has not yet been verified. But we are left with the Russians warning beforehand that Tamerlan Tsarnaev planned to meet with bad actors and now at least one intelligence report after the fact saying he did just that.
To this we can add one other observation: In August 2012, one month after he returned to the United States, Tamerlan Tsarnaev began linking to online propaganda videos that were created and disseminated by the very same types of groups he is suspected of meeting.
There is a temptation in some corridors to disregard the Russians’ reporting because of their abysmal human rights record and heavy hand in dealing with their opposition. The Russians have incentives to portray all dissidents as terrorists. But there is every indication that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was just that, a terrorist, so it does not make sense to dismiss the Russians’ reporting out-of-hand. And we know that at least two key parts of the Russians’ 2011 warning did, in fact, come true: Tsarnaev was further radicalized and he did travel overseas. In this light, the FBI’s attempt to dismiss the Russians’ warning as non-specific makes no sense.
Moreover, there is no indication that American intelligence officials were independently following Tamerlan Tsarnaev during his six-month trip abroad in 2012. Sen. Lindsey Graham says that the FBI was not even aware that Tsarnaev had left the country.
American officials are, therefore, left to attempt to verify the Russians’ intelligence through whatever sources they can consult months after Tsarnaev returned to the United States and launched a terrorist attack. This is a tricky endeavor, which may not even result in definitive conclusions.
All of the reporting thus far suggests that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalization began before he traveled abroad. And, as far as we know, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev remained stateside, making him a homegrown terrorist. The younger Tsarnaev says his dead brother led him down the path to the Boston Marathon bombings.
The question remains: Did anyone help Tamerlan Tsarnaev?
We do not know. Perhaps the Tsarnaev brothers were merely inspired by jihadism. Or maybe Tamerlan Tsarnaev succeeded in meeting with the types of characters whose business it is terrorize civilians. Even in that case, we would need to learn more about what actually transpired.
The bottom line is we should not prejudge this matter one way or the other.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.