Search in Boston bombings now shifts to why
Federal investigators are hurrying to review a visit that one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers made to Chechnya and Dagestan last year.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — With one suspect dead and the other captured and lying grievously wounded in a hospital, the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings turned Saturday to questions about the men’s motives, and to the significance of an overseas trip one of them took last year.
Federal investigators are hurrying to review a visit that one of the suspected bombers made to Chechnya and Dagestan, predominantly Muslim republics in the North Caucasus region of Russia. Both have active militant separatist movements.
There are concerns in Congress about the FBI’s handling of a request from Russia before the trip to examine the man’s possible links to extremist groups in the region.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who died early Friday after a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass., spent six months of last year in Russia.
Tamerlan’s father, Anzor, said his son had returned to renew his passport, but his stay was prolonged and, analysts said, may have marked a crucial step in his path toward the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Kevin Brock, a former senior FBI and counterterrorism official, said, “It’s a key thread for investigators and the intelligence community to pull on.”
The bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, that killed three and wounded more than 170, and the tense days afterward culminated in Friday’s lockdown of the region as police searched for Tsarnaev’s younger brother, Dzhokhar, 19, from suburban backyards to an Amtrak train bound for New York.
The motivations of the older man and his brother, who was captured late Friday and is still too injured to speak, are not known. Of Chechen heritage, they lived in the United States for years, according to friends and relatives, and no direct ties have been publicly established with known Chechen terrorist or separatist groups.
The investigators began scrutinizing the events in the months and years before the fatal attack, as Boston on Saturday began to feel like itself for the first time in nearly a week. The Red Sox returned to Fenway Park for the first time since before the explosions, wearing white shirts that read “Boston.”
In nearby Watertown, college rowing teams raced down the Charles River and news crews began pulling out of the Watertown Mall parking lot, ceding it to shoppers.
But along Franklin Street, where the bloodied Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — spotted by a homeowner checking on his boat in the backyard — was pulled from the tarp-covered boat after an exchange of gunfire, investigators were still at work, searching for clues while shaken residents looked for consolation.
“It was frightening,” said Namita Kiran, 48, who lives on nearby Barnard Avenue and was drawn Saturday to the police barricades, sharing tales with neighbors. Franklin, roped off with police lines, served as a greeting place, as neighbors arrived to see where the week’s events had culminated, kids, dogs and cups of coffee in hand.
The significance of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia was magnified late Friday when the FBI disclosed that in 2011 “a foreign government” — now acknowledged to be Russia — asked for information about Tamerlan, “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 senior law-enforcement official said the Russians feared he could be a risk, and “they had something on him and were concerned about him, and him traveling to their region.”
But the FBI never followed up on Tamerlan Tsarnaev once he returned, a senior law-enforcement official acknowledged Saturday, adding that the bureau had not kept tabs on him until he was identified Friday as the first suspect in the marathon bombing case.
Russia and the United States have since 1994 routinely exchanged requests for background information on residents traveling to each other’s countries on visa, criminal or terrorism issues.
It was unclear Saturday whether Russia makes requests of any American traveler of Chechen origin to Russia, or if the Russian government offered the FBI specific evidence in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
The bureau responded to the request by checking “U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history,” the statement explained.
In January 2011, two agents from the bureau’s Boston field office interviewed Tamerlan and relatives, a senior law-enforcement official said Saturday.
According to the FBI’s statement, “The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign,” and conveyed those findings to “the foreign government” by summer 2011.
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the father of the Tsarnaev brothers recalling the FBI’s close questioning of his elder son, “two or three times.”
He said they had told his son the questioning “is prophylactic, so that no one sets off bombs on the streets of Boston, so that our children could peacefully go to school.”
In an interview in Russia, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of the two men, recalled that the agents had told her Tamerlan was “an excellent boy,” but “at the same time, they told me he is getting information from really extremist sites, and they are afraid of him.”
After the visit to Dagestan and Chechnya, signs of alienation emerged.
One month after Tamerlan returned to the United States, a YouTube page that appeared to belong to him was created and featured multiple jihadi videos that he had endorsed in the past six months.
President Obama said there are many unanswered questions about the bombing, including whether the Tsarnaev brothers had help from others. The president urged people not to rush judgment about their motivations.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors were drafting a criminal complaint against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
An official said the complaint would likely include a constellation of charges stemming from the bombings and subsequent shootings, including the fatal shooting of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police Officer Sean Collier.
Among the possible charges is one for use of weapons of mass destruction, an applicable charge for the detonation of a bomb.
That charge, one official said, carries a maximum penalty of death.
While Massachusetts has outlawed the death penalty, federal law allows it.
Material from The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers is included in this report.