The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) just released previously unseen notes from a 2011 interview with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The release puts a new wrinkle in the murky backstory of its relationship to the ringleader of the Boston marathon bombing.
Tsarnaev told the agents that four men dressed in suits had previously come looking for him (date not specified). They wanted to “talk to Tamerlan,” the report states. The men, who are described as “young” and “handsome,” identified themselves as FBI agents to someone whose name is redacted in the report.
According to the summary, the four men said they would return the next day, but did not — at least by the time of the interview.
The interview summary, known internally by the FBI as a form 302, adds a new and intriguing piece to the puzzle of when the Bureau first had contact with Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
In an ongoing effort to shed light on the events leading up to the Boston bombing, WhoWhatWhy requested information about the government’s interactions with Tamerlan through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) multiple times in various ways. Each time we were denied access.
Some of that information, specifically the two-page interview summary, was finally released last week to the FBI’s records vault, a kind of electronic “reading room” reserved for what the government calls “frequently requested records.” It’s not clear why the FBI released the report at this time.
Officially, the FBI maintains that Tamerlan was first brought to the Bureau’s attention by a March 2011 Russian “warning” about his possible radicalization. As a result of this warning, he was interviewed by a counterterrorism agent (CT Agent) as part of an “assessment.”
The newly released 302 summary is presumably the record of that interview, conducted roughly six weeks after Russia’s tip. The assessment was closed about a month later.
The Bureau claims it sought more information from the Russians but did not receive any response.
The way the report is written invites speculation about Tamerlan’s Russian connection.
“The men said they would be back ‘the next day’ but did not return. [Redacted] and TAMERLAN have not heard from them since. TAMERLAN doesn’t know anyone who may be upset with him.”
“TAMERLAN has never had any problems with Russians in the US due to his Chechen heritage… Putin and Medvedev are the problem not the Russian people. TAMERLAN has had Russian friends in the US,” the report reads.
Although no definitive conclusions can be drawn from these two paragraphs, it does appear that the “problems with Russians” was the topic that brought the mystery men to Tamerlan’s door.
It’s not clear from the summary whether the agents who wrote the report initiated contact or whether Tsarnaev called the Bureau because he thought they were looking for him.
The summary does not reveal whether the Bureau knows who the mystery men were and, predictably, the FBI is staying mum. A spokesperson told the Daily Beast somewhat cryptically that the Bureau is letting “the document speak for itself.”
Were the the four men agents from another FBI division, or from another intelligence agency? Or were they imposters? We don’t know. But in light of new revelations that many in Boston’s local law enforcement community think Tamerlan Tsarnaev played the role of an informant for the FBI, the document speaks volumes.
In her new book Maximum Harm: the Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI, And the Road to the Marathon Bombing, Boston-based reporter Michele McPhee claims many in local law enforcement now believe Tamerlan was playing multiple roles as an informant for the FBI and possibly the CIA in the years leading up to the bombing (For a WhoWhatWhy review of McPhee’s book, click here).
It’s possible the four mystery men were from another agency and used the FBI as cover. It’s possible they returned after the date of Tamerlan’s interview. It’s also possible that Tamerlan had numerous other encounters with federal agents — it’s just that none of that is mentioned in this particular interview summary.
For our part, WhoWhatWhy has documented evidence that the Bureau repeatedly flip-flopped about its interactions with Tamerlan.
Initially, when Tamerlan’s identity was made public after he was killed in a shootout with police — and while his younger brother Dzhokhar was still hiding in a drydocked boat — the FBI denied having any contact with either of the bombing suspects. The feds didn’t admit to having known Tamerlan until after Russian media reports quoting the mother of the Tsarnaev brothers; she said that the FBI had interviewed Tamerlan two years before the bombing, under suspicion of being a radical.
Only after the mother’s report appeared did the FBI acknowledge that agents had conducted an “assessment” of Tamerlan after the March 2011 warning from Russian security officials. The Bureau claimed to have found no link between Tamerlan and any “terrorism activity.”
But doubts about when the Bureau first took an interest in Tamerlan have surfaced. The day after Tamerlan’s death and Dzhokhar’s capture, a “senior law enforcement official” told The New York Times that in January 2011 two FBI agents from the Boston field office interviewed Tamerlan and family members. These interviews took place three months before Russia’s warning.
Tsarnaev’s mother told Russian media that agents met with Tamerlan and family members numerous times. She said the Bureau was “controlling him [Tamerlan], they were controlling his every step.”
Two months after the bombing, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted during congressional testimony that Tamerlan’s name had in fact come up twice in FBI files prior to Russia’s warning. “His name came up in two other cases,” he said.
The exchange was noteworthy. Mueller was fielding pointed questions from Rep. Steve King (R-IA) about when the Bureau first learned of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. King had just returned from Russia, where he received a briefing from Russian officials on what they knew about Tamerlan. King and other lawmakers had traveled to Russia to get information about the Tsarnaevs, in part because of FBI stonewalling.
There has been a lot of finger-pointing between US and Russian officials about who knew what and when about Tamerlan Tsarnaev and what he was up to. Not long after the bombing an unnamed “high-ranking” official told The New York Times that the bombing might have been averted had the Russians not withheld information they had on Tsarnaev. The obvious implication from the Times article: it was Russia’s fault.
Russian officials vehemently dispute this, claiming they repeatedly shared their concerns about Tsarnaev with their American counterparts, only to be told to mind their own business. This would make sense if the FBI thought Tamerlan was what intelligence agencies call a “valuable asset.”
Whatever the truth about who knew what and when, it’s clear both country’s security services were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, withholding what they knew or even suspected about Tsarnaev.
And now we can add this mysterious report about four men who claimed to be agents of the FBI visiting Tamerlan at some time prior to his 2011 interview. Who were these men?
Another intriguing part of the report is its date: April 22, 2011.
According to McPhee in Maximum Harm, the FBI was in contact with Russia’s Federal Security Service (which takes the acronym FSB in English) the very same day as Tamerlan’s interview. The topic? Another Russian immigrant with a Muslim background living in Boston: Ibragim Todashev.
Todashev, a mixed martial arts fighter and friend of Tamerlan, was shot and killed in Florida by federal agents who were interviewing him after he allegedly attacked them. Agents say he was in the process of confessing to his and Tamerlan’s participation in a 2011 triple murder in Waltham, Massachusetts, when he flipped a coffee table, striking one of the agents in the head. The shooting was deemed justified as self-defense by a review conducted by the Florida State Attorney.
McPhee reveals that the delegation of US Congressmen who went to Russia after the bombing were made aware of a communication between the FBI and the FSB on the topic of Ibragim Todashev. The date of that communication? April 22, 2011, the same day as Tamerlan’s FBI interview.
Although WhoWhatWhy has not independently verified that date it’s possible that Ibragim Todashev is the name redacted from the 302 summary and that he was the individual initially approached by the four mysterious men. Was the FBI querying the FSB for information on Todashev? This seems entirely plausible, although the Bureau has not offered up any details to the public since he was shot and killed by an FBI agent weeks after the Boston bombing.
About four months later, Tamerlan and his friend Ibragim allegedly committed the savage murder in Waltham. Inexplicably, neither was interviewed about the murder at the time, despite being known associates of the victims, and despite the fact that both of them were on the FBI’s radar.
Or maybe it’s because they were on the FBI’s radar that they weren’t questioned.
According to McPhee, “seasoned investigators” from the Boston area told her that Tsarnaev wasn’t questioned because he was “too valuable as an asset” to the FBI to be investigated for the murder of three drug dealers. Maybe Todashev got a free pass too.
It appears the Bureau is not coming entirely clean about its pre-bombing knowledge of Ibragim Todashev either.
Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller was asked about this by another Congressman who had been to Russia, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN). If McPhee is correct, Cohen could also have been aware of the communication between FBI and FSB about Todashev the day Tamerlan was interviewed. In fact, Cohen asked Mueller how the FBI first became aware of Todashev. “Was it through the FSB, or was it your own investigation?,” Cohen asked. Mueller dodged the question by telling Cohen: “We came upon him in a variety of ways.”
WhoWhatWhy discovered previously that Todashev’s name appears multiple times in FBI indices in the years before the bombing. However, we did not see any entries from 2011. As with Tsarnaev, the Bureau clearly had an interest in Todashev long before he died at the hands of an FBI agent.
What is it about the pre-bombing contacts between Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Ibragim Todashev and the Bureau that necessitates all the secrecy and subterfuge we’ve seen since the bombing? Maybe those four mystery men know.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from 302 (FBI) and Tamerlan (Wikimedia).