The strange ability of Tamerlan Tsarnaev to slip through airports without delay in both New York and Moscow—despite being on security watch-lists—raises questions about both American and Russian security agencies. Photo credit: Workstation: U.S.F.D.A. / Flickr
The strange ability of Tamerlan Tsarnaev to slip through airports without delay in both New York and Moscow—despite being on security watch-lists—raises questions about both American and Russian security agencies. Photo credit: Workstation: U.S.F.D.A. / Flickr

The strange ability of Tamerlan Tsarnaev to slip through airports without delay in both New York and Moscow—despite being on security watch-lists—raises questions about both American and Russian security agencies. Photo credit: Workstation: U.S.F.D.A. / Flickr

In the penalty phase of the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the shadow of his dead elder brother Tamerlan looms large.

The defense team’s effort to avoid the death penalty hinges on the claim that Tamerlan was the lead player in the plot and heavily influenced his impressionable younger brother. We will soon learn if this strategy succeeds in saving Dzhokhar’s life—at the price of incarceration without chance of parole at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”

But one thing that the trial will not do is open a window onto the whole back story of the bombing itself, the motivations of the perpetrators, and the many signs that there may be more to it. WhoWhatWhy has provided more investigative coverage of this story than any news organization in the United States, or the world. That’s because we see the singularity of the event, the tremendous resources brought to bear on it, and the clampdown on various rights and liberties, including the government’s first-time ability to make Americans stay in their houses until told they may leave.

Nowhere do we see more of a hint of something amiss than in the US national security apparatus’ seeming lack of interest in the international travels of Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the Boston Marathon bombing—even after the authorities were explicitly warned to watch him as a threat.

Equally confounding is that Russia seems to have taken the same “hands off” approach to Tamerlan’s travels there, despite stated worries about his being a “radical Islamist.”

In truth, this “failure to look” may have been no accident. It is a common practice for intelligence services worldwide to allow those who are either would-be troublemakers or pretend troublemakers to circulate with relative freedom in order to snare bigger fish—or as dangles to opposing spy agencies. The upside—confusing or compromising your opponents—is obvious. The downside is less so, but no less significant, and tragedy can result when the maneuvering goes wrong.

Ignored or Waived Through?


US authorities didn’t bother to question Tamerlan Tsarnaev at JFK international Airport when he flew to Dagestan in 2012, despite watch-listing him as potentially “armed and dangerous.” The same thing happened when he flew back six months later.

Recall that Tsarnaev was watch-listed as a result of Russia’s March, 2011 “warning” to the FBI and the CIA that he was exhibiting a growing extremism and concocting plans to travel to the North Caucasus to join the Jihad there against Russia.

The FBI claims to have “investigated” Tsarnaev upon receiving the warning, but ultimately concluded he was not a threat to the United States, and officially closed the investigation on June 24, 2011. The “investigation” itself was laughably superficial, and largely consisted of directly confronting Tsarnaev and asking him if he was up to no good. Unsurprisingly, neither he nor his neighbors or friends reported any kind of forthcoming plot.

However, Tsarnaev was placed on at least two watch lists as a result of the Russian warnings. Why Tsarnaev was watch-listed in light of an investigation that supposedly turned up nothing is unclear. What is clear is that the language in the listing warns of a dangerous individual who must be detained.

It warns that Tamerlan might be armed and dangerous, and notes that his detention and secondary screening are “mandatory.” It also says to “immediately call the lookout duty officer at NTC [Customs and Border Protection National Targeting Center]” and that the “call is mandatory whether or not the officer believes there is an exact match.”

Either the FBI was criminally incompetent, or this easy treatment and dismissal of the high-level Russian warning was deliberate.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev? Who’s That?

The apparent neglect of Tamerlan Tsarnaev continued.

The intrigue thickens when one considers that it was not just the US that took a hands-off approach to Tamerlan’s travels, but Russia as well.

Tamerlan arrived, via Moscow, in Dagestan in late January, 2012. But why would they let him? The 2011 “warnings” issued to the FBI by Russia’s Federal Security Service (known in English by the acronym FSB) were centered specifically on Tamerlan’s traveling to Russia. Why not just refuse him entry and put him on the next plane back to New York?

Russian officials originally feigned ignorance about the fact that Tamerlan had even traveled to Dagestan. Yet, we later found out he was, in fact, stopped by local authorities and brought in for questioning. It also became known he was being filmed by anti-terrorism operatives, who at one point, “scrambled to locate him when he disappeared from sight,” indicating they were following him closely.

And two days before Tamerlan left Dagestan for the United States by way of Moscow, they “lost track of him”—meaning he didn’t get any extra attention at the airport.

How do we explain the disconnect between the warnings and watch-listing of Tsarnaev with the bewildering failures to stop him at airports in both the US and Russia?

Tamerlan the Grim Reaper

Did Russian security forces purposefully allow Tamerlan Tsarnaev to travel without impediment?

Did Russian security forces intentionally allow Tamerlan Tsarnaev to travel without impediment?

One intriguing possibility is that Russian officials allowed him into Dagestan to “smoke out” Jihadis operating in and around the area.

At least two insurgents that Tsarnaev was said to have contacts with ended up dead at the hands of Russian anti-terrorism forces—while Tamerlan was still in that country.

One of them was Mahmoud Mansur Nidal. An official from the Russian anti-extremism unit told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta that Tsarnaev had been spotted repeatedly with the suspected militant, Nidal, who was killed not long after in a counter-terrorism raid, as reported by the New York Times.

The other insurgent was William Plotnikov. An ex-boxer like Tamerlan, Plotnikov was born in Russia, but raised in Canada, and was also said to have heard the call of Jihad in the North Caucasus. Both men were in Dagestan at the same time and there are unconfirmed reports from Gazeta and others that the two had been in contact.

For American investigators, the date of Plotnikov’s death, July 14, 2012, has reportedly been of particular interest. Just a few days after Plotnikov was killed in Dagestan, Tsarnaev left the region and went back to the US in an apparent hurry. He did not even wait to pick up his new Russian passport, which, according to his father, was the reason he went to Russia in the first place. According to this logic, Tsarnaev was somehow spooked by the death of Plotnikov.

Were Russian officials trying to send a message to Tsarnaev—someone they may have suspected of being a foreign agent? After all, Russian officials were aware he’d been in contact with the FBI in the year before he traveled to Russia.

Or was Tsarnaev somehow leading Russian authorities to these insurgents, either wittingly or unwittingly?

It was also at this point that Russian authorities who were surveilling Tamerlan claimed to have “lost track” of him as he returned to the US. Did they really “lose” him? Or did they let him go?

According to US officials, Tsarnaev purchased his ticket back to the United States on June 22, 2012, three weeks before the killing of Plotnikov. Even if he changed the departure date of the ticket in haste, it’s hard to believe airline tickets purchased by individuals in the violence-plagued North Caucasus region would not receive intense scrutiny by the FSB. Yet, just as he did at JFK International, he got through Moscow without being stopped.

Watch and Learn

We are routinely reminded that the sole purpose of our ever-expanding national security apparatus is to keep us average citizens safe from bodily harm. But is that really the case? Or are our security agencies gambling with our safety by allowing violent individuals in and out of the country for some larger espionage or geopolitical game between spy agencies?

Despite the rhetoric, low-level terrorists like Tsarnaev are not, in fact, considered a strategic threat to the US by intelligence agencies. They do, however, cause a lot of misery for the unfortunates who turn out to be their victims.

It’s standard practice for opposing spy agencies to provoke one another in an effort to learn something from the other’s reaction. If something goes horribly wrong, the result is typically to increase the security apparatus’s budgets and power. In other words, there is no downside to the responsible agencies—only up, up and away.

It is worth noting that exactly a half century before the Marathon bombings, another man traveled easily between the US and Russia, with the security services of both countries inexplicably tolerant of his movements. His name was Lee Harvey Oswald. Whatever one is to make of Oswald, the net effect of the terror activity associated with him in no way slowed the growth of the national security agencies responsible, nor was anyone ever really held accountable.

Despite these gargantuan screw-ups or, more generously, misjudgments, one might think there would be a subsequent reining in of the national security apparatus—maybe even a few high-level firings. But instead, these tragic events perversely end up benefiting the agencies responsible. Public fear and outrage leads to calls to increase budgets and to double down on covert activities, only further eroding civil liberties and therefore democracy itself.

Alas, it appears to work the same the world over.

Photo credits for panorama: Boston Logan Airport Metro: Troy / Flickr, Airline Cabin: Simon Grubb / Flickr, Moscow Airport: Alex LA / Flickr, Mosque. Makhachkala, Dagestan: Gadzhi Kharkharov / Flickr, Agent 1: The White House / Flickr, Agent 2: The White House / Flickr, Camera: Matt Buck / Flickr, Agent 3: US Army Africa / Flickr

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So what about the 2 gunman in Texas? Reports they are ISIS men. How did NSA miss them? Do they have a link to CIA?


Most likely, they work very closely with CIA.


This causes one to reflect on the signifigance of the Russian spies recently deported out of Cambridge. Also, one of the little known but most significant incidents of traitorous activity was perpetrated by a group of former U.S. army soldiers that collaborated with the Warsaw Pact countries back in the 80’s, more specifically, one of the ring-leaders, Rod Ramsay, who was convicted of espionage had significant family ties to Massachusetts/Boston. Ramsay lived in Boston with his former boarding school classmates from the New York Military Academy (NYMA), his close friend’s family was involved with and close to FBI informant Steve “the rifleman” Flemmi. Consistently, this family friend is also one who has slipped under the radar over the years utilizing “relationships” with local law enforcement when necessary. Apparently, George Clooney recently bought the rights to a planned book and movie – Three Minutes Till Doomsday. Over-all, it is interesting that not only in the case of the Marathon Bombers but in the past there is a significant history with Russian intelligence/espionage connecting to Boston.


The U.S. is being ran by Mafia-like agencies it seems.

HP McLovincraft

Oswald in Russia


He was married to a Russian woman.

HP McLovincraft

your understanding is sorely limited. reading is not your enemy.


“…there is no downside to the responsible agencies—only up, up and away.”

No downside until the point that they go too far. For me and others, I think that point has already passed but for the general public I think it is very close.

Woody Box

“Or was Tsarnaev somehow leading Russian authorities to these insurgents, either wittingly or unwittingly?”

Mmmmmh – this thought is quite inviting. On a broader scale – USA/FBI lended out Tamerlan to the Russians/FSB to help them with the insurgents, at a time when US-Russian relationships were fairly intact.


I understand that Tamerlan was possibly an informant, possibly a double agent but how or why would US-Russian spy “intrigue” be behind the bombing, with emphasis on the “intrigue” aspect of the spying.


The kid got a choice that he couldn’t refuse. He could plead innocent and expose how the USA gov’t was behind it to get people to want all guns taken away but end up in prison where some BIG UGLY guy would make him his “girl” or he could go along with it and get the Tim McVeigh treatment where they PRETEND to execute you but really give you a new identity and ship you off to some place where you can live as long as you don’t come out of hiding and tell the truth.


Boston was carried out by our American right-wing terrorists. Z bros had a million dollars worth of support in the 2 years before 4/15/13, flying all over the world, eating at fancy restaurants about every day, practically new Mercedes SUV that they ragged out. I figure various tea-bag orgs, with all their unaccountable loot put up the big bucks. Many Southern ex-military fascist types were more than willing to ruin the athletic party in Yankee liberal land. Those Z boys could barely make a peanut butter sandwich; no way could they make all those IEDs. A lot of bad crap comes from our gun-worshipping Nazi T-bag Republican types in the middle of April. That’s several (un)Holy days for them: Lincoln’s assassination, OK City, Waco.


hey James, hi Russ/Doug Vaughan’s Canadian colleague here—the parallels between LHO, the assassination plots vs Castro and the Tsarnaev/Plotnikov/Todashev nexus are clear but big question is: what was the operational advantage?

And, moreover, did a working FBI/CIA-FSB relationship survive the Ukrainian mess? To me, the root of this story is the apartment bombings of 1999: that’s where Putin first tipped his hand that no crime was too outrageous to ensure he came to power. A cost-benefit analysis of the Boston mess says to me that the FSB wanted a “dangle” and got one…with US permission.

That part was can’t-lose. But like the Jeddah visa fiasco re 9/11 alQ crew’s passport clearances (which clearly included Saudi intell ‘sheepdips’ of the hijackers), the US counterintell here is hardly grounded in the working nuances the FSB and GRU have in Dagestan. So: the FBI faces a stacked deck in co-operationalizing a “dangle in Dagestan” with the FSB. They have neither the cultural insights nor the assets on the ground to vet what’s really going on, even assuming (optimistically) a workable degree of cooperation with CIA.

If you apply the thinking of (say) Indian counterintell in sharing mobile phone encrypts of alQ conversations in Afg and Pak, the locals will almost always be ahead of distant ‘info share’ partner. My gut here is that the FBI were playing spy with the big kids and were totally burned. So, like Hoover and the Warren Commission, the FBI simply withholds the truly revealing documentation, cuts a deal with the prosecution (read: WC ‘investigators’) and moves on.

Without a big leak from w/in the prosecution or the FBI teams tasked with handling the evidentiary flows…y’got nothing. Where’s Snowden when you need him? ;)