WASHINGTON: US intelligence knew more about the movements of one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects than previously reported, US officials said on Wednesday, raising more questions about the government’s handling of the case and the sharing of information among agencies.
US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the FBI was alerted when Tamerlan Tsarnaev traveled to Russia last year. They also said Russia, which had tipped off the FBI about its concerns over Tsarnaev in early 2011, made a second, identical request to the CIA in late September 2011.
Police say the ethnic Chechens Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev planted and detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the marathon on April 15, killing three people and injuring 264.
A briefing by the FBI before the House Intelligence Committee revealed that the two brothers apparently became radicalised by anti-US information on the Internet, members of Congress said.
“It looks like they built their bomb based on ‘Inspire’ magazine and the article said how to build a bomb in mom’s kitchen,” said Representative Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
The online magazine “Inspire,” circulated by Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, publishes English-language exhortations to would-be Western jihadists to carry out attacks with whatever means they have at hand. It recently published detailed instructions on how to build homemade devices.
“The younger bomber in whatever type of communication he’s using said that’s where they got the instruction to build the bomb,” Ruppersberger said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was killed in a shootout with police Friday and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, was wounded, captured and charged with crimes that could result in the death penalty if he is convicted. Dzhokhar remained in fair condition in hospital on Wednesday, officials said.
Attention has focused on the elder brother as the driving force behind the bombings. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, described a four month-long investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 after Russia’s intelligence service, known as the FSB, told the Americans that Tamerlan had become a follower of radical Islam.
As part of the FBI’s probe, Tamerlan’s name was entered into a US Customs and Border Protection database known as TECS.
US officials said when Tamerlan left the United States for a six-month stay in Russia in January 2012, the TECS database sent an alert to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multi-agency FBI-led body in Boston.
It remains unclear what investigators did with the information.
Several months after asking the FBI for help investigating Tsarnaev, the Russians contacted the CIA in September 2011 with the same information they had supplied to the FBI.
While in Russia, Tsarnaev traveled to Dagestan and authorities are investigating whether he became involved with or influenced by Chechen separatists or Islamic militants there.
Some of the elder brother’s dissatisfaction may stem from the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ruppersberger said following the briefing in Washington.
Tsarnaev, an amateur boxer, also had wanted to box on the US national team, but he could not because he was not a naturalized US citizen and had a domestic violence complaint against him, he said.
A man who said he was Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, said a man he knew only as Misha had influenced his nephew’s deepening interest in Islam.
Standing at the door of his home in Montgomery Village, Maryland, Tsarni said he first heard of Misha, whom he described as of Armenian descent, in 2009.
Misha was “working with Tamerlan, pulling him in to Islam, introducing him into Islam in such a way that the guy in a short time quit what he was doing,” he said. “He quit boxing, he quitmusic.”
“It seems like, what we heard, Tamerlan had been quite occupied with him,” Tsarni said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name also was listed on a separate US government highly classified central database of people it views as potential threats, sources said. The list is vast, including about 500,000 people, preventing law enforcement from closely monitoring everyone on it.
Some on Capitol Hill questioned whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other US security agencies failed to share information about him, even after reforms enacted to prevent information-hoarding following the September 11 hijacked plane attacks 12 years ago.
“That’s something that we have to look at,” said Senator Dan Coats, a Republican from Indiana also on the Intelligence Committee. “That’s one of the key things that we have learned and need to work on to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and that is simultaneous communication to all the relevant agencies when a warning is posted.”
Members of Congress briefed by law enforcement and media reports citing unidentified sources indicate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told investigators that he and his brother acted without assistance from any foreign or domestic militant groups.
“That basically seems to be the story, but I don’t see how we can accept that,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican on House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN.
“It may end up being the truth but … I don’t see why he would be giving up any accomplices he may have or talking about any connections his brother may have had in Chechnya or Russia,” King said on Wednesday.
The full Senate was scheduled to receive its own briefing on Thursday.
In Grozny, the capital of Russia’s volatile Chechnya region, a member of the extended family said the brothers were victims of a Russian plot to portray them as Chechen terrorists operating on US soil.
Among the remaining mysteries was how the bombers acquired the black powder used as explosives in the home-made pressure cooker bombs packed with nails and ball bearings. Tamerlan bought two large packages of fireworks in February from a store in Seabrook, New Hampshire, but the explosive powder they contained would not have been “anywhere near enough” to build the bombs, said William Weimer, vice president at Phantom Fireworks.