Bomb investigation pivots to a new mystery: Motive

Bomb investigation pivots to a new mystery: Motive
With one suspect dead and the other captured and lying grievously wounded in a hospital, the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings turned on Saturday to questions about the men's motives, and to the significance of a trip one of the bombers took to Chechnya.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed early Friday after a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass., traveled to Russia for six months in 2012. Law enforcement officials are now conducting a review of that trip to see if Tsarnaev might have met with extremists or received training from them while abroad, current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials said.

Kevin R. Brock, a former senior FBI and counterterrorism official, said, "It's a key thread for investigators and the intelligence community to pull on."

The investigators began scrutinizing the events in the months and years before the fatal attack, as Boston began to feel like itself for the first time in nearly a week. Monday had brought the bombing, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which killed three and wounded scores, and the tense days that followed culminated in Friday's lockdown of the entire region as police searched for Tsarnaev's younger brother from suburban backyards to an Amtrak train bound for New York City.

On Saturday morning, federal prosecutors were drafting a criminal complaint against Tsarnaev's brother and suspected accomplice in the bombings, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, who was wounded in the leg and neck and had lost a great deal of blood when he was captured Friday evening. The FBI and local law enforcement agencies continued to gather evidence and investigate the bombings on Monday, the slaying of an MIT police officer Thursday night and the subsequent battle with the police that left another officer critically wounded.

An official said the criminal complaint will likely include a constellation of charges stemming from both the bombings and the shooting, possibly including the use of weapons of mass destruction, an applicable charge for the detonation of a bomb. That charge, the official said, carries a maximum penalty of death. While Massachusetts has outlawed the death penalty, federal law allows it.

President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers devoted their weekly broadcast addresses to the Boston attack, with both sides finding a common voice over the five days of uproar and lockdown leading up to the death of the elder Tsarnaev, an amateur boxer who seemed to follow a path of anger and alienation, and the capture of his seemingly more easygoing and Americanized brother.

In his weekly address, the president applauded the "heroism and kindness" on display in the aftermath of the bombings. "Americans refuse to be terrorized," he said. "Ultimately, that's what we'll remember from this week."

In the Republican response, Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina sounded a note of national unity. While the bombers hoped to "shake the confidence of a city," he said, "they have instead only strengthened the resolve of our nation."

The seeds of arguments to come were already apparent, however. Questions arose concerning the arrest and prosecution of the surviving brother, and whether he should be given a Miranda warning and other elements of constitutional rights in criminal cases. Further attention surrounds the government's early scrutiny of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and whether possible warning signs may have been missed.

In the hours after the arrest, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, both Republicans, issued a statement late Friday calling for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is a naturalized American citizen, to be treated like a terrorist, not a criminal, with reduced constitutional rights and no right to remain silent as promised in Miranda warnings.

"It is absolutely vital the suspect be questioned for intelligence gathering purposes," the statement said. "The least of our worries is a criminal trial which will likely be held years from now."

The statement, released on Graham's Facebook page, was immediately attacked by civil libertarians like Ellis Hughes of Durham, NC, who wrote, "That is immoral, unconstitutional and wrong. Don't let your fear or political ambitions damage our moral compass."

In fact, investigators did invoke what the Justice Department has called a public-safety exception to delay the discussion of the Miranda rule with the younger Tsarnaev.

As federal officials step up their investigation, an important element will be the trip the elder brother made to Russia and Chechnya in 2012. In early 2011, the FBI said in a statement, "a foreign government" - now acknowledged by officials to be Russia - asked for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, "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." A 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."

The bureau responded to the request by checking "US 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. The bureau also interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members. According to the statement, "The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign," and conveyed those findings to "the foreign government" by the summer of 2011. As the law enforcement official put in, "We didn't find anything on him that was derogatory."

Tamerlan Tsarnaev did travel to Russia early last year and returned six months later, on July 17, a law enforcement official said. He spent most of the time with his father in Makhachkala, the capital of the Dagestan region, the men's father, Anzor Tsarnaev, told a Russian interviewer, but "we went to Chechnya to visit relatives." Members of the Tsarnaev family in Makhachkala recalled those interviews vividly.In an interview in Russia, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of the two men, said the FBI had questioned her older son closely. She recalled that the agents had told her that he 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."

The state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the father about the FBI's close questioning, "two or three times," of his elder son. The father,who lives in a five-story, yellow brick building in a working-class neighborhood of the city, recalled that the agents told his son, "We know what you read, what you drink, what you eat, where you go." He said they told his son that 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."

Those comments, he said, disturbed him. "This conversation took place a year and a half ago," he said. "But there is a question: Why would they talk about it then?"

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva expressed confidence in her sons' innocence. "I am 100 percent sure this is a set-up," she told an interviewer on Russia Today. When they were growing up, she said, "nobody talked about terrorism." While her older son "got involved in religion, religious politics five years ago," she said, "he never told me that he would be on the side of jihad."

It was in the aftermath of the visit to Dagestan and Chechnya, however, that the most obvious alienation emerged. One month after Tamerlan Tsarnaev 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.

One video features the preaching of Abdul al-Hamid al-Juhani, an important ideologue in Chechnya; another focuses on Feiz Mohammad, an extremist Salafi Lebanese preacher based in Australia.

He also created a playlist of songs by a Russian musical artist, Timur Mucuraev, one of which promotes jihad, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors statements by jihadists.

Anzor Tsarnaev and his younger son first came to the United States legally in April 2002 on 90-day tourist visas, federal law enforcement officials said.Once in this country, the father applied for political asylum, claiming he feared deadly persecution based on his ties to Chechnya.Dzhokhar, who was 8, applied for asylum under his father's petition, the officials said, and became a naturalized citizen on Sept. 11 of last year. Tamerlan Tsarnaev came to the United States later, and applied for American citizenship on Sept. 5 last year, federal law enforcement officials said.

Although Anzor Tsarnaev has said that his older son's citizenship application had been denied - and certainly would have been if he were under suspicion as a potential terrorist - the officials said it was still in process and had not been either approved or denied.

As a routine part of his application, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was subject to a criminal background check by the FBI. The authorities there confirmed that he had been involved in a domestic violence incident while he was a resident with a green card, the officials said. A review of the incident delayed his citizenship application, the officials said, but it was not deemed serious enough to halt it.

The return to normal from the total lockdown that paralyzed Boston on Friday will be gradual. On Saturday morning Logan International Airport was still operating at a heightened state of security.

© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: April 20, 2013 23:51 IST

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