Unanswered Questions About the Boston Marathon Bombing

Do we know the full story of the deadly attack four years ago?

According an FBI interview with Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, held two years before the April 2013 bombing, four mysterious men claiming to be FBI agents had previously tried to contact him. NBC reports that prior to the FBI interview in April, 2011, Russian intelligence was already aware of Tsarnaev. They had alerted the FBI that he had traveled to Chechnya, a region known for Islamist training camps. Tsarnaev's brother, Dzhokhar, has been sentenced to die for the murder of four spectators at the Boston Marathon and his role in the death of MIT police officer Sean Collier. The summary notes that at the time, that Tamerlan Tsarnaev told the FBI that he had "respect for all religions and feels that any religion makes your life better."

Four years ago today, America was hit by a homegrown jihadist attack of the kind everybody dreaded in the dozen years since 9/11. Two bombs detonated at the finish line of the storied Boston Marathon, inflicting hundreds of casualties and stunning the nation. The bloody manhunt that followed in the days after provided a perfect, nonstop drama for the social media age.

The case officially ended with the death of one terrorist and the wounding of the other, leading to his capture and an eventual death sentence for his part in the plot. They murdered a policeman on their high-speed death ride through the Boston suburbs, bringing their kill total to four. In the years since, the public has learned a great deal about the murderous plans and motivations of the terrorists, the two Tsarnaev brothers, immigrants turned jihadists, but parts of their story remain shrouded in a mystery that may linger in perpetuity.

In the first place, it needs to be said that, by choosing to place their homemade pressure-cooker bombs at the marathon’s finish line, for maximum effect, the terrorists reduced their death toll, since there were plenty of first-responders right there. Dozens of victims, shredded by shrapnel, limbs severed by the blasts, survived—thanks to the immediate presence of EMTs and other medical personnel.

Miraculously, only three died in the attack—a 29-year-old restaurant manager, a 23-year-old graduate student from China, and an eight-year-old boy blown apart in front of his parents—while dozens were gravely wounded. More than 250 were hospitalized, many missing legs, thanks to the ground position of the bombs, which were packed with ball-bearings and nails for maximum injury to innocents.

There’s no doubt that the depressing saga of the Tsarnaev brothers had an impact on the election of Donald Trump last year. These were poster-boys for why admitting immigrants and refugees from war-ravaged Muslim regions isn’t considered a great idea by many Americans. Although half-Chechen by ancestry, Tamerlan and Dzhokar identified as fully Chechen—manly, warlike and uncompromising. Tamerlan, the elder brother who was the ideological and practical leader of their little jihadist gang, gradually accepted a radical version of Islam. Here the influence of their mother, a convinced Islamist, seems to have been cancerous.

Regardless of how these two young immigrants became jihadists, their motivation to blow up the Boston Marathon was the now-customary list of cliched Islamist grievances: America’s wars in the Middle East, our support for Israel, plus a long list of Western insults to the Muslim world (real or imagined). Tamerlan, an angry young man, transformed himself from an aspiring boxer to a jihadist wannabe living on welfare, plotting the murder of Americans around him.

Here a trip he took in 2011 to his ancestral home in the Caucasus region of southern Russia seems to have played an important part in Tamerlan’s radicalization. The Federal Security Service, Russia’s powerful FSB, watched some of his activities during the half-year Tamerlan spent on their turf. They noted his associations with known Islamists and related radicals, some of them his relatives, and considered him to be a suspicious person. In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, the FSB let it be known that they had warned the FBI about Tamerlan and his dubious associations two years before the marathon attack—implying the Bureau had dropped the ball.

The FBI examined the matter and concluded that the Kremlin was playing one of its usual spy-games with the Tsarnaev case, trying to make American officials look bad. In fact, the FSB hadn’t shared much of any information at all with the FBI, it was determined, and certainly nothing that should have been a wake-up call about Tamerlan. In fairness to the FBI, the Russians were spinning stories about the Tsarnaevs at the exact moment, it later emerged, that Edward Snowden was stealing the last of the million-plus classified documents he purloined from NSA, just before he defected to Moscow via Hong Kong, under the protection of the FSB. Skepticism is always in order regarding any public statements made by Kremlin spies.

Nevertheless, the FBI didn’t exactly cover itself in glory with the Tsarnaev case, including the bizarre death of Ibragim Todashev, a 27-year-old Chechen immigrant boxer and friend of Tamerlan. A month after the Boston bombing, the FBI questioned Todashev, whom they suspected played some role in the attack, in Orlando. According to the Bureau, the aggressive young man attacked the agent questioning him, and in response the FBI man shot him dead.

FBI sources claimed that, just before he was killed, Todashev implicated himself and Tamerlan in a 2011 triple homicide in Waltham, a Boston suburb not noted for mass murder. The unsolved crime shocked the community, since it involved the brutal slaying of three men who were fond of marijuana. Their throats were slit—so deeply they were nearly decapitated—while the bodies were covered in several thousand dollars’ worth of pot, a symbolic gesture by the killer (or killers, the police thought more likely).

Robbery was not the motive, since $5,000 in cash was found in the apartment where the three men were slaughtered. Tamerlan had been an exceptionally close friend of one of the victims, although the two had a major falling out, for reasons that were never clear. Since the crime occurred not long after Tamerlan returned from Russia, radicalized, investigators theorized that he viewed his former pothead associates with disdain and sought to teach them a lesson.

That the murder occurred on September 11, 2011—ten years after 9/11, exactly—and that the three murdered men were Jewish offered tantalizing clues as to what happened in Waltham, and why, but no more than that. The Boston bombing may not have been Tamerlan’s first jihadist mass killing, but since he and Todashev—the top suspects in the Waltham murders—are both dead, the case has gone cold, perhaps forever.

Then there’s the tricky matter of possible connections between the Tsarnaevs and American intelligence. According to this theory, Tamerlan had been used as an informant by the FBI—and perhaps by the CIA during his 2011 stint in southern Russia—yet grew disenchanted with his handlers, and became radicalized in response. This is the take of a new book by a reputable journalist, and while it must be admitted that hard evidence for its theory is lacking, it can’t be dismissed out of hand.

It might explain some of the FBI’s missteps in the investigation of the Boston bombing and the Waltham murders. And there can be no doubt that both the FBI and the CIA would be very pleased to get information about the inner workings of Chechen radical circles here and in Russia.

Plus it is a matter of strange fact that Tamerlan and Dhokar’s uncle Ruslan, a naturalized American citizen and a successful lawyer specializing in Central Asia oil and gas deals, was instrumental in their coming to our country back in 2003. Uncle Ruslan until 1999 was married to the daughter of Graham Fuller, a Beltway macher who just happens to have been a senior CIA official. Over the course of a two-decade career as an Agency operations officer, Fuller was station chief in Kabul and later a top official on the National Intelligence Council.

One hardly need be a conspiracy monger to have questions about how exactly the Tsarnaev family got into America—and what they were doing after they arrived. At a minimum, the Waltham murders case should be reopened and the FBI ought to come clean about what, if anything, they have omitted from their public account of the Boston bombing.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.  Unanswered Questions About the Boston Marathon Bombing