With the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev beginning this month, many are hoping for new insights into what led him and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, to conduct the April 2013 attack.
In the grand jury indictment and other pretrial filings, prosecutors have laid out substantial evidence tying the 21-year-old to the bombing that killed three and maimed or wounded at least 260.
A four-day manhunt for the brothers ended with Tamerlan, 26, shot dead in an encounter with police in a Boston suburb. Dzhokhar, then 19, escaped but hours later was found huddled in a tarp-covered boat in a driveway, wounded.
One key link in the investigation has remained largely unexplained: a six-month period in 2012 when Tamerlan traveled to Russia’s troubled North Caucasus, to the region of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya to the east. (Ethnic Chechens, the Tsarnaevs had lived in Dagestan before moving to the United States more than a decade ago.)
Chechnya had by then suffered through the second of two wars since 1994. The turmoil had spawned a terrorist insurgency, influenced by Islamic extremists, that affected the entire North Caucasus.
Irina Gordienko, a reporter with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said the Dagestani Interior Ministry had Tamerlan Tsarnaev under surveillance from the beginning. She said sources in the ministry told her he’d made contact over the Internet with two known militants: a Canadian citizen, William Plotnikov, and a Palestinian, Mahmoud Mansour Nidal.
Dagestani officials had Tamerlan’s rebel contacts under surveillance and knew of his Internet contact with them, she said. The officials also queried U.S. authorities – at the CIA and FBI – about Tamerlan.
“I know for sure that our security forces sent to America for request about Tsarnaev,” Gordienko said, adding they did so as soon as they noticed him in the region. “… They were trying to find out who he is and who he was, where he came from – and there was no answer.”
Plotnikov and Nidal were killed in counterterrorism raids in the weeks and days before Tamerlan departed Russia in July.
Gordienko said Tamerlan likely noticed he also was under surveillance and fled back to the United States.
Military training ‘ridiculous’
She said it was unlikely, however, that he received any military training while in Dagestan. “This is very ridiculous thing, because in Dagestan they never had any [militant] training camps in the mountains,” she said.
While in Dagestan, Gordienko said, Tamerlan attended services at a mosque in the capital city, Makhachkala, and had several outbursts, disrupting services. Many who knew him in Dagestan also described him as having an unstable personality.
Similarly, Tamerlan interrupted services at the mosque he attended in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just a few blocks from the small apartment that he and his family had rented for years.
Ismail Fenni, a mosque elder with the Islamic Society of Boston, said there were disagreements over the relevance of American holidays to Islam. Twice, "we had sat down and spoken to him and made sure that the rules were very clear," Fenni said. At the second meeting, he said, the elders were "a little more stern about what needs to be observed and how it needs to be observed."
In a statement released days after the bombing on April 15, 2013, the FBI said it had interviewed Tamerlan two years earlier, at the request of the lead Russian security agency, the FSB. It had been monitoring Tamerlan’s alleged interactions with radical groups.
According to an FBI statement, the Russians reported that Tamerlan "was a follower of radical Islam" and "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."
Tamerlan Tsarnaev held his younger brother under his sway, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense lawyers are expected to argue in seeking leniency for their client, an acknowledged accomplice in the bombings.
Federal prosecutors have indicated they will seek the death penalty if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is convicted.