Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Path to Extremism Intertwined with FBI Contacts

Before the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev met repeatedly with the FBI while becoming increasingly radical.

Magomed Kartashov hadn’t seen his American cousin since their childhood. So when Tamerlan Tsarnaev came home to the Russian Republic of Dagestan on a 2012 visit, Kartashov, his second cousin, was taken aback by Tamerlan’s massive physical stature, and his overwhelming desire to wage “jihad” in his country of birth. “He came to Russia thinking he would find jihad in the streets,” Kartashov told FBI investigators in a 2013 interview conducted in the aftermath of the bombing. “He did not seem to really understand things, he just watched a lot of videos on the Internet.”

Kartashov’s interview with the FBI was entered into testimony today in court, at the sentencing phase of the trial of Tsarnaev’s younger brother, Dzhokhar. In an effort to convince jurors to spare Dzhokhar the death penalty, his defense counsel has painted a picture of crippling dysfunction in the Tsarnaev family, centered around the increasing radicalism of Tamerlan.

The trial has also revived questions about the nature and extent of the FBI’s contact with Tamerlan Tsarnaev during the period in which he began to publicly evince support for extremist violence. In the years leading up to the bombing, as he became increasingly erratic in his public behavior, he and his family are believed to have had multiple contacts with FBI agents in the Boston area.

Encrypted files retrieved from Tsarnaev’s laptop and displayed at court today showed the 26-year-old of Chechen descent dressed in Gulf Arab clothing, brandishing weapons, and posing in front of flags emblazoned with religious exhortations. He is believed to have had an active social media presence on Russian language websites thought to be connected to religious extremism. A notebook retrieved from his Cambridge apartment after the bombings, apparently authored by Tsarnaev, also showed extensive handwritten notes glorifying violence. The notebook included lengthy quotations from religious literature and passages such as “Now I live because I’m a warrior … and some day I want to stand before the One,” and “Mujahid spent a long time dwelling in a dream. And is slowly waking up.” 

Becoming a violent extremist — while talking to the FBI

Tsarnaev’s online activity had raised the alarm of the Russian FSB as far back as 2010, after the intelligence agency allegedly came across social networking contacts between Tsarnaev and William Plotnikov, a Russian-Canadian believed to have ties to Chechen militant groups.

In March 2011, the FSB sent a letter to the FBI alleging that Tsarnaev had become “radicalized” and that he might potentially seek to join militant organizations in the future. The FBI subsequently conducted several interviews with both Tsarnaev and his parents, determining afterward that there were no grounds for allegations that he had been involved with terrorist groups.

Warnings by the FSB about alleged Chechen radicals in the United States are generally viewed with skepticism by the FBI as they are frequently unsubstantiated. Nonetheless, these 2011 interviews with Tsarnaev and his family would later raise questions about the nature of the FBI’s relationship with him before the bombing, even prompting Republican Senator Chuck Grassley to issue an open letter to FBI Director James Comey asking whether Tsarnaev had been the target of a sting operation, or if had been employed as an informant by the bureau.

In a response, Comey denied the bureau had employed Tsarnaev, while declining to elaborate further on any contacts it may have had with him.

In 2012, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia for a six-month visit, where he is believed to have associated with members of an organization called The Union of the Just, an activist group that is legal in Russia and eschews violence, but that endorses some of the Islamist beliefs Tamerlan would later come to espouse.

After returning to Boston from this visit, Tsarnaev’s behavior and rhetoric became disturbingly confrontational and extremist, according to the testimony of those who knew him. Robert Barnes, an acquaintance of Tsarnaev who had also been Dzhokhar’s colleague on a high school wrestling team, recounted one incident in December 2012 when he encountered Tamerlan at a pizzeria in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “He was wearing a big robe and a beard, he was talking very passionately about religion and his complaints about what the U.S. was doing abroad,” Barnes said. Tamerlan, whom Barnes had previously known to be amiable and outgoing, continued lecturing him on these subjects, until another mutual acquaintance entered the pizzeria and began challenging his views. “Tamerlan started to get really angry, raising his voice, pressing his finger into the guy’s chest and yelling.”

According to Barnes testimony, the man became frightened by Tsarnaev’s threatening behavior and quickly left the premises.

One last chance to “knock it off”

By the time of this incident, both Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s parents, had moved back to Russia from the United States. According to Dzhokhar’s defense counsel, following the parents’ departure in early 2012, Tamerlan came to play a dominant role in his younger brother’s life, amplified by the absence of any mitigating parental influence.

Magomed Kartashov, Tsarnaev’s cousin, who had been taken aback by Tsarnaev’s vocal desire to wage jihad during his 2012 visit to Dagestan, was asked by the FBI in 2013 how Tsarnaev had developed this mindset. Kartashov said, “I know for a fact it was from the Internet,” specifically singling out the alleged influence of the late Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Kartashov further said that he met Tsarnaev between 10 to 15 times during his visit and that he attempted to sway Tsarnaev, six years his junior, from increasingly disturbing rhetoric. “He said that he wanted to go to Syria, but he didn’t seem to know anything about Syria,” Kartashov said. “I told him to stop talking like this and to knock it off.”

Towards the end of his visit,  it almost seemed like Kartashov had convinced Tsarnaev. In his statement, Kartashov says that before he left, Tsarnaev told him, “You have convinced my head, but my heart still wants to do something.”

Photo: Federal Public Defender Office 

Join The Conversation