Four Enduring Mysteries About the Boston Bombings

As Washington debates what lessons to draw, the effort to learn the full story of the Tsarnaev brothers continues.

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From left: Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Mass., on April 15, 2013.

Two weeks after the Boston marathon bombings killed three people and injured hundreds more, one suspect is dead and another is in custody and charged with a capital crime. The basic outlines of the story of the Tsarnaev brothers seem clear. Yet recent news reports and comments from members of Congress underscore that critical questions about their alleged crimes remain unanswered, complicating the emerging debate over what lessons America should draw from the horror on Boylston Street. Here are the most pressing:

Did They Really Act On Their Own? During his initial interrogation, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev reportedly said that he and his brother Tamerlan acted alone, motivated by anger over America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that they learned how to construct their bombs online. Officials have disclosed no evidence to the contrary, but there are hints of a more complex plot. By some accounts, their bomb detonators–exploded via remote controllers for toy cars–required a sophistication that the Tsarnaev brothers didn’t otherwise show when, for instance, they failed to wear disguises to the marathon site, or when they carelessly allowed a hostage to escape. “There was some outside counsel to these individuals on how to build and how to detonate,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told Fox News last week, although a national security source also told Fox that the toy-car detonator is not a known al Qaeda technique.

Meanwhile, investigators continue to explore a six-month trip Tamerlan took to Russia last year, and whether he met with Islamist rebels in the country’s troubled republic of Dagestan. House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul suggested to NBC yesterday that the Tsarnaev brothers might have had a foreign “trainer”: “And the question is, where is that trainer or trainers?” McCaul asked. “Are they overseas in the Chechen region or are they in the United States?”

How Much Does Vladimir Putin Know? Some lawmakers believe the Russian government is being coy about its intelligence on the Tsarnaev family. “I think they do know more than they’re telling us,” Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN yesterday. Those suspicions have hardly been allayed by this weekend’s revelation that Russia informed U.S. officials only recently about recorded phone conversations, including one in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, discussed “jihad.”
Those conversations were the basis for the warning by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years ago. After the FBI’s three-month investigation sounded no alarms, however, Russia didn’t respond to the bureau’s request for more information.

“There’s got to be a basis for why [Russia] went up on her electronically or why they went up on one of her affiliates or associates,” Schiff told CNN, referring to Tsarnaev’s mother. “We haven’t received that information from the Russians.” It’s possible Russia is worried about exposing its intelligence operations. It’s also possible the Russians just don’t like to share with us. As Rogers noted on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday, “You have to remember the FSB is a hostile service to the FBI and the CIA.”

Did U.S. Intelligence Officials Fail to ‘Connect the Dots’ Again? A more dogged pursuit of leads and better intelligence sharing could have prevented the September 11 attacks, and some lawmakers now wonder if the same goes for Boston. The FBI investigated Tamerlan in 2011 after Russia’s initial warning that he’d grown enchanted by Islamic radicalism, but the bureau closed its file on him after finding no “derogatory” information. Even if the FBI had no legal grounds to continue surveilling Tsarnaev without more specific information, however, some critics suggest that local law enforcement could have kept an eye on him.

At the federal level, meanwhile, critics are asking whether intelligence agencies should have perked up when Tamerlan returned from a six-month trip to Russia last year. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina calls it a “system failure” that the Department of Homeland Security didn’t notify the CIA and FBI about Tamerlan’s trip. “I am now saying to my fellow citizens, 11 years after 9/11 clearly our system is not working,” Graham told CNN last week. But Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano told Congress last week that her department didn’t notify the FBI because the bureau’s alert on Tsarnaev had expired months before, leaving DHS with no impetus to share word of the trip. Some members of Congress weren’t assuaged, and have also wondered why the FBI team in Boston didn’t get more prodding from headquarters.

Who Is ‘Misha’ and Where Is He? Tamerlan’s relatives say that his sharp turn toward Islam, while perhaps fostered in part by disappointment over his stalled boxing career, was encouraged by a man the Associated Press describes as a “mysterious radical”–a bearded man known only as “Misha.” “This person just took his brain. He just brainwashed him completely,” Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni tells CNN. Misha is a Muslim convert who urged Tamerlan to quit boxing, stop studying music, and adopt a sharply anti-American worldview. The Associated Press and other news outlets have thus far been unable to locate Misha, an older, heavyset Armenian native with a reddish beard whom Tamerlan reportedly met in 2008 or 2009. According to the Daily Beast, the feds have now identified “Misha,” though it’s unclear whether they have spoken to him yet. They are no doubt eager to. With so many questions about the terror in Boston still lingering, investigators are desperate to talk to anyone who might have answers. Update: Last night Christian Caryl reported meeting with a man in Rhode Island who he says is Misha; the man says he “wasn’t [Tamerlan’s] teacher, and that he is “cooperating entirely” with the FBI.

MORE: Exclusive: Imam of Mosque Visited by Bombing Suspect Speaks to TIME

PHOTOS: Joy and Relief in Boston After Bombing Suspect’s Arrest

151 comments
Kurtmudgeon
Kurtmudgeon

There is a fifth question.  Why did Justice read Miranda Rights so quickly?

JohnBrown
JohnBrown

Of course they had help. The Russians warned us over and over that the older brother was an Islamic Extremist with ties to Islamic Terror. Then he went to Russia. Then he came back and built bombs and set them off in Boston. Of course he had help. At least advice and help. And we'd likely have more details by now except Obama cut shot the interrogation of the younger brother because he doesn't want to recognize Islamic Terror, and he doesn't want to know more because it would prove his politically correct regime set us up for this attack, even though we had been warned. This is just another cover up like Benghazi by the Obama regime, with his Poodle Press doing their best to cover for him once again!

paulejb-sucks
paulejb-sucks

Who the hill is "paulejb" and why does it seem like he has nothing better to do than post idiotic rants?

Enquiring minds want to know...

DavidScott
DavidScott

Here’s another article (and the comments) that have a good treatment for where we're at in terms of systems failures, and what's needed:  http://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/business-technology/big-data-and-the-fbi/.  If you go to the blog's main thread, here, http://itknowledgeexchange.techtarget.com/business-technology/  and scroll down, you can read surrounding articles on Big Data  and security.  I've written about the FBI's failures in my book, I.T. Wars, back in 2007, and the failure of their post-911 VCF system (Virtual Case File system), a system to replace paper records and index cards - amazing.  It was abandoned, and replaced by a project, Sentinel, which didn't spec up infrastructure and suffered outages.

SidViscious
SidViscious

What's more important than what we don't know is what we do know...  The Boston Marathon bombers may have helped the US take another step in the direction of a police state in the name of security...

America crossing the Rubicon: The Boston Marathon terrorists succeed far beyond their wildest dreams...

http://www.imperfectamerica.blogspot.com/

MichaelStephenson
MichaelStephenson

One enduring mystery is if Time.com tells its journalists not to mention Islam in connection with the bombers any more than absolutely necessary. Preferable not at all. "Muslim was mentioned once, and then not for the brothers but for Misha.

Feckless

Ridiculous

Craven

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

As the 9/11 Commission noted, "There were more than 40 intelligence articles in the PDBS [Presidential Daily Briefings] from January 21 to September 11 that related to Bin Laden." In a section of the report called "The Drumbeat Begins," the Commission highlights a late June briefing that alerts to the "high probability of near-term 'spectacular' terrorist attacks resulting in numerous casualties … including a 'severe blow' against U.S. and Israeli 'interests' during the next two weeks." But whereas the Commission report describes the threat of attacks worldwide, Eichenwald's exclusive intel specifically cites a domestic threat, one with "dramatic consequences."

However, as Eichenwald writes, the administration was much more concerned with Iraq:

An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

On June 29, the CIA insisted, "The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden." Almost a month later, "the president did not feel the briefings on potential attacks were sufficient, one intelligence official told me, and instead asked for a broader analysis on Al Qaeda, its aspirations and its history. In response, the C.I.A. set to work on the Aug. 6 brief."

This morning, leading the Bush loyalist response against these damning revelations, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted, "Disgusting op-ed in NYT by a truther implying Bush knew of 9-11/let it happen." Eichenwald writes no such thing, nor does he imply it. His findings are frightening enough.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

If only the GOP pursued Bush, Cheney and Rice in the wake of their failure to heed the warnings of 9/11 as they do with Obama over Benghazi, the idiocy known as the Iraq war would never have happened.

LouisRenault
LouisRenault

@JohnBrown I would like to know why, since the older brother was NOT a citizen, was he allowed to return from Russia since he was already on our radar as a possible threat...

JohnBrown
JohnBrown

@paulejb Obama's Poodle Media going all out to avoid the news and protect him.  I personally think Obama is every bit the Muslim Socialist that he was when he was first elected.  If anything he's even more determined to force his agenda on us, and transform our nation!

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@SidViscious You're quoting a blog?  Really?  Wow, how authoritative.  

As for PJB there, he's got his own issues.

What gets me about folks like you is how you all sit in these little circle-jerks citing each other as if any of you are experts in anything about which you talk.  Your "eat Lamb, a million coyotes can't be wrong" mentality belies a complete and utter inability to reason rationally and logically.

Now, I get it that I'm not going to be changing your mind and your purpose here is entirely to convince others that your delusions are right.  That's a given.

This is just me, pointing and laughing at you.  

I do this because I know that if you had spent half the time on actual research of the things you believe instead of going from one hand-job site to another all referencing each other, you'd realize exactly why people like me love to point and laugh at people like you and would be doing the same thing.

paulejb
paulejb

@MichaelStephenson 

It's Islamophilia, Michael. It permeates the Obama Regime and it's willing accomplices in the mainstream media from Barack Obama on down. It's PC on steroids. That's why the terrorist attack at Fort Hood is labeled "workplace violence" by the willing dupes of this administration.

paulejb
paulejb

@mantisdragon91 

No actionable warning predated 9/11/01 despite the liberal line. Bugs is simply lying again.

paulejb
paulejb

@mantisdragon91

 “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

Who? What? When? Where? and How? You are so full of excrement, Bugs.

paulejb
paulejb

@NP042 @paulejb @mantisdragon91 

Everything about Tamerlan Tsarnaev screamed THREAT. The FBI ignored that threat. Three died and more than 200 were injured because of this regime's lackadaisical attitude towards Islamic extremism.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb @mantisdragon91 Actually he didn't. The money came from Saudi Arabia who we did nothing about, and the planning came from Bin Ladin who Bush let escape to Pakistan.

NP042
NP042

@paulejb @mantisdragon91In Boston, a known threat was ignored by the Obama regime.


So you're saying there was actionable intel priort to Boston?  Upthread you immediately step away from anything of the sort.

paulejb
paulejb

@mantisdragon91 @paulejb 

Bush brought the perpetrators of 9/11/01 to justice. The Benghazi attackers are laughing at the feckless Obama regime. 

paulejb
paulejb

@mantisdragon91 @paulejb 

Barack Hussein Obama had 11 years of history after 9/11/01 to be prepared for 9/11/12. He dropped the ball.

In Boston, a known threat was ignored by the Obama regime.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb @mantisdragon91 Actually the CIA foresaw large scale attacks on the US mainland. This would be why their memos to Bush got increasingly more desperate and strident. But by all means. Keep up with the hypocrisy, no one foresaw 9/11 but Obama should have been able to prevent Benghazi and Boston.

outsider
outsider

@NP042 @outsider2011 @paulejb @mantisdragon91  

Without a doubt NP - without a doubt; but he does that crap just so you will respond. I don't honestly think he's that stupid or hypocritical. I do however, think he's that desperate for attention, and he'll gladly say anything, no matter how ridiculous, or stupid, just to goad someone into responding to him. 

Even if it's just to tell him what kind of an idiot he is - it's just giving him what he wants. 

He floods all the posts with his stupidity, and basically interferes with the rest of us having decent conversations; why does he deserve to get what he wants?

NP042
NP042

@Broseph_Stylin Yeah.  I'm done now.  He was in semi-troll mode but he's full-on derped out now.

NP042
NP042

@paulejb @NP042 @mantisdragon91 I seem to remember a certain person absolutely beside himself over Anwar al-Awlaki but said person is apparently gung-ho about removing Constitutional protections from others.


I guess what I'm saying is that you're an authoritarian and a hypocrite.

paulejb
paulejb

@mantisdragon91 @paulejb @NP042

Poor Bugs, as dumb as a bag of hair.

Red Flag 

Noun

  1. A red flag as a warning of danger or a problem: "red flags that should have alerted them to the disastrous investment".

NP042
NP042

@paulejb @NP042 @mantisdragon91 It's so nice to see the authoritarian come out of Paulie.


I guess the Constitution only applies to people he agrees with. 

paulejb
paulejb

@NP042 @paulejb @mantisdragon91 

I am implying nothing. I am unequivocally stating the Tamerlan Rsaznaev should have been under FBI surveillance 24/7. He was carrying more red flags than Red Square on May Day.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@NP042

I see a self contradiction here on our resident spirochete's part.