Earlier this week, Andrew Kaczynski, @BuzzFeedAndrew, posted "6 Mind-blowingly Ridiculous Conspiracy Theories Surrounding the Boston Bombing." They were for the most part what one finds at Infowars or Reddit. One theory intrigued me: #2 — "The Tsarnaev brothers were double agents." It was as unsubstantiated as the others but it just missed the mark of a far more plausible theory which didn't come to me until Wednesday morning as I drove into work.
During closed door Congressional testimony on Tuesday, authorities fleshed out what they knew about Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the Boston marathon bombings:
Attention has turned to whether U.S. security officials paid enough heed to Tamerlan Tsarnaev having been flagged as a possible Islamist radical by Russia. The FBI interviewed him in 2011 but did not find enough cause to continue investigating.
His name was listed on the U.S. government's highly classified central database of people it views as potential terrorists, sources close to the bombing investigation said. The list is vast, including about 500,000 people, which means that not everyone on the list is closely monitored.
Members of Congress briefed by law enforcement and media reports citing unidentified sources indicate Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told investigators from his hospital bed that the brothers grew radical from anti-U.S. material on the internet and acted without assistance from any foreign or domestic militant groups.
A disclosure which came later in the day revealed that Tamerlan was listed in the federal government's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database. The list contains 540,000 names of known or potential terrorists from around the world. Only about 5 percent the targets, according to Reuters, are U.S. citizens or legal residents.
According to the United States federal government, Russia advised the U.S. of the concerns it had about Tamerlan, as a result the FBI interviewed him in 2011, and that was it. Other than two trips to Dagestan, his family life and his boxing career, nothing much has been known publicly about Tamerlan.
Then I read a lengthy article by Adam Goldman, and others, at the Associated Press, "Bomb Suspect Influenced by Mysterious Radical," which attempted to piece together what it knew. It took me a little while to get a handle on its significance.
In the years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev fell under the influence of a new friend, a Muslim convert who steered the religiously apathetic young man toward a strict strain of Islam, family members said.
Under the tutelage of a friend known to the Tsarnaev family only as Misha, Tamerlan gave up boxing and stopped studying music, his family said. He began opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world.
"Somehow, he just took his brain," said Tamerlan's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who recalled conversations with Tamerlan's worried father about Misha's influence. Efforts over several days by The Associated Press to identify and interview Misha have been unsuccessful.
Tamerlan's relationship with Misha could be a clue in understanding the motives behind his religious transformation and, ultimately, the attack itself. Two U.S. officials say he had no tie to terrorist groups.
Throughout his religious makeover, Tamerlan maintained a strong influence over his siblings, including Dzhokhar, who investigators say carried out the deadly attack by his older brother's side, killing three and injuring 264 people. [Associated Press]
The article goes on to explore the developing relationship between Tamerlan and the mysterious Misha:
Then, in 2008 or 2009, Tamerlan met Misha, a slightly older, heavyset bald man with a long reddish beard. Khozhugov didn't know where they'd met but believed they attended a Boston-area mosque together. Misha was an Armenian native and a convert to Islam and quickly began influencing his new friend, family members said.
Once, Khozhugov said, Misha came to the family home outside Boston and sat in the kitchen, chatting with Tamerlan for hours.
"Misha was telling him what is Islam, what is good in Islam, what is bad in Islam," said Khozhugov, who said he was present for the conversation. "This is the best religion and that's it. Mohammed said this and Mohammed said that."
The conversation continued until Tamerlan's father, Anzor, came home from work.
"It was late, like midnight," Khozhugov said. "His father comes in and says, 'Why is Misha here so late and still in our house?' He asked it politely. Tamerlan was so much into the conversation he didn't listen."
Khozhugov said Tamerlan's mother, Zubeidat, told him not to worry.
"'Don't interrupt them,'" Khozhugov recalled the mother saying. "'They're talking about religion and good things. Misha is teaching him to be good and nice.'"
As time went on, Tamerlan and his father argued about the young man's new beliefs.
"When Misha would start talking, Tamerlan would stop talking and listen. It upset his father because Tamerlan wouldn't listen to him as much," Khozhugov said. "He would listen to this guy from the mosque who was preaching to him."
Anzor became so concerned that he called his brother, worried about Misha's effects.
"I heard about nobody else but this convert," Tsarni said. "The seed for changing his views was planted right there in Cambridge."
It was not immediately clear whether the FBI has spoken to Misha or was attempting to.
Tsarnaev became an ardent reader of jihadist websites and extremist propaganda, two U.S. officials said. He read Inspire magazine, an English-language online publication produced by al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate. [Associated Press]
Let's go back to what I view as the most important line: "Efforts over several days by the Associated Press to identify and interview Misha have been unsuccessful." So here is a distinctive looking guy that Tamerlan may or may not have met in a Boston-area mosque. He befriends Tamerlan, fills his head with radical ideas over a period of time, and now no one knows who he is?
If the FBI was doing its job, how is it that they could learn of Tamerlan, interview him, conclude he is not a threat and place him in TIDE and the entire time have no clue about Misha? Natural questions would be: "How long have you held such strong beliefs?" "Really, that recently?" "Who gave you these ideas?"
Those were my rather unformed thoughts when I recalled Miami. In 2006, the feds famously arrested seven young men, five Americans and two Haitian nationals, in Miami and charged them with plotting to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago:
The group pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and were provided money to prepare the bombing plan. But the young men, who became known as the Liberty City 7, did not operate on their own. According to NBC's reporting, the Department of Justice claimed:
[Nasreal] Batiste met several times in December 2005 with a person purporting to be an al-Qaida member and asked for boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios, vehicles and $50,000 in cash to help him build an "'Islamic Army' to wage jihad'," the indictment said. It said that Batiste said he would use his 'soldiers' to destroy the Sears Tower.
Gonzales said "the individual they thought was a member of al-Qaida was present at their meetings and in actuality he was working with the South Florida Joint Terrorism Task Force." [NBC]
Walter Pincus writing for the Washington Post captured how the federal government has pursued terrorism plots:
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, separating serious terrorist plotters from delusional dreamers has proved one of the FBI's most challenging tasks. The effort is complicated by the bureau's frequent use of informants who sometimes play active roles in the plotting. [Washington Post]
Following two mistrials, Batiste, the alleged leader of a rather sorry band, was convicted of all charges, one defendant was acquitted, and the government secured guilty verdicts for providing material support against the other five.
As Mother Jones explained, though, the case against the seven could hardly have gotten off the ground without the ready assistance of the federal government's informants, Abbas al-Saidi and Elie Assad, who had worked for the FBI on other cases:
A few of the Seas of David men did recon the FBI field office in Miami. But the mission had been conceived by Assad, the van and a digital camera both provided by Assad — that is, the FBI.
When Assad failed to deliver the cash and with the Seas of David growing increasingly skeptical about his claims, he tried to assuage them by swearing them into Al Qaeda, which he did — in a warehouse rented and wired for video by the FBI.
The oath became the government's piéce de rèsistance. [Mother Jones]
Trevor Aaronson wrote an excellent article in Mother Jones in 2011 in which he dug into the FBI's counter-terrorism operation, which relies on "Domain Management" to use informants to seek out potential terrorists:
Once someone has signed on as an informant, the first assignment is often a fishing expedition. Informants have said in court testimony that FBI handlers have tasked them with infiltrating mosques without a specific target or "predicate" — the term of art for the reason why someone is investigated. They were, they say, directed to surveil law-abiding Americans with no indication of criminal intent. [Mother Jones]
Aaronson delves into the Liberty City 7, and gives plenty of other examples from Portland to Maryland where informants developed a one-on-one relationship with targets and then encouraged and molded their burgeoning radicalism.
According to Aaronson, the FBI "maintains a roster of 15,000 spies — many of them tasked… with infiltrating Muslim communities." In addition, for every officially recognized informant there are three unofficial informants. During the Mother Jones investigation with the University of California, Berkeley, they examined 508 terrorism-related cases. Of those, "nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants." Sting operations were used in cases brought against 158 defendants. The upshot is that "with three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings."
Aaronson described how the sting is typically started with the FBI assigning an informant to approach "the target posing as a radical." As the relationship develops, "the operative will propose a plot, provide explosives, even lead the target in a fake oath to Al Qaeda. Once enough incriminating information has been gathered, there's an arrest — and a press conference announcing another foiled plot." The question always remains, though, to what degree the plots come about from the target's own mind rather than through the machinations of the informant/agent provocateur.
This is a methodology which the FBI has used consistently since 9/11. Is it far-fetched to surmise that Misha was another al-Saidi or Assad — used by the government to cozy up to Tamerlan and put ideas in his head? Suppose Tamerlan, though growing sympathetic, never got to the point of wanting to formulate a plot or wanting to take an oath because he was busy boxing, or buying nice scarves or converting a college girl from Rhode Island? Did the FBI determine that Tamerlan was unlikely to adopt Misha's proposals and decided to move on to a riper target? We don't know, but remember, we never hear of the secret operations that don't lead to arrests.
When Misha, or whatever his real name was, got nowhere did he slip back into the night without the FBI knowing that the seeds of destruction had now been planted in Tamerlan's head? Was it only later, once Tamerlan had gone back another time to Dagestan, or began steering his little brother towards radicalism, that the plot was hatched? After all, unlike the Liberty City 7, they didn't need $50,000 to bomb the Sears Tower. Al that was needed was a $100 for a pressure cooker and fireworks from New Hampshire.
This is not to lay claim to a certain "conspiracy" theory. I am a lawyer, so I take the facts as they are known rather than as I would like them to be. These are serious concerns, though, which merit further explanation because of what the public has recently learned:
1. The FBI did know about Tamerlan years ago thanks to Russia's security services.
2. The FBI contacted Tamerlan and put him on the terrorism watch list.
3. Tamerlan, like the Liberty City 7, fell under the spell of a foreigner who behaved as if he had his best spiritual interests at heart.
4. The government was aware Tamerlan traveled back and forth to Dagestan.
5. Now no one seems to be able to identify or place Misha anywhere.
With all those factors, why wouldn't the government have attempted to target Tamerlan?
In the experience I had as a criminal defense attorney, federal informants are moved around the country at will. They are like ghosts. Their names aren't real. They are from nowhere. They aren't very accountable for their actions as long they get their man.
It would be disturbing if Tamerlan Tsarnaev — and by extension his brother — was the product of an abandoned government sting operation, for we will never know if Tamerlan would have set on down the path of radicalism without the guiding hand of the red-bearded Misha.
On the other hand, if Tamerlan was targeted by the FBI through Misha with the belief he was already vulnerable to developing into an active terrorist and then moved on, they forgot what one FBI agent told Aaronson: "Sometimes, that step takes 10 years. Other times, it takes 10 minutes." To have targeted and molded and then forgotten would be negligence of the highest degree.
(I asked the FBI about my theory. Here's what they said: "Per long standing policy, the FBI does not provide information on who may or may not be an informant. All public statements regarding the Boston Bombing investigation are located on www.fbi.gov.")
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The 5 best and worst states for a well-lived life
- What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex
- Yes, Republicans can impeach President Obama
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- Why Texas' abortion rates aren't falling as quickly as everyone expected
- The 6 best low-cost smartphones
- Paul Ryan's anti-poverty plan is another sign of life in the GOP
Subscribe to the Week