Boston bombing investigators look abroad

The FBI expanded its investigation into a search for possible co-conspirators in Russia.

What happened

The FBI expanded its investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing this week into a search for possible co-conspirators, after Russian officials said that bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev met with Islamic militants on a 2012 trip there. Authorities were focused on the elder Tsarnaev brother’s six-month visit to Dagestan, a violence-plagued Islamic province bordering Chechnya. While there, Russian officials told the FBI, he met with jihadist recruiter Mahmoud Mansour Nidal, who died in a gun battle with Russian forces last year. Russian officials also said that Tsarnaev, 26—who died in a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass.—exchanged emails with William Plotnikov, an ethnic Russian from Canada who joined the Islamist insurgency in Dagestan. Russian police killed Plotnikov in July, and Tsarnaev returned to the U.S. a few days later. “He intended to join the fighters,” said a Russian official, “but he lost his contacts.”

Investigators were attempting to determine the source of a bit of female DNA found on one of the pressure cookers used as explosive devices in the attacks. They obtained a DNA sample from Katherine Russell, Tamerlan’s 24-year-old American wife, who denies any role in the bombing. The younger Tsarnaev brother, Dzhokhar, 19, who has been charged with planting one of the bombs, was moved to a prison medical facility this week. His legal team, NBC News reported, is trying to negotiate a deal in which he’d tell all he knows about the Boston attacks in exchange for prosecutors promising not to seek the death penalty.

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What the editorials said

“Law enforcement agencies can’t be expected to stop every attack, any more than they can prevent every mass shooting,” said The Washington Post.Still, there are troubling questions about why the FBI lost track of Tamerlan Tsarnaev after Russia identified him as a possible Islamic radical in 2011. The FBI questioned Tamerlan, but never learned from customs officials that he later traveled to Dagestan, a region rife with extremism.

Tamerlan should have been “under active surveillance” for the past two years, said The Washington Examiner. But the FBI is “blinded by political correctness.” In 2011, the bureau’s training manuals were “systematically purged” of content linking radical Islam with terrorism. It’s possible that the agents who interviewed Tamerlan overlooked the warning signs—such as the jihadist videos posted on his Facebook page—“because that’s what they were trained to do.”

What the columnists said

There were good reasons the Russian “tip didn’t trigger a more aggressive American investigation,” said Eli Lake in TheDailyBeast.com. The Russians, like many other repressive regimes, routinely label expatriates and political dissidents abroad as terrorists. Partly because of such false reports, the FBI’s watch list alone includes some 700,000 names. Try keeping track of that many people.

If you want to know why the Tsarnaevs were radicalized, said Glenn Greenwald in Guardian.co.uk, start with “the horrific violence brought by the U.S. and its allies to the Muslim world.” Dzhokhar told investigators that he and his brother were motivated by the slaughter of Muslims by Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq—the same reason given by many other home-grown terrorists. In the case of Tamerlan, personal alienation also played a role, said Deborah Sontag in The New York Times. He’d hoped to box in the Olympics for the U.S. after twice winning the New England Golden Gloves championship. But in 2010, rules were changed to bar noncitizens from competing in the national tournament, and the Soviet-born fighter bitterly gave up the sport. “After his more secular dreams were dashed,” friends and family say Tamerlan channeled his anger into an extremist, anti-American form of Islam.

It’s not accurate to say the brothers were self-radicalized, said Max Boot in CommentaryMagazine.com. Like other “lone-wolf” terrorists, they became extremists with the help of online al Qaida propaganda that glorifies “making war on ‘infidels’” and provides detailed tips on how to make bombs. Through the Internet and its regional cells, al Qaida remains a threat, and its branches in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere still “need to be dismantled.”

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