Sometime in 2011, officials for a foreign government warned the FBI that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, dead suspect in the Marathon bombing, may have ties to extremist organizations. The foreign government is likely Russia, which keeps close watch on ethnic Chechen ties to terrorist groups. The FBI admitted late Friday that it interviewed Tamerlan that year. A few months later, however, Tamerlan boarded a plane for Russia and spent six months out of the country. Less than a year after he returned, the Boston Marathon was bombed.
I don’t know how often foreign governments relay to us intelligence on individuals with suspected terror ties. It seem serious, though, because the FBI conducted an investigation and personally interviewed Tamerlan and his family. At the time, at least, they took the threat seriously.
The most troubling part about the foreign warning is that it specifically mentioned Tamerlan was planned to travel abroad. From the FBI’s statement on Friday:
The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he 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.
That appears to be exactly what Tamerlan did. In January, 2012, just a few months after the FBI closed its investigation of Tamerlan, he departed New York’s JFK for Moscow. He returned to the US in late July 2012. We currently have no information as to what he did or where he traveled while he was abroad for six months.
I don’t fault the FBI for not divining Tamerlan’s evil intentions. I do fault them, however, for not monitoring for the specific action they were warned about. I understand the FBI doesn’t have the resources to closely monitor all suspicious individuals. If, however, the FBI is warned that a person is planning to travel to another country and that person then does so, and is gone for an extended period of time, it ought to trigger some kind of alert.
At the very least, the FBI could have alerted immigration officials to notify it if Tamerlan left the country. A follow-up interview with him after he returned from abroad may have prevented this week’s tragedy.
It is difficult to prevent a terrorist bent on sowing destruction. In this case, however, we did have a warning. Not only that, Tamerlan’s subsequent actions were consistent with this warning. Someone, somewhere decided it wasn’t worth looking.