By Masha Gessen, from The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, out last month from Riverhead Books. Gessen is the author of several books, including The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Northern Exposure,” appeared in the June 2014 issue.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, police scanned the crowd for people who looked suspicious, which is to say Muslim, which is to say darker than Boston-white. A twenty-year-old student of English from Saudi Arabia named Abdulrahman Ali Alharbi was among the dozens of people with burns, scratches, and bruises who were making their way, with the assistance of uninjured runners, to the assembled ambulances. Alharbi had been walking to meet friends for lunch when he stopped for a glimpse of the marathon and was thrown by the second explosion. He had burn injuries on his head, back, and legs. He was covered in blood, most of it other people’s. A police officer directed him, along with other victims, toward the waiting ambulances — but when Alharbi boarded one, several officers followed him into the vehicle.
At the hospital, more than twenty police officers and FBI agents surrounded his bed. At 4:28 in the afternoon, less than two hours after the bombs went off, the New York Post reported that law-enforcement officers were talking to a suspect in the bombing. By evening, the media had Alharbi’s name and address, and the FBI had his Facebook password. By Tuesday morning, the Post had published a picture taken on his street in Revere, a Boston suburb, and Fox News had reported his name. Alharbi later said that the media had published a mistranslation of a Facebook post of his: “God is coming to the U.S.” In fact, he had written, “Thank God I arrived in the U.S. after a long trip.” Alharbi was exonerated by the FBI within twenty-four hours of the bombing, but by this time he had no home — his address was so widely known that he felt he would be unsafe there — and no money: the FBI never returned his wallet.
After Alharbi came Salaheddin Barhoum, Yassine Zaimi, and Sunil Tripathi. The first two were Moroccan immigrants — a seventeen-year-old high school track athlete and his twenty-four-year-old coach — fingered by amateur online detectives. The Post put a photograph of the pair on its front page, with the banner headline bag men: feds seek these two pictured at boston marathon. The evidence, as analyzed by the online crowd: one of the men was wearing a black backpack, and a black backpack, or what remained of one after a bomb had exploded inside it, had been found at the scene. Plus, they looked dark and were, indeed, Muslim.
Sunil Tripathi was a brown-skinned American student at Brown University who had disappeared almost a month before the bombing. This suspect, too, came courtesy of Internet amateurs: the social network Reddit gave him so much attention that for a day or two many people following the case were all but certain he was the prime suspect. In fact, he had been dead for weeks — his body was found eight days after the marathon.
At five o’clock on the Thursday after the bombing, the FBI held a press conference at a Sheraton hotel in Boston. By five-thirty the media had released pictures of another pair of young men: one older, one younger; one wearing a white baseball cap, the other a black one. Oddly, most of this was also true of the two Moroccans, and in some quarters confusion persisted. The pictures were taken from surveillance tapes; the FBI believed that the two men were the bombers and was asking the public to help identify them.
FBI investigators working out of the Boston office had zeroed in on Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev as early as Wednesday morning — he was the only person on the surveillance tapes who exhibited no reaction to the explosions. They noticed Tamerlan second; he was walking a few yards away from his brother, but they appeared to be in step. The investigators had no names for the suspects — they called them Black Hat and White Hat — and no idea where to look for them. So they chose to show the faces to the American public, with a warning: “We consider them to be armed and extremely dangerous.”
A few hours after the photos were released, on Thursday night, a member of MIT’s campus police force was shot at close range while he sat in his patrol car. Officer Sean Collier’s body was found with six gunshot wounds, including three to the head, and no clues that might help police and the FBI find the killers. Collier’s murderers had not even taken his gun — they had been unable to work his locking holster.
Just before one in the morning, police from Watertown and other nearby municipalities converged on Laurel Street, where they found Jahar in his father’s Honda Civic and Tamerlan in a Mercedes SUV the brothers had hijacked earlier that evening. The police began shooting haphazardly. There is no indication that a negotiating team was present: the only conversation on record appears to be an officer yelling at the brothers to “give up.” In response, the brothers hurled a pressure cooker full of explosives and small metal objects like nails and ball bearings. The bombs used at the marathon finish line had been made from pressure cookers, too.
A gun battle took place, during which Watertown policeman Jeff Pugliese hit Tamerlan several times. Tamerlan hit nothing (aside from the walls of a couple of houses), ran out of ammunition, and threw his gun at Pugliese. He then tried to run, but Pugliese and another officer tackled him, pinning him to the pavement. Jahar jumped behind the wheel of the SUV and charged at the three men struggling on the ground. The officers jumped out of the way, and Jahar ran over Tamerlan, dragging him about thirty feet down the block.
Tamerlan was delivered to Beth Israel Deaconess hospital around 1:20 in the morning. He was unconscious and naked — his clothes had been cut away, exposing several gunshot wounds, a large gash on his torso, and burns on his shoulder. Trauma teams dressed in protective gear first checked him for radioactivity, using a Geiger counter, then intubated him. At 1:35 they pronounced him dead.
Meanwhile Jahar drove away. Probably because everyone was still focused on the gunfight, and possibly also because officers from many departments were acting without a clear chain of command, police trailed him by almost a minute, giving him enough time to ditch the Mercedes and vanish into the suburban maze of Watertown.
The next morning, when Jahar was still on the loose, Maret Tsarnaeva, the boys’ aunt, spoke to reporters in Toronto. “For me to be convinced that these two nephews of mine did this cannot be taken lightly,” she said in fluent and idiomatic, if heavily accented, English. Journalists shouted questions, struggling to be heard over the voices of their colleagues and the incessant clicking of cameras. “Why are you asking question, ‘Do you believe?’ ” Maret finally snapped. “If they have done this, I have to believe.”
Other relatives insisted that it was impossible to believe: the brothers were normal, they loved their friends and family. Indeed, the imagination demands something distinct, huge, and immediately recognizable to explain the leap between an ordinary life and that of a terrorist. In the weeks after the bombing, the FBI and the media floated the possibility that Tamerlan had been radicalized during a 2012 trip to the Russian region of Dagestan. They identified a variety of characters who might have indoctrinated him: a man named Mikhail Allakhverdov, who turned out to be a soft-spoken Armenian Muslim living in Rhode Island who had not seen Tamerlan in three years; then, William Plotnikov, a Russian-Canadian Dagestani insurgent, and Mahmud Nidal, a teenage Dagestani fighter; and, finally, Magomed Kartashov, Tsarnaev’s cousin and the founder of an Islamist group in Dagestan. In each case the supposed radicalizers had either no known relationship to armed struggle (Allahkverdov and Kartashov) or no known relationship to Tamerlan (Plotnikov and Nidal).
The FBI was less forthcoming about its own relationship with Tamerlan, which began in March 2011, when the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) alerted the agency to the existence of a Chechen from Dagestan living in the Boston area who, the Russians claimed, had become radicalized. The FSB’s approach to identifying suspected radicals is to consider all urban young Muslim men to be radical — especially if they are of Chechen descent. The FBI knew that it had likely received Tamerlan’s name simply because the FSB happened to find it — perhaps because Tamerlan’s parents, Anzor and Zubeidat, gave the names and addresses of their children when renewing their Russian passports. Still, Tamerlan perfectly fit the FBI’s “investigative profile”: he was a young immigrant, lacked a steady income, and, as a Russian-speaking Muslim in Boston, was an outsider among outsiders. Similar logic had prompted FBI agents to interview Zubeidat as far back as 2002, the year the Tsarnaev family first arrived in the United States. The agency made nearly annual visits after that — a perfectly ordinary occurrence for people from places the United States views with suspicion.
But the FSB alert prompted the FBI to intensify its efforts. In the spring and summer of 2011, FBI field agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston, one of a hundred such interagency groups run by FBI officers around the country, interviewed Tamerlan and other members of the Tsarnaev family at least three times. Zubeidat says that the agents tried to recruit her son. After the bombing, in response to questions from Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles Grassley, FBI director James Comey denied that the agency had tried to recruit Tamerlan, but he declined to elaborate on the subject of the interviews.
According to FBI representatives who have spoken publicly about the case, members of the team investigating the bombing turned their attention to the brothers about thirty-six hours before the photographs were released. Fearing a media leak, the agency called a press conference, showed the images itself, and asked for the public’s help in identifying the suspects. All the pictures of Tamerlan shown at the press conference were taken by cameras looking down on the subjects, which, the FBI said, rendered its facial-recognition software useless. But this technical explanation does not account for the failure of the Joint Terrorism Task Force to recognize an individual whom it had interviewed just two years earlier and kept under surveillance — one whose entire family had been tracked by the FBI for more than a decade. One conceivable reason for this is incompetence: it is possible that the agents who pinpointed the brothers on the surveillance video did not take the obvious step of showing the pictures to every local agent who had recently interviewed people suspected of links to terrorist organizations. Another explanation is that the people in a position to recognize the brothers were consciously concealing this fact — either because it would look like the FBI had fumbled a solid investigative lead or, worse, because the FBI had considered Tamerlan an informant.
The evening before talking to journalists in Toronto, Maret Tsarnaeva called the FBI hotline to identify the men in the video as her nephews, but no one contacted her in response. At least one former high school classmate of Jahar’s also called the hotline. Both of these calls appear to have been made before the MIT police officer was killed on Thursday evening.
Another odd set of circumstances involves a team from the Joint Terrorism Task Force that was apparently in Cambridge in the hours leading up to Collier’s shooting, unbeknownst to other law-enforcement agencies working the case. A year after the bombing, Boston reporters spoke with an MIT police officer who described the town swarming with FBI that evening and concluded that the agency had laid siege to the neighborhood in order to capture the brothers. In an October 2013 letter to the FBI, Grassley said that sources had told his office that Cambridge police had “encountered multiple teams of FBI employees conducting surveillance” that night, but that no one at the Cambridge Police Department had been warned about the activity.
By the time Grassley’s office released the letter, both the head of the FBI’s Boston operation and the city’s police commissioner had announced their resignations, but three days later, the FBI field office in Boston, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Boston police (but not the Cambridge police, a separate department) issued a joint statement denying that the FBI had been watching the Tsarnaevs. The statement said that the Joint Terrorism Task Force was at MIT that night “on a matter unrelated to the Tsarnaev brothers.”
Here an explanation of incompetence strains the imagination: the FBI claims that it failed to follow up on leads that identified someone who was once considered a terrorism risk, even though these leads came in to the tip line it set up specifically for that purpose, in one instance from a woman — a lawyer — who says she spotted her own nephews in the pictures. It is also claiming to have deployed antiterror personnel to pursue an unrelated matter in Cambridge on the Thursday after the bombing, despite an all-hands-on-deck order from Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI at the time. Another explanation makes infinitely more sense: the FBI was conducting an operation without notifying its local partners because it needed to ensure that no other law-enforcement agency got to Tamerlan Tsarnaev before the FBI had captured — or killed — him.
Since 9/11, U.S. courts have heard an average of forty terrorism-related cases a year. More than five hundred people have been charged, and virtually all of them have been convicted. Scores of bombing plots have been revealed. In 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report that analyzed many of those cases and concluded that “all of the high-profile domestic terrorism plots of the last decade, with four exceptions, were actually FBI sting operations — plots conducted with the direct involvement of law-enforcement informants or agents, including plots that were proposed or led by informants.”
Over the past decade and a half, the FBI has mostly concentrated on fighting terrorism, which became its top institutional priority in 2001 and now consumes 40 percent of the agency’s operating budget. Between 2002 and 2013, there were zero terrorist attacks carried out on American soil by people connected to Islamic organizations, but trumped-up terrorist plots numbered in the dozens, for which hundreds of people went to jail.
As for the brothers themselves, theirs remains a small story, in which nothing extraordinary happens — or, rather, no extraordinary event is necessary to explain what happened. Perhaps it was enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many people are, to never feel that one belongs, to see every opportunity, even those that seem within reach, pass one by — until the opportunity to be somebody finally, almost accidentally, presents itself. This is where the small story of the Tsarnaevs joins the large story of the War on Terror.
The rhetoric and actions of the U.S. government and its agents, in their outsize response and their targeting of specific communities, have probably done as much to create an imagined worldwide community of jihadists as have the efforts of Al Qaeda and its allies. For Tamerlan, this vision offered a truer — and more realistic — path to greatness than more conventional means. And while Jahar may envy his brother his place in heaven, he himself is standing trial for doing exactly what he and his brother had wanted to do: for declaring war on a great power.