Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the orchestrator behind the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, earning him labels like “terrorist” and “murderer,” but does he also fit the label of being a federal informant?
Boston journalist Michele McPhee claimed that the federal government may have played a direct role in creating the monster that Tamerlan Tsarnaev became, as explained in her book “Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI, and the Road to the Marathon Bombing.”
An Emmy-nominated reporter with the ABC News investigative team, McPhee took three years to research the events behind the book, which she released in April 2017.
Her book traced how Tamerlan first lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and underwent a transformation from a womanizing party boy to a pious Muslim, showing signs of radicalization by 2010.
Tamerlan first arrived to the U.S. in 2003, following his parents who had emigrated in 2001. His family was granted political asylum in 2002, after U.S. authorities heeded claims from Tamerlan’s father that his life was in danger due to his Chechen heritage.
McPhee theorized that Tamerlan became a federal informant and that he turned on America after his citizenship application was rejected years later, although she admitted this couldn’t be definitively proven. She went on to suggest that Tamerlan expected to be granted citizenship quickly and his anger grew when the process was delayed.
What is a Federal Informant?
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly turned to retired CIA officer David Cohen to create the Terrorist Interdiction Unit. The secretive unit recruited Muslim police officers to go undercover, along with Muslim confidential informants who had been arrested but were willing to cooperate with the police.
To this day, Kelly credits the unit with stopping multiple potential terror attacks across the country. However, the unit’s tactics would offend certain organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who accused the police department of abusing their power in targeting mosques and infiltrating them with Muslim officers or informants.
Nonetheless, this is not a new practice for the FBI; historically, they have enlisted informants to infiltrate the Mafia, the KKK, the Black Panthers and biker gangs throughout the country. After 9/11, the FBI was compelled to utilize Muslim informants to fight the War on Terror.
More recent examples include infiltration of anarchist groups such as Black Bloc and Occupy Wall Street. Today, there are anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 “snitches” on the FBI’s payroll, and many of them inform on fellow Muslims in the United States as well as overseas.
The Perfect Candidate
McPhee’s book claimed that Tamerlan was recruited as an operative in late 2010 and that he was the “perfect candidate” because he was “broke, desperate for citizenship, with a new wife and a baby to take care of, and he spoke fluent English, Russian and a dialect of Chechen.”
Tamerlan was even spared jail time for his involvement in a triple murder in 2011 because he was “too valuable as an asset working for the federal government on a drug case with ties to overseas terrorism.”
Tamerlan was also providing FBI with intelligence on the controversial mosque he attended in Cambridge, which was connected to radical Islamic terrorism—its founder would later be jailed for 23 years for giving money to Al Qaeda.
Without a Trace
McPhee provided some possible evidence of Tamerlan’s covert occupation: on Tamerlan’s death certificate in 2013, the medical examiner listed “Never Worked” as Tamerlan’s occupation, yet he was prosperous enough to own a Mercedes.
“History has shown that working for the federal government as an informant can be lucrative,” McPhee pointed out. “Tamerlan got away with much villainy that only a hands-off policy formulated at local level by one or more agencies responsible for national intelligence could have engineered.”
Incidentally, Tamerlan’s entire family–which included his parents, brother, and two sisters–did not list any employment in their records either. In 2006, not a single member of the family had held a job, though being in the U.S. since 2001.
The family’s rent was paid for with a federal subsidy, food was paid by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit, and clothing was paid for by using cash from Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards—another government welfare program.
McPhee wrote that the only work the family did do was not declared, such as Tamerlan’s mother doing facials in her apartment for cash. Tamerlan delivered pizzas while Dzhokhar, his brother, sold drugs, according to court documents.
Notably, Tamerlan was interested in becoming a professional boxer—he won two consecutive titles as the Golden Gloves Heavyweight Champion of New England in 2010. In that same year, he was barred from fighting in the National Tournament of Champions because he was not a citizen, essentially ending his career. The stipulation also shot down a further ambition to join the U.S. Olympic team for boxing.
McPhee asserted that this was the point where Tamerlan’s life began to go off the rails, and when he became increasingly radicalized.
McPhee wrote that the following year, on March 4, 2011, the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, took the highly unusual step of warning the FBI legal attaché in Moscow about Tamerlan and his mother—that they were becoming “adherers of radical Islam.”
The letter, which contained extensive detail about the family, said that Tamerlan had “changed drastically since 2010” and was preparing to travel to Russia to “join unspecified groups.”
The information was handed to David Cedarleaf, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston field office. He carried out a threat assessment of Tamerlan and interviewed his parents.
Three months later, Cedarleaf closed his investigation and sent a message to the FSB on August 28, 2011, through the bureau’s legal attaché in Russia, saying there was “nothing derogatory” about the Tsarnaevs.
Tamerlan was nevertheless put on two terrorist watch lists, but was still evidently able to travel, which he did to Russia in January 2012.
Being on the terrorism watch list meant that it should have triggered an alert every time he traveled, but when he landed at Boston’s Logan Airport on July 12, 2012 after his Russian visit, there were no issues at all and a customs agent scanned his green card into the system to let him in.
This was the “very loophole in immigration laws that the 9/11 Commission had said needed to be closed,” McPhee writes.
“Law enforcement officials in Massachusetts began to say that Tamerlan was an informant for the feds, a spy sent to Russia to help track and kill the men he was in contact with. They believed he was working for the government, motivated by the promise of citizenship,” according to McPhee.
A few short months later, Tamerlan would encounter the citizenship issues that McPhee cited as a chief motivation for the Boston bombing the following year.
Tamerlan was initially told to come in for his swearing-in ceremony in October 2012—six months before the Boston bombing—but it was put off.
Precautions were duly taken by the authorities: the U.S. Immigration service wrote to Cedarleaf, inquiring if Tamerlan was a
“national security concern.”
Cedarleaf replied: “nothing I know of.”
In January 2013, Tamerlan tried again to get his citizenship, and had another interview where he was asked about his arrest related to a domestic violence charge.
Two weeks later, on February 6, 2013, an “angry Tamerlan walked into Phantom Fireworks in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and asked for the ‘biggest and loudest’ pyrotechnics in the store,” McPhee wrote.
McPhee’s book claims that Tamerlan felt “double crossed,” and then turned on America for failing to keep up its side of the bargain after he worked for them.
On April 15, 2013, the Boston Marathon bombing would become the worst terrorist attack in America since 9/11, leaving three dead and wounding several hundred others, many of which lost limbs.
Four days later, Tamerlan, now aged 26, died during a shootout on the streets of Boston after killing Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier.
Tamerlan’s brother, Dzhokhar, now 25, was captured alive and put on trial. After convicting him, a Boston jury sentenced him to death in 2015.
McPhee said that ultimately, she wanted her book to be a tribute to the work of the law enforcement officers who caught the Tsarnaev brothers.
“In the end it was amazing police work that tracked these guys down and I want to pay tribute to that.”