WASHINGTON — With one suspect dead and the other captured and lying grievously wounded in a hospital, the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings turned Saturday to questions about the men’s motives, and to the significance of an overseas trip one of them took last year.
Federal investigators are hurrying to review a visit that one of the suspected bombers made to Chechnya and Dagestan, predominantly Muslim republics in the north Caucasus region of Russia. Both have active militant separatist movements. There are concerns in Congress about the FBI’s handling of a request from Russia before the trip to examine the man’s possible links to extremist groups in the region.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died early Friday after a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass., spent six months of last year in Dagestan.
Tamerlan’s father, Anzor, said his son had returned to renew his passport, but his stay was prolonged and, analysts said, may have marked a crucial step in his path toward the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
Kevin R. Brock, a former senior FBI and counterterrorism official, said, “It’s a key thread for investigators and the intelligence community to pull on.”
The investigators began scrutinizing the events in the months and years before the fatal attack, as Boston began to feel like itself for the first time in nearly a week.
Monday had brought the bombing, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which killed three and wounded scores, and the tense days that followed culminated in Friday’s lockdown of the entire region as police searched for Tsarnaev’s younger brother from suburban backyards to an Amtrak train bound for New York City.
The motivations of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, who was taken into custody Friday night and is still too injured to speak, are as yet publicly unknown. Of Chechen heritage, they lived in the United States for years, according to friends and relatives, and no direct ties have been publicly established with known Chechen terrorist or separatist groups.
The significance of the trip was magnified late Friday when the FBI disclosed in a statement that in 2011 “a foreign government” – now acknowledged by officials to be Russia – asked for information about Tamerlan, “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.”
The senior law enforcement official said the Russians feared he could be a risk, and “they had something on him and were concerned about him, and him traveling to their region.”
But the FBI never followed up on Tamerlan Tsarnaev once he returned, a senior law enforcement acknowledged on Saturday, adding that the bureau had not kept tabs on him until he was identified on Friday as the first suspect in the marathon bombing case.
President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers devoted their weekly broadcast addresses to the Boston attack, with both sides finding a common voice.
Russia and the United States have since 1994 routinely exchanged requests for background information on residents traveling to each other’s countries on visa, criminal or terrorism issues. It was unclear Saturday whether Russia makes requests of any American traveler of Chechen origin to Russia, or if the Russian government offered the FBI specific evidence in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
The bureau responded to the request by checking “U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history,” the statement explained.
‘We didn’t find anything’
In January 2011, two agents from the bureau’s Boston field office interviewed Tamerlan and family members, a senior law enforcement official said on Saturday. According to the FBI’s statement, “The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign,” and conveyed those findings to “the foreign government” by the summer of 2011.
As the law enforcement official put it, “We didn’t find anything on him that was derogatory.”
The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the father of the Tsarnaev brothers recalling the FBI’s close questioning of his elder son, “two or three times.”
He said they had told his son that the questioning “is prophylactic, so that no one sets off bombs on the streets of Boston, so that our children could peacefully go to school.”
In an interview in Russia, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, the mother of the two men, recalled that the agents had told her that Tamerlan was “an excellent boy,” but “at the same time, they told me he is getting information from really extremist sites, and they are afraid of him.”
After the visit to Dagestan and Chechnya, signs of alienation emerged. One month after Tamerlan returned to the United States, a YouTube page that appeared to belong to him was created and featured multiple jihadi videos that he had endorsed in the past six months.
On Saturday morning, federal prosecutors were drafting a criminal complaint against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who was wounded in the leg and neck and had lost a great deal of blood when he was captured Friday evening. The FBI and local law enforcement agencies continued to gather evidence and investigate the bombings, the slaying of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Thursday night and the subsequent battle with the police that left another officer critically wounded.
An official said the criminal complaint would likely include a constellation of charges stemming from both the bombings and the shooting, possibly including the use of weapons of mass destruction, an applicable charge for the detonation of a bomb. That charge, the official said, carries a maximum penalty of death. While Massachusetts has outlawed the death penalty, federal law allows it.