Exclusive: The Awlaki/Tsarnaev Connection
As investigators sift through the lives of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trying to understand their radicalization and descent into violence, one clue almost seemed expected. Two U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that, during his hospital room interrogation, Dzhokhar told FBI agents that he and his brother were influenced by the Internet sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born preacher who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. The charismatic cleric was seen by the Obama administration as a uniquely dangerous terrorist because of his sermons (delivered in fluent, American-inflected English), his intuitive grasp of U.S. culture, and a burning desire to strike his birth nation.
It is unclear the extent to which—if at all—Awlaki’s preachings inspired the brothers to commit terrorism. Indeed, whatever his role, it is likely only a small piece of a complicated, multilayered puzzle. In recent days, there has been speculation that another piece of that puzzle could be a man known simply as “Misha,” whom relatives of the brothers have said held sway over Tamerlan. “This person just took his brain,” Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told CNN. “He just brainwashed him completely.” Now, The Daily Beast has learned that federal law enforcement officials have identified Misha—although one source suggested it might be a less important part of the case than previously thought.
As for Awlaki, while we don’t know the extent of his influence on the brothers, we do know that there is a long trail of hardened terrorists who have acknowledged coming under his sway. Among them are Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, and Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army officer who killed 13 people in a shooting spree at Fort Hood in 2009. Hasan, it turned out, had been in extensive email contact with Awlaki in the months before the shooting, but no evidence ever emerged that Awlaki knew about his deadly intentions.
Still, Awlaki was operationally involved in numerous other terrorist attacks, including several attempts on the U.S. homeland. As chief of external operations for AQAP, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, he personally supervised the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt by the so-called underwear bomber. Less than a year later, he masterminded the package bomb plot, in which AQAP managed to place improvised bombs on cargo planes headed to the United States. (They were intercepted as a result of a tip by Saudi intelligence.)
We know Awlaki influenced the Tsarnaevs at least indirectly, through one of AQAP’s main propaganda organs. According to law enforcement sources, Dzhokhar has admitted to the FBI that he and his brother learned how to the build pressure cooker bombs they allegedly used in Boston from the terror group’s English-language Internet magazine, Inspire. For much of its existence, Inspire was run by Samir Khan, an American propagandist for AQAP who was close to Awlaki and was ultimately killed in the same U.S. drone strike that killed the Yemeni-American cleric.
The truth is that investigators are far from figuring out what ultimately made the Tsarnaevs pivot from radical thought to violent action. “That’s the million dollar question,” one counterterrorism official says. Despite all of the attention being paid to Tamerlan’s 2011 visit to Russia, law enforcement officials still believe the brothers’ path to extremism began much earlier in the United States. For one thing, they point out, the Russian security service, the FSB, had what it considered to be strong evidence of Tamerlan’s radicalization in March 2011, 10 months before he left for Russia. That was when the FSB reached out to its FBI counterparts at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and requested that the Americans check out Tamerlan. The FBI searched various databases for leads connecting Tamerlan to terrorism, viewed publicly available websites and social media he frequented, and, eventually, interviewed him. But it came up with nothing “derogatory,” in the FBI’s parlance, and eventually dropped the inquiry.
One reason the FBI may not have probed more aggressively, according to a U.S. official who has been briefed on the case, is that the Russians never revealed the basis for their suspicions. U.S. investigators assume the FSB had intercepted worrisome things Tamerlan might have said over the phone or in emails to suspected radicals they had under surveillance in Russia. But the Russians would have been loath to disclose what they had picked up for fear of revealing their sources and methods to a foreign intelligence service.
Mutual distrust between spy agencies goes with the territory, but the relationship between the United States and Russia has been especially fraught when it comes to cooperating on law enforcement and intelligence matters. One source of the FBI’s distrust is the perception that the Russians have tried to get them to spy on the Russian exile community in the U.S. under the guise of legitimate law enforcement. The FSB would have been particularly interested in Tamerlan because of his Chechen heritage. The Russians have fought two vicious wars with the predominately Muslim Chechnya, which has sought to break away as a separate state. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast that the FSB placed as many as 100 requests with the FBI for investigations into Chechens living in the United States between 2010 and 2012. Few if any of them panned out.
Still, there are some signs that in the wake of the Boston bombings cooperation may be improving between the two sides. If so, perhaps the Russians can shed light on what demons had taken over the souls of the Boston bombers.