The terrorist’s bizarre claim was revealed for the first time this week when the FBI released its notes from the April 22, 2011, Tsarnaev interview in his family’s cramped Cambridge apartment.
The two-page memo begins with Tsarnaev saying an associate of his (whose name is redacted) was approached by four “young, handsome men in suits,” claiming to be FBI agents, who wanted to “talk to TAMERLAN,” according to the report. According to the memo, the men did not provide any identification, or business cards. Tsarnaev’s associate did not see their car when they left, and they did not return.
The agents interviewing Tsarnaev indicate that they do not know who the handsome men in suits are, describing them as “unidentified individuals.”
“TAMERLAN doesn’t know why anybody would be looking for him,” agents wrote. “TAMERLAN doesn’t know anyone who may be upset with him.”
Tsarnaev agreed to contact the FBI if he had any “additional contact” with the men, the report said.
An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the newly released memo, saying the bureau is letting “the document speak for itself.”
Don Borelli, the former assistant special agent in charge of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, said from the description of four men it doesn’t sound like they were FBI agents.
Borelli told The Daily Beast that when agents try to recruit an asset they usually approach the individual alone. Traveling in a group of four would be extremely unusual, Borelli said, unless they were there to make an arrest. Borelli also said that agents typically provide identification or a card.
Though in his 25 years in the bureau, Borelli said he has seen police or agents from other federal bureaus claim to be FBI.
“I saw that fairly frequently,” said Borelli, who is now an adviser at the Soufan Group. He added that people often misunderstood law enforcement to be FBI, too.
Oftentimes suspects believed they were being followed by the FBI long before they appeared on the bureau’s radar. Borelli said it’s the result of a guilty conscience.
“I can’t tell you how many times we would arrest people for various crimes and they would say, ‘Oh I knew this was going to happen, you guys have been following me for months.’ When in fact we weren’t following that person at all,” Borelli said.
The meeting between Tsarnaev and the agents described in the report took place about six weeks after the FBI’s legal attaché in Moscow received a tip about Tsarnaev and his mother Zubeidat from Russia’s intelligence service. Agents from the FSB informed agents at the FBI that the Tsarnaevs were “adherents of radical Islam,” and had plans to join “bandit underground groups” in Dagestan and Chechnya, according to a 2014 report by the Inspectors General for the U.S. intelligence community.
Yet FBI agents never asked Tsarnaev about any of that, the IG report said.
Michael German, a 16-year veteran of the FBI, said while it’s difficult to make any conclusions about the quality or scope of the investigation based on the newly released two-page report alone, the anecdote about the four men in suits is strange.
“It certainly was an odd way to start an interview summary because there is no explanation of what that previous encounter was, even from Tsarnaev’s point of view,” said German, who is currently a fellow at the Brennan Center.
Judging from the document alone, German said it is unclear even who initiated the interview. Were FBI agents contacting the Tsarnaevs in response to the Russian tip, or did the Tsarnaevs contact the FBI because they thought agents wanted to talk to them?
Borelli said that while small portions of the report are redacted, it appears that the FBI agents interviewed Tsarnaev in response to the strange visit by the four handsome men in suits, not the Russian tip.
“It starts off one direction and finishes in another direction,” Borelli said, noting the interview started about the four men and then led into a threat assessment where questions ranged from Tsarnaev’s internet activity and whether he planned to go to Saudi Arabia (he didn’t). “Maybe it was trying to kill two birds with one stone.”
The part of the FBI report that does address Tsarnaev’s relationship to Russia is generic.
“Tamerlan has never had any problems with Russians in the US due to his Chechen heritage,” agents wrote of their interview. “Wars are fought between leaders of countries and not individual citizens. Putin and Medvedev are the problem not the Russian people.”
Borelli said the report’s writing style is “lacking in context,” sometimes making it unclear whether the opinions are that of the agent or Tsarnaev.
“TAMERLAN doesn’t like to fight for the sake of violence,” agents wrote. “TAMERLAN has fought to protect others. TAMERLAN was in several fights as a child in school in Kyrgyzstan. TAMERLAN stood up for kids that were being bullied by others. TAMERLAN never picked a fight.”
The IG report shows that the agent looking into Tamerlan and Zubeidat Tsarnaev decided to conduct a “lower level of investigation.” Agents searched databases, “reviewed references to Tsarnaev and his family in closed FBI counterterrorism cases, performed ‘drive-bys’ of Tsarnaev’s residence, made an on-site visit to his former college, and interviewed Tamerlan and his parents,” the report said.
Afterward, agents concluded that Tsarnaev did not have a “nexus” to terrorism and closed the case three months later. The interview was one of approximately 1,000 similar assessments conducted by the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston that year.
Russian intelligence sent the same tip about Tsarnaev to the CIA later in 2011 and the agency forwarded the information to the FBI who then determined that the matter had already been investigated.
Though IG report notes that at no point was Tsarnaev’s ex-girlfriend (who previously charged him with assault) or his wife interviewed, both of whom the IG report notes, may have been able to inform agents about Tamerlan’s growing interest in extremist material. Nor did they contact local law enforcement or visit his mosque, or ask his parents about changes in his lifestyle or plans to visit separatist groups.
Though Tsarnaev was on a watch list, he was able to travel in and out of Dagestan in 2012 without being questioned, or triggering a re-examination of his case.
In the interview, Tsarnaev also said that he goes to mosque on Fridays to pray, that he has “respect for all religions,” that most of his friends are Americans, that he doesn’t look at extremist websites, and that he recently quit his job at a pizza shop.
The Daily Beast previously reported about his stint at Boston Pizza Express, where he went by “Rocky” or “Tamuir,” had a strong dislike for swearing, and prayed in the parking lot.
The owner of the pizza shop said he was not questioned by the FBI until after the bombing.