Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Terrorist. Murderer. Federal Informant?

Not long after Tamerlan Tsarnaev bombed the Boston Marathon, investigative reporter Michele McPhee went looking for answers. What she discovered, detailed in this exclusive excerpt from her new book, Maximum Harm, might just change how you think about our government and law enforcement forever.

tamerlan tsarnaev maximum harm 1

Photo collage by Eric Mongeon and Toan Trinh

As darkness descended over the village of Utamysh, Russia, one mid-July night in 2012, international soldiers, intelligence agents, and local police made their way inside a convoy of covered troop carriers to a carefully hidden encampment. They even brought a light-armored tank, knowing the men inside were heavily armed.

The hideout, a small farmhouse, was home to seven mujahideen, guerrilla fighters who had all vowed to bring sharia law back to Russia’s Northern Caucasus. They flew their own nationalist flag and consistently referred to Russian authorities as “invaders.” Two of the men, however, Islam and Arsen Magomedov, were more than mere guerrilla insurgents: They were notorious terrorists and commanders of the region’s most brutal criminal gangs. In all, they were suspected of orchestrating dozens of murders and deadly bombings of police checkpoints, civilian-filled trains, and Russian Federation television stations. Next to the Magomedovs stood five other men who ranged in age from 25 to 35, budding jihadists who had very few prospects when they left their families other than to go, as they said, “into the forests” to train. After a long day, the men went to bed—completely unaware that just outside the tiny village, under the cover of night, forces were preparing a raid that would level their camp.

Russian Interior Ministry counterterrorism troops wanted to move in without being seen by the prying eyes of Utamysh villagers, so they evacuated some women and children living near the camp. Not everyone in the Muslim village supported the continuing carnage in their region, but most distrusted Russian Federation law enforcement officials. As in most military operations, the soldiers moved silently as they carefully checked their guns and grenades, switched the safeties off their automatic weapons, and even loaded a small rocket-propelled grenade. They wore combat gear, and not for aesthetic reasons. Inside the hideout were some of the most violent men in the Northern Caucasus, an area that has long been among the most volatile and lawless places in the world. At that time, it was not unusual for a Russian police officer to be assassinated weekly. The insurgents inside the Utamysh compound had been trained to believe that the Russians were invaders who—like pigs—deserved nothing less than slaughter, and had been taught that there was no greater honor than to die taking a Russian out.

When the radicals heard the sound of dried dirt and rocks being crushed under the weight of the tank and the troop movers carrying the enemy to their front door, according to a video that was later released by the Russian Interior Ministry, the mujahideen grabbed their own guns, prayed that Allah would give them strength in battle, and fired.

Tracer rounds and bombs lit up the village for hours. When the sun rose over the mountains on July 14, 2012, all seven of the Islamic militants were dead. The Russians photographed their slain bodies lying in the scrubby grass as proof of their deaths.

The camp was a smoldering shell. Cars belonging to the insurgents were still burning. The walls of the farmhouse were pitted with gunfire, and its windows had all been blown out. Russian Federation counterterrorism coalition forces also lost a man: an officer with the Russian Interior Ministry. Three other Russian agents had been wounded.

As the farmhouse continued to fume, while militants mourned and the Russian Interior Ministry prepared to bury its dead agent, one man left the region, somehow paying 2,050 euros for a one-way Aeroflot ticket from Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and then to Logan airport on July 17, 2012. His name was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a Russian expat whose entire family fled the region a decade earlier for Cambridge, Massachusetts, telling United States immigration officials that they would be killed because of their political affiliations if they ever returned home.

It remains unclear how the unemployed 25-year-old on welfare paid for the flight or exactly what he spent his time in Russia doing, or for whom. Less than a year later, he and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, an act of terror so immense it would paralyze the entire city. Tamerlan would die on April 19, 2013, not long after a wild firefight with police and a high-speed chase in a stolen SUV driven by Dzhokhar, who fled the shootout and prompted a nearly daylong manhunt before being captured.

When Dzhokhar’s trial started nearly two years later, his famed death-penalty defense attorney, Judy Clarke, startled court spectators when she flat-out admitted her client was guilty of the bombings. At one point, she pointed to a photo of older brother Tamerlan and explained, “There’s little that occurred the week of April the 15th…that we dispute.” But what about in the months and years before that?

Much is murky about Tamerlan’s life leading up to the deadly attack on Boylston Street. Four years after the blasts, his case, at first blush, seems to be an extreme cautionary tale about the shortcomings of the overbloated war on terror, its divided attentions rendering actual terrorists invisible. But upon closer inspection, a strange picture starts to emerge—one that counterterrorism experts and law enforcement officials have suggested points to Tamerlan having been a federal informant who went rogue.

During Dzhokhar’s trial, his defense attorneys raised provocative questions about the FBI’s mysterious involvement with Tamerlan. Had agents pressured him to be an informant? And if so, did that pressure play a role in the bombings? “We base this on information from our client’s family and other sources that the FBI made more than one visit to talk with [Tamerlan’s parents] Anzor, Zubeidat and Tamerlan, questioned Tamerlan about his internet searches, and asked him to be an informant, reporting on the Chechen and Muslim community,” Dzhokhar’s lawyers stated in court records. “We further have reason to believe that Tamerlan misinterpreted the visits and discussions with the FBI as pressure and that they amounted to a stressor that increased his paranoia and distress. We do not suggest that these contacts are to be blamed and have no evidence to suggest that they were improper, but rather view them as an important part of the story of Tamerlan’s decline. Since Tamerlan is dead, the government is the source of corroboration that these visits did in fact occur and of what was said during them.”

The FBI denies that Tamerlan was their informant, but to this day those questions have not been answered. What is the bureau trying to hide?



Tamerlan Tsarnaev participates in a photo essay titled “Will Box for Passport.”

March 2011
Russian counterterrorism agents warn the FBI about Tsarnaev.

June 2011
The FBI closes its investigation on Tsarnaev.

September 11, 2011
The bodies of three men with connections to Tsarnaev are found nearly decapitated in a Waltham apartment.

October 2011
Russian officials warn U.S. intelligence about Tsarnaev’s jihadist rhetoric; his name is added to two terror watch lists.

January 21, 2012
Despite being watch-listed, Tsarnaev is allowed to fly from New York to Russia.

July 2012
Radical extremist William Plotnikov and six other rebel fighters are killed by Russian forces in Dagestan; Tsarnaev leaves Russia, paying 2,050 euros in cash for the flight.

August 28, 2012
Tsarnaev’s naturalized citizen application is reopened.

January 23, 2013
Tsarnaev’s citizenship is delayed once again.

April 15, 2013
Tsarnaev and his brother bomb the Boston Marathon.

In 2011, the year before Tamerlan flew from Boston to Moscow, the Russians were already worried about him and his mother, Zubeidat. So in an unusual move, the agency shared its concerns with counterterrorism counterparts in the United States. To say the least, the relationship between the two countries—both of which were trying to eradicate Islamic terrorism—was based more on need than trust.

Still, on March 4, 2011, the FSB sent its first message about Tamerlan and Zubeidat to the FBI’s legal attaché in Moscow. Later, it sent the same memo to the CIA. While the FBI refuses to release a copy of the letter, FSB officials read it to a congressional delegation that included Representative William Keating, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a former prosecutor. “It was amazing in its detail dealing with Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” Keating later said.

The letter, according to Keating and others, described intercepted text messages between Tamerlan, his mother, and Magomed Kartashov, her second cousin—a former Dagestan police officer who had become a prominent Islamist and leader of a group called Union of the Just (a Muslim advocacy group that has been banned in Russia because of its alleged affiliations with Muslim militants). The organization sympathized with radical Islamic insurgents who had declared war against Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces. Zubeidat and Tamerlan, the letter stated, were becoming adherents of radical Islam.

The FSB also provided full names, addresses, and phone numbers for many of the members of the Tsarnaev family, including Tamerlan and his mother. According to the FBI, it warned that Tamerlan “had changed drastically since 2010” and was preparing to travel to a part of Russia “to join unspecified underground groups,” namely, violent radical Islamists in the Caucasus who formed their own bandit groups, which were essentially ragtag insurgency gangs. The FBI’s legal attaché in Moscow sent a translated copy of the FSB’s warning concerning Tamerlan to the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI’s Boston field office, telling them “to take any investigative steps deemed appropriate and provide [the legal attaché in] Moscow with any information derived,” with the promise that the information would be forwarded to the Russians.

After receiving the FSB’s letter, a special agent in that Boston Counterterrorism Division, referred to in an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report as “the CT Agent,” was assigned to conduct what the FBI called a threat assessment based on the information that the FSB had shared regarding Tamerlan’s and his mother’s increasing extremism.

In the months before Tamerlan left Boston for Russia, the CT Agent interviewed Tamerlan and his parents and reported his findings, the OIG said. The report concluded that there is no public evidence that the CT Agent contacted Tamerlan’s then-wife (Katherine Russell, also known as Karima Tsarnaeva)—at the least, notes about any contact with her never became part of any official file. Nor did the CT Agent visit the controversial Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge where Tamerlan prayed, despite its rumored connections to radical Islamists. The FBI would later issue a statement that in response to the FSB’s letter, agents “checked 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 FBI also interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members. The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign.” And so the bureau closed its case on Tamerlan in June 2011.

As it turned out, the CT Agent’s investigation into the Tsarnaevs was never shared with the police in Cambridge, where the Tsarnaevs lived, nor with the Boston police, which ran the Boston Regional Intelligence Center. The CT Agent, who could not be reached for comment, didn’t even share the information with his Joint Terrorism Task Force counterparts from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). When asked about the CT Agent, the FBI declined to speak about him or any specific agent. As for the Russians, the Boston FBI field office sent a letter to the FSB dated August 8, 2011, through its legal attaché in Moscow, stating that its agents had found “nothing derogatory” about the Tsarnaevs. Months later, though, Tamerlan flew to Russia, where he would meet the very men the FSB had warned American counterterrorism officials about: Tamerlan’s mother’s cousin, Magomed Kartashov, and William Plotnikov, a notorious extremist.

In a strange twist, evidence would later show that Tamerlan somehow clandestinely recorded many of the conversations he had with Kartashov without his relative’s knowledge—recordings that would eventually be introduced by Dzhokhar’s attorneys during trial to bolster the defense’s assertion that the younger brother had come under Tamerlan’s corrupting influence, just as Tamerlan had sought guidance on jihad back in his homeland.


tamerlan tsarnaev maximum harm 2

Artifacts from the collection of the author.

On January 21, 2012, Tamerlan departed from Boston’s Logan Airport and connected at JFK for a flight to Moscow. By then he was on two different terrorist watch lists, though that fact never slowed him down.

The first was the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database, which is the repository of all international terrorist identifier information shared by the FBI, CIA, and an alphabet soup of U.S. intelligence agencies. The National Counterterrorism Center maintains it by adding biographical or biometric identifiers. The second watch list was TECS, which is not an acronym but takes its name from an outdated system of identification checks from a now-defunct federal agency. TECS, aimed at flagging potential terror suspects as they cross borders, is a system allowing customs agents to file reports about any “encounter with a traveler, a memorable event, or noteworthy item of information particularly when they observe behavior that may be indicative of intelligence gathering or preoperational planning related to terrorism, criminal, or other illicit intention,” according to the DHS. Despite Tamerlan’s being on both of those lists, he still left Logan without a hitch.

Nearly six months later, upon arrival in the United States after spending time overseas in a terrorist hot spot, he faced little to no resistance from U.S. Customs. The purpose of the FBI’s and CIA’s placing Tamerlan on the watch lists was to create an alert any time he traveled. But inexplicably, that never happened.

Then there was the question of his passport, which Tamerlan had reported stolen—or at least that’s what he told his ex-wife, Katherine Russell. The last valid passport that Tamerlan possessed came from Kyrgyzstan, where he had grown up, and was slated to expire on November 16, 2012. Tamerlan applied for a Russian passport to replace the one issued in Kyrgyzstan that he had used to gain entry into the United States as a political refugee in 2002. But, as congressional investigators would discover, he left Russia without ever collecting the new passport.

Still, when Tamerlan landed at Logan on July 17, 2012, he had no problem whatsoever. A customs agent “scanned Tsarnaev’s Alien Registration Card into the computer system used during primary inspection. The card was valid, and as a result, CBP [Customs and Border Protection] took Tsarnaev’s picture, collected his fingerprints, confirmed his identity, and admitted him into the country based on his LPR [legal permanent resident] status,” according to the OIG. However, the report states, the Customs and Border Protection officer who processed Tamerlan told investigators he “could not recall” processing Tamerlan or if he alerted the FBI regarding Tamerlan’s return to the United States without a passport. He did explain to the inspectors that officers like him communicate with the FBI about potential terrorist watch list suspects’ travel with “email, orally, or via ‘sticky note.’”

Stranger still was the testimony from then–Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration policy on April 23, 2013—just days after Tamerlan died—that the name on his airline ticket did not match the name on his green card, saying, “there was a mismatch.” She publicly declined to elaborate.

Surely to stop Tamerlan at the airport for additional screening based on his physical profile alone—he was a Muslim male with a long beard—or because he was leaving a terrorist hotbed would have been insensitive racial profiling. But the idea that a man whose name was on two terrorist watch lists somehow managed to clear customs because, government officials claimed, his name was misspelled on those lists, is inconceivable. This is especially true given the multimillion-dollar computer program the DHS had purchased to prevent that very sort of thing from occurring. Even after the Russians had inexplicably notified the United States in writing about his radicalization in 2011, and despite being on multiple terror watch lists, Tamerlan was allowed to travel to a terrorist hot spot and return without being questioned.

All of this looks strange—even stupendously negligent—to the casual observer. But to the trained eye, it might look like something else entirely. Former Somerville Police Chief Tom Pasquarello, a longtime DEA agent who has supervised his own confidential informants, had noticed similarities between Tamerlan’s case and his own use of so-called CIs during multiple takedowns all over the world. As a longtime law enforcement official, he says, the seeming coincidences cannot be ignored. They make no sense—not Tamerlan’s trip to Russia, nor his return without a passport while on two separate terror watch lists. Unless, that is, Tamerlan was trying to lure like-minded radicals in an effort to collect information and report back to U.S. law enforcement. “You pull a string on Tamerlan’s life,” Pasquarello said, “and all you get is unanswered questions.”


The use of Muslim informants has been a controversial topic since 9/11. Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, former New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly turned to retired CIA officer David Cohen to create the Terrorist Interdiction Unit, a secretive squad that fell under the department’s Intelligence Division. The unit began recruiting Muslim police officers to go undercover, as well as Muslim confidential informants who’d been arrested and were willing to cooperate with the police. NYPD commanders and detectives assigned to the unit became among the most lauded and aggressive domestic-intelligence-collecting agencies in the country, coming up with the term “raker” to describe informants who infiltrated radical Islamist plots and raked for information. To this day, Kelly credits the unit with stopping multiple would-be terror attacks across the country. The unit’s tactics, however, would raise the ire of organizations including the ACLU, who accused the police department of abusing its powers to target mosques and infiltrate them with Muslim officers or informants.

In many ways, what the NYPD created was nothing new. The U.S. Department of Justice began its relationship with cooperating informants in 1961, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy instructed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to order every agent in every field office throughout the country to infiltrate organized crime groups. The FBI knew it needed to access the dregs of the underworld in order to bring down its targets, and the way to do that was to tempt bottom feeders up into the light.

Over time, informants started to pay off as the FBI began toppling the highest levels of organized crime. Eventually, it had informants inside the Mafia, the KKK, the Black Panthers, and biker gangs throughout the country. After 9/11, the bureau focused much of its effort on finding and maintaining Muslim informants to fight the war on terror. More recently, informants have infiltrated anarchist groups such as Black Bloc and Occupy Wall Street.

With the resulting arrests came power for FBI case agents. In some instances, that power brought unfettered authority to offer sweetheart deals to turncoats, no matter how treacherous the cooperating informant was. The FBI tracks the productivity of its informants by aggregating their “statistical accomplishments”—that is, the number of indictments, convictions, search warrants, and other contributions to investigative objectives for which the informant gets credit. But what the FBI does not track are agents who let informants run amok.

Boston has an especially fraught history with this. Entire FBI field offices have been tainted, as in the case with infamous mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger’s FBI handler was John Connolly, who had admired the rough-and-tumble mobster while growing up in the same South Boston housing development. Connolly’s boss was John Morris. Both men took bribes, and Connolly is now serving time in a Florida prison for allowing Bulger to set up mob-style hits on innocent people, while the agents made a name for themselves arresting Italian and Italian-American mobsters whom Bulger was trying to put out of business. Connolly went so far as to alert Bulger to an indictment pending against him. As a result of that tip, the mobster went on the lam with his companion, Catherine Greig, for 16 years. Then there was notorious mob captain Mark Rossetti, a feared enforcer who ran his criminal enterprise of drugs and loansharking out of East Boston. It was only after the Essex County district attorney indicted more than two dozen mobsters that Rossetti’s secret work as an FBI informant was exposed.

Despite these high-profile scandals, the FBI informant program is still in widespread use—and Muslim informants make up a large part of it. During the height of Hoover’s Cointelpro operations in the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the FBI had roughly 1,500 total informants. In the 1980s and 1990s the drug wars brought that number up to about 6,000. Then, after 9/11, the FBI recruited so many new informants—including accused criminals looking for leniency, liars looking for immigration favors, Muslims looking for revenge on the members of competing Islamic sects, and narcissistic egomaniacs who wanted to be revered as a Jason Bourne–type figure—that it had to hire an outside software company to help agents track their secret spies. 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 and overseas. The vaunted NYPD Intelligence Division—working alongside members of the NSA, CIA, and FBI, as well as Muslim patriots—have uncovered jihadi-inspired plots that led to multiple criminal prosecutions.

In February 2016, Homeland Security alerted 29 “high-target” cities, including Boston and New York, that their DHS funding would be slashed by 1.3 percent. Boston, which had received $18 million from the federal government earmarked for homeland security initiatives in fiscal year 2015, received $17.7 million in fiscal year 2016. Rene Fielding, chief of Boston’s Office of Emergency Management, explained that the cuts collected from the cities would be used to fund “nonprofits”—primarily to provide security to mosques and synagogues.

Privately, though, police officials complained that it was a way for DHS officials to pay imams at mosques for goodwill. The feds needed to make nice with angry activists who were part of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the reasoning went, and grant money goes a long way with nonprofits.

Sometimes, though, the program backfired and inadvertently turned informants into radicals. According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University Law School, “Indeed, in some cases the Federal Bureau of Investigation may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations that facilitated or invented the target’s willingness to act. According to multiple studies, nearly 50 percent of the more than 500 federal counterterrorism convictions resulted from informant-based cases; almost 30 percent of those cases were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.”

The ACLU has filed several civil lawsuits against New York City and the NYPD saying that the Terrorist Interdiction Program started by Kelly used unconstitutional methods that essentially coerced Muslims to inform on their neighbors. Both Kelly, a Harvard University graduate, and his successor, William Bratton, a longtime Boston police commissioner, insisted the program was essential to stopping planned attacks. Meanwhile, the NYPD released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, stating that some of the warning signs someone was becoming radicalized included changes in appearance and behavior, and cited “wearing traditional Islamic clothing [and] growing a beard,” abstaining from alcohol, and “becoming involved in social activism.” In response, the ACLU argued that infiltrating mosques and hookah bars was illegal and that the NYPD’s “purported rationale for this unconstitutional surveillance” was nonsense.

Nevertheless, those warning signs had certainly been observed in Tamerlan.


While living in Cambridge, Tamerlan underwent a transformation from a womanizing Euro-trash party boy to a pious Muslim, albeit one who first showed signs of radicalization in 2010. He stopped drinking and doing drugs. He traded his designer clothes for traditional Muslim robes, wearing them to pizza parlors and Starbucks shops. He started attending the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque, which was initially incorporated in 1982 by Muslim students from MIT, Harvard, and other area colleges. Its first president listed on state records is Abdurahman M. Alamoudi, who is currently serving a 23-year federal prison sentence related to charges of funneling money to Libya. By the time Tamerlan began attending regularly, the mosque had long faced rumors of ties to extremists.

Tamerlan had all the traits that comprised the perfect candidate to infiltrate a mosque that had been in the crosshairs of federal counterterrorism investigators, law enforcement officials in Massachusetts say privately. He was multilingual. He had tentacles in the drug and mixed martial arts worlds. And he was just the type who could help the fight against terrorism overseas in one of the most dangerous regions for Islamic extremists: his Mother Russia.

When Tamerlan flew to Moscow in 2012, his name should have been flagged at Logan airport. After all, he was on the TIDE and TECS terrorist watch lists. His travel documents included an American permanent resident alien card that had been issued to him in 2007 and a passport issued in Kyrgyzstan in 2002 when he was 16, which would expire that year. He wasn’t stopped at JFK for additional screening, and he wasn’t stopped when he arrived in Moscow as a suspected terrorist.

Among his Dagestani relatives and members of his Russian mosque, Tamerlan “looked like an American.” His cousin Magomed Kartashov had grown up across the street from Tamerlan’s great-grandmother and had known the Tsarnaev family when Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were young children. He hadn’t seen either boy in years until Tamerlan showed up in the Kizlyar region to visit relatives.

Kartashov did not recognize his cousin, but they quickly embraced. Tamerlan was wearing a long raincoat and glasses, Kartashov later recalled to the FBI in June 2013 at the FSB offices in Dagestan while he was being jailed for allegedly supporting terrorism, according to court records. Kartashov remembered he hadn’t seen Tamerlan since he was about 10, and that he’d grown up to be a “big guy.”

Tamerlan didn’t wait long to ask Kartashov for help achieving the goal that had brought him to Russia. According to Kartashov, Tamerlan said that he wanted to go into the forests, and that he wanted to go to Syria. “I came here to get involved in jihad,” Tamerlan said.

At first, it sounded like boasting from a spoiled westerner. But Tamerlan told Kartashov that he had followed Islamic teachings that urged Muslims to follow orders such as “cut their heads and make them kneel in front of you.” Kartashov said Tamerlan didn’t know what he was talking about and took these words too literally. However, investigators believe this is what happened to three men in Waltham months earlier, all mixed martial arts fighters who called Tamerlan a friend. While the case led investigators to Ibragim Todashev, a Russian with ties to Tamerlan who was shot dead by FBI agents under murky circumstances during an interview in Florida, the murders remain unsolved.

From the outside, Tamerlan’s familial relationship with radicals in Russia would’ve made him the perfect FBI recruit. As would his connections to Muslim drug traffickers and budding Islamists who, on the highest of Muslim holidays in August 2012, posed in front of a black flag often associated with jihad. Law enforcement officials in Massachusetts later began to say that Tamerlan was an informant for the feds, a spy sent to Russia to help track and kill the men with whom he was in contact. Some believed that he was working for the U.S. government, motivated by the promise of citizenship.


Tamerlan was desperate to become an American. In 2009, he even posed in a photo essay that read, “Will Box for Passport.” He’d wanted to compete in the Olympic Games on the U.S. boxing team, for which only citizens were eligible, and trained hard. But he destroyed any chance he might have had when police arrested him on a domestic violence charge—an offense of moral turpitude that legally made him ineligible for citizenship for the next five years. And yet, within weeks of his return from Russia, where many of the men he had been spotted with had been tracked and killed by Russian counterterrorism forces, Tamerlan’s case for citizenship was mysteriously reopened.

When Janet Napolitano was grilled about security lapses in Tamerlan’s case at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration in April 2013, she admitted that the name on his travel document did not match the name on his identification. Napolitano, clearly frazzled, said that a misspelling allowed him to leave the country but that redundancies in the DHS computer system alerted U.S. authorities to be aware of his return. But, she said, by the time he came back to the United States six months later, the FBI alert on him had expired, so his reentry was not noted. “The system pinged when he was leaving the United States,” Napolitano testified. “By the time he returned, all investigations had been—the matter had been closed.” The response, many believe, was laughable. One federal agent not authorized to speak publicly explained it this way: “His time overseas should have triggered a secondary inspection for a number of reasons: immigration status, duration out of the country, area of travel, and the fact that he was watch-listed.”

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, pushed Napolitano for more answers and was told to wait for a classified—secret—briefing. Senator Charles Grassley asked Napolitano how a misspelling could have caused problems in 2012 when the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 had amended certain sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act pertaining to the control of foreign nationals’ travel. The 2007 law reiterated the need for exit data and required that such data be collected on all foreign nationals who entered the United States under the visa waiver program with the provision that air carriers are required to “collect and electronically transmit” passenger “arrival and departure” data to “the automated entry and exit control system” developed by the federal government. Clearly, according to Napolitano’s testimony, that didn’t happen. Inexplicably, once again she was only willing to answer behind closed doors. It would be better, Napolitano told the senators at the hearing, if they could discuss the matter in a classified setting.

Whatever information Tamerlan’s immigration records contained, the DHS secretary was not at liberty to talk. It was a staggering admission, especially since DHS would eventually be forced to release Tamerlan’s alien file pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by multiple news organizations, including the Boston Globe, in February 2016. Though dozens of pages were completely redacted, including the names of federal agencies that requested Tamerlan receive U.S. citizenship (and waive any fees for the application process), the U.S. Customs file still contained troubling information.

First, Tamerlan had multiple names and dates of birth that he had used. Then there were the two State Department Medical Examination for Immigration or Refugee Applicant forms, which had startling discrepancies. In one, the attached picture was of an unidentified older-looking man wearing a black-collared polo shirt and contained a passport number. In the second, the picture was of a teenage Tamerlan wearing an identical shirt, and the passport number had been redacted.

Another troubling form seemed innocuous at first glance: a notification instructing Tamerlan to report to 170 Portland Street in Boston on October 16, 2012, so he could finally take the official oath and become an American citizen. Even though Tamerlan was legally ineligible, somehow his naturalization application had been reopened on August 28, 2012. Among other things, the October ceremony would have meant an impossibly short turnaround for an application opened just months earlier. It remains unclear whether Tamerlan showed up at 170 Portland Street and what happened if he did show up. But the document suggests that someone was pulling strings to help him obtain the very thing he had been craving so desperately for years.

Tamerlan did not become a citizen on that October day, though the DHS will not say whether he attended. What is clear, however, is that in the weeks after that scheduled appearance, the FBI continued to email immigration officials, prodding them to approve Tamerlan’s citizenship application, according to the Office of the Inspector General’s report. Janet Napolitano, though, would not stick around to answer questions. She quit her job at the DHS months after the Boston Marathon bombings, right around the same time FBI Director Robert Mueller retired, as did the Boston FBI special agent in charge, Richard DesLauriers.

On October 22, 2012—days after the scheduled oath ceremony for Tamerlan was somehow scuttled—an immigration services officer emailed the FBI’s CT Agent saying that Tamerlan’s name had popped up on a terrorist watch list and asking if he “represented a national security concern.” The next day, the CT Agent, who investigated the initial Russian FSB warning in 2011, assured immigration officials in writing that Tamerlan was not a risk if he gained full citizenship: “There is no national security concern related to [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] and nothing that I know of that should preclude issuance of whatever is being applied for,” he wrote. The CT Agent would tell officials that he did not remember whether he searched Tamerlan’s file or public sources before he replied to the immigration official. To this day, the FBI insists that Tamerlan’s case file was closed after the CT Agent’s initial investigation in 2011, and was only reopened after the Boston Marathon attack.

On January 23, 2013, Tamerlan made a second attempt to become a U.S. citizen. He had an interview with Customs officials to discuss documentation related to his arrest for domestic violence and fully expected to walk away with his citizenship. Instead, the officer wrote, the paperwork relating to the dismissal of charges in his domestic violence arrest did not arrive and his status was delayed.


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.


Michele McPhee’s book Maximum Harm will be released April 4 by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England.