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.

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.