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.

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.