Federal investigators told Capitol Hill lawmakers Tuesday that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects appeared to work independently — getting their ideology and bomb-making skills online — and that the case revealed intelligence-sharing shortcomings.
In a classified briefing, FBI Deputy Director Sean M. Joyce said there were “multiple contacts” between the bureau and Russian agencies — “at least one” after the initial November 2011 tip — but the FBI found no evidence of any terrorist activity, according to lawmakers in attendance.
“The increasing signals are that these were individuals that were radicalized, especially the older brother, over a period of time using Internet sources to gain not just philosophical beliefs but also learning components of what they were able to do” in making the bombs, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said after a briefing for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Intelligence committee member Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, said there is “no question” that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was “the dominant force” behind the attacks and that it’s still unclear how the brothers became radicalized.
But on Tuesday, family members of the suspect said Tamerlan had fallen under the spell of a man they knew only as “Misha.” They said the Muslim convert steered Tamerlan from being a religiously apathetic young man toward a strict strain of Islam.
Family members reached in the U.S. and abroad by The Associated Press said Tamerlan gave up boxing and stopped studying music, his family said. He began opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and that Jews controlled the world.
“Somehow, he just took his brain,” said Tamerlan’s uncle Ruslan Tsarni, who recalled conversations with Tamerlan’s worried father about Misha’s influence. Efforts over several days by The Associated Press to identify and interview Misha were unsuccessful.
Throughout his religious makeover, Tamerlan maintained a strong influence over his siblings, including his younger brother, Dzhokhar, who investigators say carried out the deadly attack by his elder brother’s side, killing three and injuring 264 people.
“They all loved Tamerlan. He was the eldest one and he, in many ways, was the role model for his sisters and his brother,” said Elmirza Khozhugov, 26, the ex-husband of Tamerlan’s sister, Ailina. “You could always hear his younger brother and sisters say, ‘Tamerlan said this,’ and ‘Tamerlan said that.’ Dzhokhar loved him. He would do whatever Tamerlan would say.”
On Tuesday, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s condition was upgraded from serious to fair as investigators continued building their case against the 19-year-old college student. He could face the death penalty after being charged Monday with joining forces with his brother, now dead, in setting off the shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bombs.
U.S. investigators have gone to the war-battered Russian North Caucasus to interview the family of the Chechen-American brothers accused of being behind the Boston Marathon bombings.
A U.S. Embassy official in Russia said a team flew from Moscow on Tuesday to Dagestan, a Russian republic in the North Caucasus area.
Dagestan, where the brothers’ parents now live, borders their ancestral home of Chechnya, and has inherited the insurgency that started there as a nationalist rebellion and which is now a fierce guerrilla campaign by some of the most hardened and ruthless Islamic extremists on the planet.
In Washington, senators withheld judgment about whether the FBI had “dropped the ball,” as some lawmakers have charged, but they said the case showed flaws in the post-Sept. 11 system for sharing terrorist threat information within the federal government.
“Post 9/11, we thought we had created a system that would allow for the free flow of info between agencies,” said GOP Vice Chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, “I think there have been some stonewalls and some stovepipes reconstructed that were probably unintentional, but we have to review that.”
Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, said she was “very concerned that there still seem to be serious problems with sharing information, including critical investigative information.”
It “is troubling to me that this many years after the attack on our country in 2001 that we still seem to have stovepipes that prevent information from being shared effectively, not only among agencies, but even within the same agency, in one case,” Ms. Collins said.
Although she declined to elaborate, the reference appears to be connected to the way the FBI handled a tip from Russian authorities about the elder Tsarnaev brother.
After being told at that time that the Russians were concerned about his suspected links with radical jihadists, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was interviewed by the FBI, who also “look[ed] 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,” the bureau has said.
The FBI found no evidence of any terrorist activity.
“Certainly there are lessons to be learned and ways to improve our systems and we’re certainly interested in making sure that nothing like this ever happens again,” Mr. Rubio said.
Many questions remain to be answered especially about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six-month visit to Dagestan.
“I don’t think anyone’s reached a determination about how they were radicalized,” Mr. Burr said.
• This article is based in part of wire service reports.