WASHINGTON -- The FBI and other law enforcement agencies were aware of at least one of the Boston terror suspects for several years, and even failed to deport him after a domestic violence conviction in 2009.
The FBI in 2011 interviewed one of the brothers suspected in the deadly Boston Marathon bombings, a disclosure that raises questions about whether the government missed potential warning signs about the men's behavior.
The brothers had not been under surveillance as possible militants, U.S. government officials said. But the FBI said in a statement on Friday that in 2011 it interviewed Tamerlan at the request of a foreign government, which it did not identify.
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"The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country's region to join unspecified underground groups," the FBI statement said.
The matter was closed because interviews with Tamerlan and family members "did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign".
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed early Friday in Boston after an overnight shootout with police. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, was taken into custody on Friday evening in the Boston suburb of Watertown after a dramatic, day-long manhunt, Boston police said.
Bleeding and in serious condition, Dzhokhar is in a Boston hospital, a Massachusetts State Police spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Kelly Lawman, confirmed on Saturday that Tsarnaev was being treated there, but declined comment on his condition.
The revelation that the elder Tsarnaev was on U.S. law enforcement authorities' radar screens seemed likely to raise uncomfortable questions for the Obama administration about whether it could have done anything to detect and stop the plot.
"It's new information to me and it's very disturbing that he's on the FBI radar screen," Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on CNN late Friday.
In an interview with Russian state television broadcaster RT, the mother of the bombing brothers said Tamerlan, the older of the two suspects, had been under FBI surveillance for at least three years.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed in a shootout with police a day before his brother’s capture yesterday, was accessing extremist sites and was closely monitored by the FBI, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva said in a phone interview in English from Makhachkala, in the southern Russian region of Dagestan, posted on the channel’s website.
“My son would never do this,” Tsarnaeva said. “He was controlled by the FBI for three to five years, they knew what my son was doing, they knew what actions, on what sites on the Internet he was going,” she said. “So how could this happen? They were controlling every step of his.”
Tsarnaeva, whose younger son Dzhokar, 19, was captured after an almost 24-hour manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding cities, said she had been interviewed by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents about Tamerlan, who had described him as an “extremist leader.”
The brothers’ father, Anzor, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, said he was present when the FBI interviewed Tamerlan in Cambridge. He said they visited for what they called “prevention” activities.
“They said: 'We know what sites you are on, we know where you are calling, we know everything about you. Everything,'” he said as cited in the interview.
Tamerlan, a legal resident of the U.S., flew out of the country on a flight bound for Russia in January 2012 and may not have returned until July, said two law enforcement officials briefed on his travel.
U.S. intelligence agencies reviewing international communications and other terrorism intelligence found no signs that the suspected bombers were members of, or inspired by, any foreign terror group, said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because those matters are classified.
The Tsarnaev brothers and their two sisters moved to the Dagestan region of Russia in October 2001 from the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan as refugees, and left for the U.S in March 2002, said Emirmagomed Davudov, director of Gimnasium Number 1 in Dagestan, where Tamerlan went to the seventh grade and Dzhokhar to first grade.
Ruslan Tsarni, their uncle in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said his brother’s children arrived in Cambridge when they immigrated in 2003. Asked for a possible motive for the attacks, Tsarni said they were “losers not being able to settle themselves and thereby just hating everybody who did.”
National security and law enforcement authorities said on earlier Friday that they had not turned up any evidence that the Tsarnaevs had contacts with al Qaeda or other militants overseas.
The brothers were in the United States legally. But Tamerlan Tsarnaev could have been deported after an alleged domestic violence arrest in 2009, the website Judicial Watch reports. It is unclear whether Tsarnaev was convicted in the case, but the arrest alone would have been sufficient for deportation, the site reports.
Editor's Note: Is Boston Bombing Linked to Al Qeada? Read More at Lignet.com
Tsarnaev came to this country in 2006 on a tourist visa, which means his alleged crime occurred within his first five years in the U.S.
According to Federal Immigration Law, anyone who commits a crime of “moral turpitude,” including violent crimes such as assault and battery, during the first five years after being admitted to the country can be deported if the crime was punishable by a one-year jail sentence.
Violent plots involving a single individual or small groups who self-radicalize and have minimal dealings with other militants can be extremely difficult to detect in advance, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials and private experts.
The revelation about the FBI contacts with the elder Tsarnaev came as U.S. officials told Reuters that investigators are scouring government data banks to determine if spy and police agencies missed potential clues that might have alerted them to the two brothers, originally from the Russian republic of Chechnya.
Another top priority for investigators is to determine whether the brothers had any confederates either inside the United States or overseas, one U.S. official said. This official and others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Three people were taken into custody for questioning in New Bedford, Massachusetts, police said on Friday. Two men and a woman are being questioned by the FBI "on the assumption there is an affiliation with" Tsarnaev, Lieutenant Robert Richard of the New Bedford Police said.
One official said the possibility that the U.S. government had information that should have raised questions about the Tsarnaev brothers before the attack could not be ruled out. Other officials said they were unaware that such material had turned up.
In several recent cases, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies failed to put together clues that, in hindsight, might have led them to pre-empt a plot.
In 2009, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hassan killed 13 people and wounded another 32 at Fort Hood, Texas. Prior to the shooting spree, Hassan had email contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric and leader of al Qaida's affiliate in Yemen who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike.
U.S. authorities had investigated Hassan's emails, but concluded they posed no threat of violence.
The father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called "underwear bomber" who tried to bring down a U.S. jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, reported suspicions about his son's activities to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. But Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa was never revoked.
A report by the Senate intelligence committee heavily criticized U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to act on available information in that case.
But Brian Jenkins, a respected terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., dismissed the idea that the Boston bombings represented an intelligence failure.
People will inevitably ask, "did we miss something in intelligence?" said Jenkins, speaking before the news of the 2011 FBI interview with Tamerlan Tsarnaev become public.
"Some people will label it an 'intelligence failure.' But that's because people have come to expect 100 percent security," he said.
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