Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers accused in the Boston Marathon bombings, was on terrorist watch lists in Russia and the United States since 2011. The 26-year-old was killed during a shootout with police April 19. The investigation into Tsarnaev’s activities has increased dramatically this week as officials try to figure out how he was able to travel in and out of the United States.
It turns out, a simple misspelling shielded Tsarnaev from government agents on the watch for any attempt he might make to leave the country.
The CIA added Tsarnaev to a U.S. terrorist database 18 months before the Boston attacks, after Russia warned U.S. officials he had become a radical Islamist. Six months before that, the CIA did its own investigation of Tsarnaev, but found nothing.
The FBI’s Boston office searched for terrorist-related internet activity, interviewed Tsarnaev and his family members, but also found nothing. FBI agents gave their information to Russia and asked for more information on Tsarnaev, but received no response, according to officials. The investigation ended in June 2011.
Russia contacted the United States again in September 2011— expressing the same concern that Tsarnaev was a terrorist threat. Russian intelligence officials gave the United States two possible birth dates for Tsarnaev and several different ways his name might be spelled, including a version in the Russian-style Cyrillic alphabet.
The names of people U.S. analysts find suspicious are sent to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE). If the government has enough evidence a person is a terrorist or is linked to terrorists, that person’s name is put on a terror watch list. The U.S. government checks this list with passenger lists airlines are required to provide to U.S. officials.
Tsarnaev’s name was added to TIDE in 2011. He spent the first half of 2012 in the Caucasus region of Russia, where he lived with his family before returning to the United States. Three days before his flight, the government issued an alert about Tsarnaev traveling. A Customs and Border Protection officer, a member of the FBI’s Boston joint terrorism task force, was alerted about Tsarnaev’s plans.
But on Jan. 21, 2012, Tsarnaev traveled to Russia unhindered. The airline he flew on misspelled his name on the list of passengers it gave to the U.S. government so no alert was generated. He returned in July 2012 and an alert was again sent to the same customs officer.
No one in the FBI or intelligence services had taken the blame for missing warnings about Tsarnaev, at least not yet. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, “Later on, these agencies will be judged, but right now, it's way too soon to criticize or to start making political arguments or who failed or whatever."