Masha Gessen's unanswered questions about the Boston bombing
Russian-American reporter Masha Gessen did in-depth reporting from Chechnya, Dagestan, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States for her new book, "The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy", which traces the Tsarnaev family's odyssey. Already convicted of domestic terrorism charges for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's sentencing began this week. Despite the evidence presented at the trial, Masha Gessen believes important questions remain unanswered.
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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
After Dzhokhar's conviction, the Tsarnaev family were quoted as saying that he was innocent, that he was the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by the American government. Have you heard that kind of talk from his family and friends during your reporting for this book?
It's actually incredible how many people I met who believe that. I encountered people who told me the exact same story in places as far apart as Boston, Las Vegas, Dagestan, Kyrgyzstan. Everywhere I went I would talk to people who would say, 'There's a discrepancy in the color of the backpack and the different pictures taken and that shows that there is a conspiracy, this was actually a bombing carried out by the government.' So yes, I've heard that many many times. I'm not at all surprised that the family came forward with it.
You discount a lot of the so-called inconsistencies but you also have questions. Here's a very big one: do you believe Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have been an informant for the FBI?
I do believe that that's a possibility, because it hasn't been disproved. In fact, there are many clues that point in that direction. And here's the thing, at this point there's not a coherent story of what happened in Boston that has emerged from the FBI's investigation. Whenever you have major inconsistences, whenever you have major gaps in the narrative, you will see the rise of conspiracy theories. That doesn't mean the conspiracy theories are right! What it does mean is that we're lacking information.
So what is the evidence that supports the idea that Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have been an informant?
He was interviewed by the FBI. police three times in 2011, after having been fingered by the Russian security services as a terrorism risk. Now, it is standard practice for the FBI to try to engage someone like that, someone like Tamerlan who is an immigrant, who is a Muslim but not well integrated into the local Muslim community. To engage someone like that in informing for the FBI is a sound and consistent policy that they have. Furthermore, we know that friends and family and the defence have said that, at least during the second interview, the FBI agent interviewing Tamerlan made an attempt to recruit him as an informant. Since then, the FBI has denied this. I'm not at all, not even close, to suggesting that this was a government conspiracy. What I am saying is that we need some clarity on what went wrong in this entire process. How did it happen that someone who had been fingered and interviewed by the FBI as a terrorism risk was able to then go out and buy supplies and build bombs and set them off in the middle of a major metropolitan city where the FBI has a joint terrorism task force that interviewed him?
Do you think the FBI knew who they were in the period when they weren't named?
The FBI should have known who they were. The bombs went off on Monday afternoon. By Tuesday morning, FBI technical experts had isolated the pictures from the surveillance cameras and for a few days after that, no one knew who these people were. There were known only as "black hat" and "white hat". Finally, late Thursday afternoon, the FBI decided to release the pictures to the public and ask for the public's help in identifying them and still Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not positively identified until after he was killed in the middle of Thursday night. So the question is: how is it possible that either the field agents who interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev weren't shown the pictures or they didn't identify him in the pictures? Certainly they should have known who he was. He was on their watch.
Is there a possible benefit for the FBI in not identifying Tamerlan Tsarnaev?
Look, again, this is where the lack of information is going to lead us into conspiracy theories. Yes, I can certainly postulate that there would have been agents who were invested in covering up the fact that they knew who Tamerlan Tsarnaev was and missed the fact that he was about to blow up the Marathon. Because, again, we know that there was contact between the FBI and Tamerlan.
Another question that you're dissatisfied with the information on is the question about where and how the bombs were made. That wasn't part of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. What has been left unexplained about this for you?
Well, we don't know where the bombs were made. What the FBI has testified to in the trial is that they weren't made in Tamerlan's apartment. They weren't made in Jahar's dorm room. They don't know where they were made. But if they weren't made at either of the Tsarnaev residences, then there was someone else involved. That person may have been unwittingly involved. His or her space may have been used by the brothers to build bombs without his or her knowledge, or they may have actually been a full accomplice. We can't know the answer to that until the FBI finds out where the bombs were made. That's a huge unanswered question.
I want to read you what the former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano wrote in her review of your book in The New York Times, 'In the final chapters, the book becomes curiouser and curiouser. Gessen seems to become a conspiracy theorist.' Do you think there's any truth to what she's saying?
I don't think of myself as a conspiracy theorist. You know, I don't think this was a conspiracy. I think that this was a case of incompetence of mammoth proportions. I think there are certainly individuals who are still covering things up, which doesn't amount to a conspiracy. What I think Janet Napolitano found disturbing is that I find these conspiracy theories worthy of engaging with, and I can see her objection. There is an argument to be made for dismissing all conspiracy theories out of hand. But I think that these conspiracy theories are increasingly becoming a part of our reality, precisely because there's so little knowledge about what really happened.