(Updates with comment from family acquaintance in eighth paragraph, senators commenting in 16th paragraph. For more on the case, see EXT2.)
By Phil Mattingly, Roxana Tiron and Margaret Talev
April 24 (Bloomberg) -- The brothers accused in the Boston Marathon bombing were motivated by radical Islam they learned mostly over the Internet, according to lawmakers briefed by federal law-enforcement officials, while a relative said a local mentor with fundamentalist beliefs also played a role.
There are “increasing signals” that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother Dzhokhar, 19, became “radicalized by Islamist fundamentalist terrorists, basically, using Internet sources,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, who attended a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting in Washington yesterday with FBI and Homeland Security Department officials.
While Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has indicated to authorities that they acted alone, investigators are examining whether they were prompted by people or organizations outside the U.S. The older Tsarnaev, killed in a shootout with police April 19, traveled for six months in Russia last year and visited the republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, where there are Islamic separatist movements. U.S. investigators traveled to the region this week.
Family members described Tamerlan Tsarnaev as being drawn more deeply into radical Islam in recent years.
Ruslan Tsarni, an uncle of the accused who lives in suburban Washington, said that the older brother had come under the influence of a radical recent convert to Islam as early as 2007. The man, who is about 30, of Armenian descent and goes by the name Misha, visited the family’s home in Cambridge, a Boston suburb, Tsarni said in an interview.
Tsarni said the visits created a rift between his brother, Anzor, the suspects’ father, and their mother. The mother, Zubeidat, switched about that time to more conservative dress, including the Muslim hijab head scarf, he said.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev also became intensely religious during his visit to Russia, his aunt, Patimat Suleimanova, 62, said in interviews with reporters in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Chechnya and Dagestan have active Islamic separatist movements.
Chris Walter of Cambridge said today he told the FBI he witnessed the transformation.
Beginning in 2004 and until he left the country in 2012, Tamerlan’s father, Anzor, would repair automobiles in Walter’s driveway, a half mile from the family home. Tamerlan would come along to help and, by 2010, Walter observed that Tamerlan would “put down his mat and pray.”
“He gave no indication that he was very interested in religion before that,” Walter said in a telephone interview.
Walter said he allowed Anzor to use the driveway behind his rug business because he was from the neighborhood and needed a place to make a living.
“He was a good, hard-working guy and I don’t think that he had any knowledge of these horrible acts,” Walter said.
Federal officials are communicating in the hospital with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose condition was upgraded yesterday to fair from serious, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston. He has been charged with crimes that could bring the death penalty.
Unable to speak because of a throat wound, Tsarnaev has responded with nods and in writing, according to a U.S. official briefed on the initial interrogation who asked for anonymity to discuss the probe.
Members of Congress in recent days have questioned whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to follow up on a query by Russia in 2011 about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s ties to radical Islam. The FBI says it investigated at the time and didn’t find evidence then that he was engaged in terrorism.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters in Washington today that the Russian government contacted the U.S. about Tamerlan Tsarnaev in March 2011 and again that November. Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said Russian authorities also spoke to federal officials “four days ago.” He didn’t say which agencies were contacted.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said she heard only about one contact to the FBI.
After the FBI’s investigation found nothing incriminating, the bureau asked its Russian counterparts three times if there was any additional information they could provide on the suspect and got no response, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and asked for anonymity.
Now, Tamerlan Tsaraev’s life “is being reconstructed, literally day by day, hour by hour,” said Indiana Senator Dan Coats, a Republican.
Feinstein, a California Democrat, said determining the motive centers on the Russia visit.
Investigators want to determine “what he did when he went to Dagestan,” she said. “Did he sit in his family’s house for six months? Was he out there talking to people?”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has communicated to investigators that he and his older brother didn’t have ties to a terrorist or military group and were motivated by extremist Islam, according to the U.S. official briefed on the initial interrogation who asked not to be identified in discussing the probe.
The suspects’ parents, Anzor and Zubeidat, spoke today to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Russian agents in Makhachkala, the capital of the republic of Dagestan, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. The parents intend to return to the U.S., according to Zaurbek Sadahanov, a lawyer assisting the family.
Zubeidat Tsarnaeva also was questioned yesterday, Sadahanov said. The interviews lasted eight hours, and U.S. agents were assisted by the FSB, Russia’s counterintelligence successor to the KGB.
The twin blasts at the Boston Marathon’s finish line, the highest-profile act of terror in the U.S. since the 2001 attacks, were caused by homemade bombs built inside pressure cookers packed with black powder, nails and BB pellets.
The FBI has concluded that the bombs contained explosives from fireworks, possibly along with additional explosive material still being analyzed, according to a U.S. official who asked for anonymity because of the continuing investigation.
Boston has been gradually returning to normal since the April 15 bombing that left three dead and more than 260 injured. Early today, city workers took down remaining barricades near the marathon’s finish line on Boylston Street, and cars and foot traffic flowed through for the first time since the blasts.
Today, a noon memorial service was held for Sean Collier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology policeman shot at point-blank range in his cruiser on April 18 during the manhunt for the bombers.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, whose first wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident, told the crowd he spoke from experience in offering the Collier family words of comfort.
“My heart goes out to you,” Biden said. “I hope you find some solace.”
A private funeral was held yesterday for 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest casualty.
One Fund Boston, set up to aid marathon bombing victims, has received $20 million in donations, Mayor Thomas Menino said.
“I never imagined after the tragedy of last Monday the generosity of folks -- that we would reach $20 million in one week,” Menino said at a news conference yesterday.
Federal investigators believe Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have learned how to build the devices by reading jihadist websites, including an online magazine affiliated with al-Qaeda called Inspire, according to an official briefed on the investigation who asked not to be identified because of government policy.
The older Tsarnaev bought two pyrotechnic devices on Feb. 6, said William Weimer, a vice president of the national chain Phantom Fireworks. At a Seabrook, New Hampshire, outlet, Tsarnaev paid $199.99 in cash for each of two “Lock and Load” reloadable mortar kits that come with a tube and 24 shells, Weimer said.
Though Tamerlan Tsarnaev paid cash, the store required him to fill out a form and supply his name, Weimer said. The transaction has been reported to the FBI, he said.
The two devices combined contained about 1 1/2 pounds of combustible material, not enough to create the devastation of the marathon explosions, Weimer said.
Authorities are also investigating how the brothers were able to fund their lifestyle, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the probe is continuing.
Investigators are looking into whether funds came from family members, friends, people overseas or other sources, according to the person. Tamerlan drove a silver, C-Class Mercedes-Benz.
He and his wife, Katherine Russell, received government assistance after their 2-year-old daughter was born, said Alex Loftus, communications director for the Massachusetts Health and Human Services Department. Those benefits ended last year when the family’s income exceeded eligibility limits, he said.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar both received benefits after their parents immigrated to the U.S., Loftus said. State welfare can include food stamps and cash, Loftus said. He declined to provide details of what types of benefits the families received.
Federal agents have also questioned Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s 24-year-old wife, who is staying with her parents in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. She declined to comment yesterday, but is assisting in the investigation, according to a statement from her attorney, Amato DeLuca.
A dozen media cars and trucks remained outside the home today as relatives came and went and Russell remained unseen.