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Boston bomb inquiry looks closely at Russia trip

by ELLEN BARRY New York Times News Service on May 09, 2013 10:40 AM

MAKHACHKALA, Russia — During a six-month visit to his Russian homeland last year, the parents of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaevsaid said he spent his time reading novels and reconnecting with family, not venturing into the shadowy world of the region’s militants.

But now, investigators are looking into a range of suspected contacts Tsarnaev made in Dagestan, from days he may have spent in a mosque in the capital to time spent outside the city, with a relative who is a prominent Islamist leader recently taken into custody by Russian authorities.

In other developments regarding the marathon bombings, The Associated Press reported that Tsarnaev’s widow, Katherine Russell, has hired a criminal lawyer with experience defending terrorism cases.

Russell added New York lawyer Joshua Dratel to her legal team, her attorney Amato DeLuca said Wednesday. Dratel has represented a number of terrorism suspects in federal courts and military commissions, including Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainee David Hicks, who attended an al-Qaida-linked training camp in Afghanistan.

DeLuca said Russell, who has not been charged with any crime, will continue to meet with investigators as “part of a series of meetings over many hours where she has answered questions.”

Also, the AP reported that Boston’s police commissioner told lawmakers conducting the first congressional hearing on the Marathon bombings that government should tighten security around celebratory public events and consider using more undercover officers, special police units and technology, including surveillance cameras — but only in ways that don’t run afoul of civil liberties.

The hearing on Capitol Hill comes less than three weeks after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest. The committee chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said it will be the first in a series of hearings to review the government’s initial response, what information authorities received about the brothers before the bombings and whether they handled it correctly. The FBI and CIA separately received vague warnings from Russia’s government in 2011 that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his mother were religious militants.

The emerging details of Tsarnaev’s time in Russia have not fundamentally altered a prevailing view among American and Russian investigators that he had been radicalized before his visit. However, there have been reports that he sought out contact with Islamist extremists, and was flagged as a potential recruit for the region’s Islamic insurgency. It remains unclear to what degree his months in Russia, which were punctuated by punishing attacks between the police and insurgents, may have changed his perspective. But an official here, who said he was not in a position to confirm or deny reports of Tsarnaev’s contacts, said it appeared that he intended to link up with militant Islamists, but left having failed.

“My working theory is that he evidently came here, he was looking for contacts, but he did not find serious contacts, and if he did, they didn’t trust him,” said Habib Magomedov, a member of Dagestan’s anti-terrorism commission.

Investigators in Russia are also looking into Tsarnaev’s interactions online, and exploring whether he and a Canadian-born militant, William Plotnikov, may have been part of a larger group of diaspora Russian-speakers who mobilized online, under the auspices of an organization based in Europe, a law enforcement official said.

Unearthing what investigators have learned became more difficult two weeks ago when President Vladimir V. Putin told reporters that, “to our great regret,” Russian security services were unable to share operative information on Tsarnaev and his brother, Dzhokhar, that they could have shared with American officials. The police in Dagestan have said Tsarnaev was not under surveillance.

Since then an official from the Anti-Extremism Center, a federal agency under Russia’s Interior ministry, confirmed for The Associated Press that operatives had filmed Tsarnaev during visits to a Makhachkala mosque whose worshippers adhere to a more radical strain of Islam, and scrambled to locate him when he disappeared from sight after Plotnikov was killed in a counterterror raid. An official from the same unit told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta that Tsarnaev had been spotted repeatedly with a suspected militant, Mahmoud Mansur Nidal, who was killed shortly thereafter in a counterterror raid. What is certain, however, is that investigators are looking into the time he spent with a distant cousin, Magomed Kartashov, founder of a group called Union of the Just, a Salafi religious organization that promoted civic action, not violence. Kartashov, whose relation with Tsarnaev was first reported in Time magazine, was recently detained by police after taking part in a wedding procession that flew Islamic flags.

Agents from the Federal Security Service visited Kartashov last Sunday in a detention center to question him about his relationship with Tsarnaev, focusing on whether the two had shared “extremist” beliefs, said Kartashov’s lawyer, Patimat Abdullayeva.

Abdullayeva said that her client had discussed religious matters with his younger relative, but that he had been a moderating influence on the younger man, whose views seemed to be more radical. “Magomed is a preacher, he has nothing to do with extremism,” she said.

As head of the Union of the Just, Kartashov has led demonstrations protesting police counterterrorism tactics, which are often brutal here, and calling for the establishment of Islamic law, or sharia, in the region. At a rally in February, he aligned himself with antigovernment forces in Syria, saying, “We do not want secularism, we do not want democracy, we want the law of Allah,” according to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The time Tsarnaev spent with Kartashov may offer the first firm clues to his thinking during that period. Five men who spent time with both of them told Time that the younger man was apparently interested in radicalism well before he came to Russia, and that they tried to dissuade him from supporting local militant groups.

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