Amid the swirl of mysteries surrounding the alleged Boston bombers, one fact, barely touched upon in the mainstream U.S. media, stands out: There is a strong possibility that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers, was a double agent, perhaps recruited by the FBI.
If Tsarnaev was a double agent, he would be just one of thousands of young people coerced by the FBI, as the price for settling a minor legal problem, into a dangerous career as an informant.
That he was so coerced is the easiest explanation for two seemingly incompatible incidents in his life:
The first is that he returned to Russia in 2012, ostensibly to renew his Russian passport so he could file an application for US citizenship.
The second is that Tsarnaev then jeopardized his citizenship application with conspicuous, provocative -- almost theatrical -- behavior that seemed more caricature than characteristic of a Muslim extremist.
While walking around in flashy western clothes in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, he visited his cousin, Magomed Kartashov, a prominent Islamist leader, already on the Russians' radar. The two reportedly spent hours discussing Tsarnaev's wish to join a terrorist cell there in the Caucasus. Later, Russian authorities asked Kartashov if he had tried to incite Tsarnaev with "extremist" views. Kartashov said it was the other way around: he had tried to convince Tsarnaev that "violent methods are not right."
Experts agree that Tsarnaev could not have expected such provocative activity to escape the notice of the vigilant Russian authorities.
Back in America, Tsarnaev again called attention to himself as a radical Muslim. Just one month after he returned from his trip, a YouTube page that appeared to belong to him featured multiple jihadist videos that he had purportedly endorsed.
And in January 2013, he got himself thrown out of a mosque in Cambridge for shouting at a speaker who compared the Prophet Mohammed to Martin Luther King Jr. Tsarnaev rarely attended this mosque, but he must have known it was moderate. (He had done something similar the previous November at the same mosque.) Typically, jihadists are trained to blend in, to be as inconspicuous as possible. Did Tsarnaev go to this mosque with the express intent of smoking out possible radicals?
The key to Tsarnaev's puzzling behavior may lie in the answer to another question: when exactly did Tsarnaev first come to the attention of the FBI? The timeline offered by the agency, and duly reported in the mainstream media, has been inconsistent. One story line focused on the FBI's response to an alert from Russian authorities.
Eric Schmitt and Michael S. Schmidt of the New York Times, wrote, on April 24, 2013,
The first Russian request came in March 2011 through the F.B.I.'s office in the United States Embassy in Moscow. The one-page request said Mr. Tsarnaev "had changed drastically since 2010" and was preparing to travel to a part of Russia "to join unspecified underground groups."
The Russian request was reportedly based on intercepted phone calls between Tsarnaev's mother and an unidentified person (The Guardian [London], April 21, 2013). According to another source, several calls were intercepted, including one between Tsarnaev and his mother.
So was it the Russian alert in March 2011 that first prompted the FBI to investigate Tsarnaev? This conclusion seems undermined by another report in the Times -- written four days earlier by the same two reporters plus a third-- that dated the agency's first contact with Tamerlan and family members at least two months earlier, in January 2011.
If the FBI interviewed Tsarnaev before the Russians asked them to, then what prompted the agency's interest in him? Were his contacts here as well as in Russia considered useful to American counterintelligence?