News & Politics

9 Burning, Unresolved Questions About the Boston Bombings

There have been conflicting crime scene accounts from police about basic facts.

One week after Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev captured, there are more questions than answers surrounding the Boston Marathon bombing and its violent climax involving a carjacking and two shootouts and the murder of an MIT policeman.

Some of the confusion comes from the police, whose statements have been contradictory or wrong, and were later retracted. Some of the confusion comes from new details that have emerged prompting more questions, such as the FBI’s tracking of the older brother and his mother. And others are media speculation, such as whether Tamerlan killed his teenage brother’s best friend and two others on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, because they were pot dealers and exerting a bad influence on Dzhokhar.

Let’s try to sift through what’s known and unknown, correct and incorrect.

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1. The bombing. We know the Tsarnaev brothers were singled out as the top suspects. Yet some bloggers reported that there were nearly identically dressed people who also left black backpacks at the race’s finish line. We don’t know their motives, or if anyone else was involved or knew about their plans. The brothers were apparently poor, so there are lingering questions about how they bought the explosives they used and their getaway car.

2. The MIT killing. It’s not clear why the brothers killed the MIT police officer, though speculation is that they wanted his gun. Reports that they robbed a 7-11 were untrue. The evidence they killed the MIT officer comes from the young Chinese man whose Mercedes SUV they carjacked; he told police and the media that the brothers told him they did.

3. The carjacking. The carjacking victim emerged from seclusion and gave a detailed account to the Boston Globe, saying that he ran for his life at a gas station, not that he was let go because he was a foreigner, as earlier media reports suggested. He said the brothers told him that they were the bombers and that they had killed the MIT officer and might go to New York—prompting city officials to demand more federal anti-terror funding.

4. Bombs yes, guns not so much?The initial police reports said that the pair was heavily armed with guns, including an assault rifle. But that apparently was untrue as photos of the Thursday night confrontation were posted online, showing only one brother was armed with a gun, it's not clear what kind of firearm.   

5. Tamerlan’s death. How the older brother died is another open question. Watertown police said that he ran toward a line of officers (leaving his brother behind in the SUV), while firing a handgun, but he ran out of bullets just yards in front of them. They say he was tackled to be taken alive, but that his brother ran over the body while driving the SUV through the police lines. A gruesome photo of Tamerlan’s dead body shows bullet wounds and gashes. Later reports say that most of the 200 rounds fired in this confrontation were from the police.

6. False information on attempted suicide?Dzhokhar ended up hiding in a boat in a backyard not far from the shoot out. He did not shoot himself in the neck to try to kill himself or fire on police from the boat, as was initially reported by police; he had no firearms in the boat, according to more recent accounts by federal officials. What prompted authorities to open fire on Dzokhar is still unclear

7. The family and the FBI.Tamerlan was known to the FBI. He had been interviewed by agents after Russia singled him out as dangerous. He was listed on an FBI terrorist watch database. His mother, who is a citizen but moved back to Dagestan, was also in that FBI database. Since his death and her other son’s arrest, she has given press conferences denying their involvement. Press reports said that both she and Tamerlan became devout Muslims. Other reports said Dzhokhar told police from his hospital bed that the family was angered by America’s wars in Islamic countries.

The FBI links raise all kinds of questions. Did this surveillance radicalize them further? Did agents even try to recruit Tamerlan? The question of who else knew about the bombing plot—and who might have supported or encouraged it—is still murky.

8. The triple pot murder.Media coverage of the bombers has swung between speculation that they had ties to overseas terrorists to the theory that they were lone wolf actors. The revelation that the younger brother was a pothead, and that the Sept. 11, 2011 triple murder of his friend—a pot dealer—and two others might be related to the bombings is another Pandora’s box. Some writers suggest that Tamerlan could have done it, as the crime occurred during a particularly devout period of his return to religiousity, and it anticipates the callousness of the marathon bombing.       

9. The evidence trail. There’s still much to be learned about the bombers, including what their lives online will yield. The brothers had computers, e-mails, YouTube pages and other accounts that are being scrutinized. All of this suggests that the larger truths behind the bombing and its violent aftermath have yet to emerge.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).