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Russia caught bomb suspect on wiretap talking about jihad with mother

Russian authorities secretly recorded a telephone conversation in 2011 in which one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, vaguely discussed jihad with his mother

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A key U.S. lawmaker said Sunday he believes the Boston Marathon bombing suspects had some training in carrying out their attack and that their mother played a "very strong rule" in her sons' radicalization process.

The comments from Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, came a day after U.S. officials said Russian authorities secretly recorded a telephone conversation in 2011 in which one of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, vaguely discussed jihad with his mother.

McCaul, who spoke on the "Fox News Sunday" television show, said he thinks the mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, would be held for questioning if she were to return to the United States from Russia. She has denied the family is involved in terrorism and says her sons were framed.

The father of the Tsarnaev brothers, meanwhile, said Sunday he is postponing a trip to the U.S. because of poor health.

McCaul cited the type of device used in the April 15 attack — shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bombs — and the weapons' sophistication as signs of training.

Homemade bombs built from pressure cookers have been a frequent weapon of militants in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Al-Qaida's branch in Yemen once published an online manual on how to make one.

Authorities say Tamerlan and his brother, Dzhohkar, detonated two homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring more than 260. Tamerlan was killed in a police shootout and Dzhohkar is under arrest.

U.S. officials said Saturday that in the past week, Russian authorities have turned over to the United States information it had on 26-year-old Tamerlan and his mother. The Tsarnaevs are ethnic Chechens who emigrated from southern Russia to the Boston area over the past 11 years.

In early 2011, the Russian FSB internal security service intercepted a conversation between Tamerlan and his mother vaguely discussing jihad, according to U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation with reporters.

The two discussed the possibility of Tamerlan going to Palestine, but he told his mother he didn't speak the language there, according to the officials, who reviewed the information Russia shared with the U.S.

In a second call, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva spoke with a man in the Caucasus region of Russia who was under FBI investigation. Jacqueline Maguire, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington Field Office, where that investigation was based, declined to comment.

There was no information in the conversation that suggested a plot inside the United States, officials said.

The conversations are significant because, had they been revealed earlier, they might have been enough evidence for the FBI to initiate a more thorough investigation of the Tsarnaev family.

As it was, Russian authorities told the FBI only that they had concerns that Tamerlan and his mother were religious extremists.

After receiving the narrow tip in March 2011, the FBI opened a preliminary investigation into Tamerlan and his mother. But the scope was extremely limited under the FBI's internal procedures.

After a few months, they found no evidence Tamerlan or his mother were involved in terrorism.

The FBI asked Russia for more information. After hearing nothing, it closed the case in June 2011.

In the fall of 2011, the FSB contacted the CIA with the same information. Again the FBI asked Russia for more details and never heard back.

At that time, however, the CIA asked that Tamerlan's and his mother's name be entered into a massive U.S. terrorism database.

The CIA declined to comment Saturday.

It was not immediately clear why Russian authorities didn't share more information at the time. It is not unusual for countries, including the U.S., to be cagey with foreign authorities about what intelligence is being collected.

The FSB said Sunday that it would not comment.

Even had the FBI received the information from the Russian wiretaps earlier, it's not clear that the government could have prevented the attack.

Jim Treacy, the FBI's legal attache in Moscow between 2007 and 2009, said the Russians long asked for U.S. assistance regarding Chechen activity in the United States that might be related to terrorism.

Authorities have said they've seen no connection between the brothers and a foreign terrorist group. Dzhohkar told FBI interrogators that he and his brother were angry over wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the deaths of Muslim civilians there.

Zubeidat Tsarnaeva has denied that she or her sons were involved in terrorism. She has said she believed her sons have been framed by U.S. authorities.

But Ruslan Tsarni, an uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers and Zubeidat's former brother-in-law, said Saturday he believes the mother had a "big-time influence" as her older son increasingly embraced his Muslim faith and decided to quit boxing and school.

Anzor Tsarnaev, the father of the two suspects, told The Associated Press that he is postponing a trip to the U.S. because he is "really sick" and his blood pressure had spiked. He had planned to travel from Russia to the U.S. with the hope of seeing his younger son and burying his elder son.

Tsarnaev confirmed that he is staying in Chechnya, but did not specify whether he was hospitalized. Until Friday, he and the suspects' mother had been living in the neighboring province of Dagestan.

On Saturday, Federal Medical Center Devens spokesman John Collauti described the conditions under which 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being held in the Ayer facility after being moved there from a hospital Friday.

Dzhokhar was injured during a police chase Thursday in which his brother, Tamerlan, was fatally wounded.

Collauti said in a telephone interview that Dzhokar is in secure housing where authorities can monitor him. His cell has a solid steel door with an observation window and a slot for passing food and medication.

Family members have said Tamerlan was religiously apathetic until 2008 or 2009, when he met a conservative Muslim convert known only to the family as Misha. Misha, they said, steered Tamerlan toward a stricter version of Islam.

Two U.S. officials say investigators believe they have identified Misha. While it was not clear whether the FBI had spoken to him, the officials said they have not found a connection between Misha and the Boston attack or terrorism in general.

Copyright 2013 Associated Press

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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