FBI Director Robert Mueller confirms Boston JTTF did receive text alerts of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travels to and from Russia

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 16, 2013. SOURCE: Appropriations.Senate.gov

FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed this week that the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston did receive two text alerts of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travel activities in 2012 but that no action was taken.

“A text notice had gone to the task force to a very good [Department of Homeland Security] customs agent on the [Boston] Joint Terrorism Task Force. And we do not have any action that was taken on that particular notification,” Mueller told lawmakers on Thursday. “Likewise, when [Tamerlan Tsarnaev] returned to the United States, there’s an automatic message that’s pushed out and that also came to the task force that way and there was no additional action taken on that.”

At the request of the Russian government, the FBI conducted an assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev between March and August of 2011 but found no links between Tsarnaev and terrorism. Mueller acknowledged that homegrown violent extremists “present unique challenges” because “their experiences and motives are often not distinct” and they don’t share a typical profile.

Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mueller indicated that the FBI reached out to the Russian government at least three times for more information but received no response before the bureau closed the file on Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

But a few months later, Tamerlan Tsarnaev traveled to Russia, where he spent the first half of 2012, and returned the Cambridge, Mass. seemingly more radicalized.

Read more: Boston Marathon bombings

Prior to the April 15th bombings, which killed three people and wounded more than 200 others, Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly uploaded videos advocating violent jihad against the United States to YouTube.

The FBI has since come under fire for not following up on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s activities, particularly after his return from Dagestan, Russia in July 2012.

“I’m troubled, however, by reports…that the danger posed by…Tamerlan Tsarnaev…was not identified because the government, again, was unable to connect the dots,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama). “It’s disappoint sometimes that after 12 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in investments, we’re still discussing the government’s inability at times to connect the dots when it’s very important.”

FBI officials initially told lawmakers that the bureau was not aware of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s trip to Russia because his name was misspelled in travel documents. However, Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano testified that despite the misspelling the DHS’s system did “ping” when Tsarnaev left the U.S.

Mueller’s testimony confirmed that the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force received two text notices of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s travels to and from Russia. However, the notices were sent to a DHS customs agent, who did not take action on the notices, suggesting that the text notices may not have been shared with the FBI.

(Mueller noted that neither the Joint Terrorism Task Force nor the customs agent were under the FBI’s supervision; the JTTF is managed by the Department of Homeland Security.)

Mueller, who said the matter is under review, surmised that the customs agent didn’t take action on the text alert because the FBI’s file on Tsarnaev was already closed at the time with the finding of “no association with terrorism”. He added that the high volume of inquiries handled by the Boston JTTF may have also played a role in the agent’s decision to not act on the text notice.

“That particular Joint Terrorism Task Force in any given year handles hundreds of similar assessments and the leads and the like,” said Mueller. “We [will] go back and look and say, ‘What could we have done better?’ And this particular incident, handling the text notice is an area that we’re going to do better on the next time.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police in Watertown on April 18th. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured alive a day later and has been charged with using a weapon of mass destruction – namely, a pressure cooker bomb – which carries the death penalty upon conviction.

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