BOSTON – Russian authorities secretly wiretapped a conversation between a man believed to be one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects and his mother in 2011 discussing the idea of jihad, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said Saturday.
The Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, also intercepted a second telephone call between the mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, and another man living in southern Russia who has been the subject of a separate FBI investigation, the official said.
The vague substance of the phone calls was shared only a few days ago with U.S. officials investigating the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon, which killed three people and injured more than 260.
“It was two very general conversations not shared until recently,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share details of the investigation.
No explanation was given for why Russian authorities waited so long to tell U.S. authorities about the telephone calls. The information could have provided an additional reason for U.S. authorities to heighten scrutiny of bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, whose flirtation with radical Islam has come more clearly to light only in the days since the attack.
Tsarnaev died in a shootout with police in the early hours of April 19. His 19-year-old brother and suspected partner in the bombings, Dzhokhar, was taken into custody later that evening.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was transferred in the predawn hours Friday from a Boston hospital to a federal Bureau of Prisons medical facility in the town of Ayer, 40 miles west of Boston. A prison spokesman said Saturday that Tsarnaev continues to be in fair condition.
The disclosure that the Russian FSB was monitoring Zubeidat Tsarnaeva’s phone calls during what appears to be a visit she took to her homeland in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan in 2011 signals the investigation’s growing interest in how much the mother knew about her sons’ plans. She said she was in almost daily contact with her elder son in the days before the bombings.
Tsarnaeva has repeatedly said she knew nothing about the bombings and still doubts her sons could have perpetrated the plan.
Although both parents had previously announced plans to fly to the U.S. to visit their youngest son in prison and handle arrangements for the remains of the other, Tsarnaeva said Saturday that the questions about her role have made her wary of traveling to Boston.
“They are now thinking that I am a terrorist, that is what I have been hearing. So I don’t know how safe it is for me to go down there,” Tsarnaeva told the Los Angeles Times in a telephone interview in Russia.
“I need guarantees that I will be allowed to see my son, if he is still alive that is. I am thinking about abandoning U.S. citizenship all together,” she said.
Tsarnaeva said her husband, Anzor Tsarnaev, is “very sick” and hospitalized in Moscow, where the couple are now staying after recently leaving their home in the Dagestani capital of Makhachkala.
She said doctors have warned her that his blood pressure is so high he is in danger of having a stroke.
“He is not unconscious, but he is in a very bad shape,” she said. “Of course, we can’t even think of him going anywhere, let alone America right now.”
Tsarnaeva was interviewed before the disclosures about the wiretapped phone calls. Little detail about the phone calls was available, and the counter-terrorism official did not identify the person “under investigation” who is believed to have spoken with Tsarnaeva in the second call.
The FBI interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and other family members in 2011 in response to a request from Russian authorities, who said they had information that he was “a follower of radical Islam” and was preparing to travel to Russia to join “underground groups.”
The FBI said it reviewed databases for evidence of terrorist activity, including “derogatory telephone communications,” but found none.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev traveled to Dagestan to visit his father in 2012, the year after the phone calls the Russians intercepted. He stayed there for six months while his mother remained at the family’s apartment in Cambridge, Mass. She moved to Dagestan shortly after her son’s return in July 2012.
“You know, the FBI followed him for several years, and when he got back from Dagestan last year, they called him and asked him what was the purpose of his visit to his homeland,” Tsarnaeva said.
She said she was in regular contact with her son, including in the days after the marathon bombings, but he never discussed any plans to commit a crime.