MAXIMUM HARM: The Tsarnaev Brothers, The FBI, And The Road To The Marathon Bombing

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“Chunks of flesh as big as scoops of ice cream.”

A series of bombs detonated at the height of Boston’s biggest annual bash, Patriots Day, leaving behind “a river of blood.”

These are just a couple of the visceral descriptions offered by Boston-based investigative journalist Michele McPhee, whose Maximum Harm nonfiction account delves into great detail regarding not only what transpired the week of the 2013 Boston Marathon — but also the events and small but important details that led up to those fateful days.

McPhee sets the scene immediately for the reader, in a Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach manner, in which no details are sanitized and no mental images are spared. Yet what is equally as frightening for the reader is the thought that the marathon bombings could have easily been prevented — and this is what lies at the heart of McPhee’s dogged reporting. And arguably more horrifying to consider is the notion that persons serving deep within the American intelligence complex may have enabled these killers.

Of that last point, McPhee’s in-depth research and investigative work suggests there was much more at play than merely the terrorist acts committed by a pair of lone-wolf Muslim brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev. 

Consider the following details, as documented meticulously by McPhee:

  • A pair of cellular phones, discovered several doors down from the April 19, 2013, shootout with police in Watertown, connecting the Tsarnaev brothers to “other Muslim men, one of whom would vanish entirely.”
  • How Tamerlan Tsarnaev, diagnosed with tuberculosis upon his arrival in Cambridge, managed to be granted asylum in America despite a tuberculosis diagnosis being grounds ground for non-admission.
  • Why did the lead FBI agent tasked with monitoring Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s activity never once visit the controversial Cambridge mosque where he prayed, despite the institution’s established connections to radical Islamists?
  • Why didn’t Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s appearance in a terrorist-screening database prevent him not only from visiting Dagestan, a hotbed for terrorism, but also returning to American soil — especially when he did not even possess a passport, only a Green Card, which is akin to a driver’s license?
  • Why did FBI officials constantly prod immigration officials to approve Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s citizenship application, especially after Tamerlan’s domestic violence conviction — which made him ineligible?
  • Why were Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s undeniable connections to a 2011 triple-homicide in Waltham never pursued — a murder scene that boasted all of the hallmarks of Islamic terrorism?
  • The presence of nearly identical documents in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s immigration file, which show two different men — one that is clearly Tamerlan and another that has blue eyes and is clearly not Tamerlan — but wearing identical shirts.
  • The June 2013 arrest of a young Topsfield man, Daniel Morley, who police later discovered had in his possession many of the exact same tools of destruction used during the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent shootout with police in Watertown — why wasn’t this man ever prosecuted? 
  • Morley had clear, established connections with the Tsarnaev brothers, and had previously worked at a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — just steps away from where the brothers would ultimately kill MIT Police Officer Sean Collier. 


A New Boston Post reporter recently caught up with McPhee to discuss her work. 

The Tsnarnaev family — in your opinion — were they ever worthy at any point during their existence in America of U.S. citizenship?

The Tsarnaevs are not the only questionable refugees who have been granted political asylum. In New England alone on recent years Department of Homeland Security Investigations agents have arrested a Bosnian war lord who drank coffee with his victims’ families in Peabody; a mother of three who was a killer during the Rwandan genocide hiding in New Hampshire; a Haitian politician driving a Malden school bus; and El Salvadoran military leader who ordered the murders of Jesuit priests was captured living in Everett. All of them were dangerous war criminals who slipped into New England with ease. The Tsarnaevs likely had help, Maximum Harm proves, from intelligence officials in the U.S. State Department, coming to the U.S. via Ankara, Turkey.

Your reporting raises so many questions about FBI involvement — the foremost being, “What did the FBI know, and when did they know it?” Do you sense parallels between their handling of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and James “Whitey” Bulger — and if so, can you give us your opinion?

I am careful to call Tamerlan a federal agent because there were so many intelligence agencies who had ties to him. There was the DHS ICE drug case. The fact that Ruslan Tsarni, Tamerlan’s uncle, married the daughter of a high-ranking CIA officer who, ironically, had ties to Ankara, Turkey where the family came through to come to the U.S.. Even the owner of their house in Cambridge was a Russian expat with ties to Ruslan Tsarni. The FBI came in later to help Tamerlan get his citizenship, so the real handlers will probably never be identified. It’s the Inspector General’s report commissioned by former DNI [Director of National Intelligence] head James Clapper that ties the FBI to Tamerlan and his citizenship promise.

You cite the 9/11 Commission extensively. How upset should Americans feel about one of the central principles of your reporting — that nobody followed the 9/11 Commission’s advisory memo when it came to Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

Both reports, the 9/11 Commission report and the 9/11 and Terrorist Travel, were instrumental in seeing some of the repeated issues about allowing people from terrorist hotbeds to travel back to their homelands for months on nothing more than a Green Card — essentially a driver’s license. USA citizens could not travel to Dagestan using their driver’s license, why are we letting refugees travel to jihadi locations with a Green Card — one of the major recommendations by 9/11 Commissioners. Also, it is inexplicable that Tamerlan Tsarnaev could leave Boston in January 2012 and return in July 2012 while on two separate terror watch lists. He was watchlisted after the Russian FSB warned the FBI about intercepted messages between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and a Canadian jihadi William Plotnikov in March 2011. Then the FBS sent another letter to the CIA in September 2011 about Tamerlan’s interactions with his mother’s cousin, who led a jihadi-sympathizing group in Dagestan. Tamerlan returned to Boston days after Plotnikov, the Canadian, was tracked and killed. Strangely he had recorded conversations with his mother’s cousin in Russia, who was jailed in Russia shortly after Tamerlan left.

Name one subject you mentioned in your book who is not in custody right now — and tell us what question you would ask this individual.

Daniel Morley was a former MIT employee who was arrested at his mother’s house in June 2013 by Topsfield Police. Investigators recovered ever single component of the pressure cooker bombs, including BBs, and an empty box-top to a Fagor six-quart pressure cooker, the exact size and brand used for the bombs detonated at the Finish Line. Morley, however, was never prosecuted even though his mother told the Topsfield PD her son told her he had done something “he would have to answer to God for” and that Daniel also had ties to Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The two had shared a class at Bunker Hill Community College years earlier and both had ties to anarchist groups. Investigators recovered anarchist literature in Tamerlan’s Cambridge home and Morley had been arrested at Occupy Wall Street and had Anonymous materials in his home.

Anything more you can tell us about the “blue-eyed man” that did not resemble Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

I wish I could. One of the stranger findings in the case. That man’s paperwork, however, did contain Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Krgz passport number. And both Tamerlan and the blue-eyed man were photographed on that State Department medical document wearing identical shirts.

What was the biggest roadblock in terms of writing this book?

Fear. A lot of people were worried about pissing off the feds.

Do you envision a follow-up book?

Only if Maximum Harm spurs some sort of accountability in the informant program, which Congressman Stephen Lynch has pushed for for years. In fact, in April 2017, weeks after my book came out, he filed federal legislation called the Confidential Informant Accountability Act.

Ibragim Todashev — there’s the September 11, 2011 Waltham triple-murder connection, there’s Tamerlan Tsarnaev mentioned as an accomplice — what is your “gut feeling” regarding this mystery murder case?

Ibragim left Boston on September 11, 2011 – in a hurry, his roommate told the FBI. That roommate, Khairullozhon Matanov, was arrested in 2014 for obstructing the investigation into the marathon attack and spent time in federal prison. Tamerlan and one of the victims were one-time best friends. All of them — Ibragim, Tamerlan, and the three victims, had ties to both Wai Kru and drug dealing. It was a murder on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 that sent a message. The men were nearly decapitated and the Jewish victims were sexually mutilated.

Lastly — your honest opinion — do you believe the FBI has anything to hide?

The DOJ, the State Department, and DHS should be asked questions about the Tsarnaevs and their ties to the intelligence communities. But remember, the FBI was so uncooperative that a bipartisan delegation of federal lawmakers went to Russia with the Hollywood actor Stephen Seagal.


How To Purchase McPhee’s Maximum Harm.