WASHINGTON — Russian officials’ warnings to the FBI and CIA about Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Islamic radicalization included a prediction that he would change his name, a Massachusetts lawmaker said Wednesday — but the alert apparently failed to raise alarms when Tsarnaev formally sought the name “Muaz,” an early Islamic scholar.
Tsarnaev tried to make the change as part of a federal citizenship application eight months before the Boston Marathon bombing.
The disclosure of the Russians’ specific warning about the name change raises additional questions about whether federal agencies missed another signal that the elder Tsarnaev brother was veering toward radical Islam after a six-month trip in 2012 to the restive Russian province of Dagestan.
“That would have been one more red flag,” said US Representative William R. Keating, a Bourne Democrat, who was briefed by Russian intelligence officials on a congressional trip to Moscow. “It would have been one more thing we were warned about that was happening.”
Tsarnaev tried to change his name as part of a US citizenship application he filed in August 2012 with Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, a US official confirmed on Wednesday.
The disclosure was made as the federal government continues to examine potential intelligence failures in the lead-up to the Marathon bombing. After Russian intelligence warned the FBI and the CIA in 2011 about Tsarnaev’s radicalization, the FBI investigated him in early 2011 and determined he was not a threat. His name was placed on government computer watchlists for potential terror suspects, but subsequent opportunities to track his travel to Russia in 2012 and interview him about his growing belief in radical Islam were missed.
The New York Times reported Wednesday night that the Obama administration’s main intelligence report on the Marathon bombing largely exonerated the FBI and said Russian authorities did not share all they knew about Tsarnaev in the two years before the bombing. The Times cited unnamed officials who had read the intelligence report.
The report — commissioned by the president’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and conducted by the inspectors general for several intelligence agencies — appears to emphasize claims that the FBI has been making over the past year, that the bureau asked Russian intelligence agencies for more information but never got a response.
The House Committee on Homeland Security had a more critical assessment in its own report, concluding that many of the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, had not been fully absorbed and directly challenging the FBI’s assertions that nothing more could have been done to prevent the bombings.
The Homeland Security committee held a hearing Wednesday on its review of what went wrong.
Tsarnaev sought to legally change his first name to Muaz about six weeks after he returned from Dagestan in 2012, according to a government official who reviewed the nearly two dozen pages of immigration forms.
Keating said in an interview that Russian intelligence letters sent to both the FBI and CIA in 2011 about Tsarnaev predicted he would seek to change his name. The letter did not say what name Tsarnaev would take, according to Keating. Keating said Russian intelligence agencies read him a copy of the letter they sent to the FBI and the CIA. He took notes from the conversation, but was not given a copy of the letter.
“It’s amazing how much information they did know, the Russians,” Keating said. “Look at everything that’s there. The change of the name, that’s corroborated. That he wanted to travel back to Russia, that’s been corroborated. That he wanted to enlist with extremists, that’s corroborated. I mean, everything that was in that [warning] has been corroborated.”
The official name change request was first reported Wednesday by the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper, citing unnamed law enforcement officials, said Tsarnaev intended to adopt the name of Emir Muaz, an Islamist militant killed in 2009 by Russian forces.
But Boston Globe reporting indicates that Tsarnaev’s inspiration may have been different.
During six months in Dagestan in 2012, Tsarnaev fell in with members of an Islamic advocacy group that believes in the establishment of an Islamic caliphate governed by sharia religious law that would span the Caucasus. They are sharply critical of US interventions in Muslim countries, but they do not openly espouse violence, and they are not outlaws.
His associates in Dagestan told the Globe that when Tsarnaev learned that he was named after a medieval Mongol warlord who conquered much of Central Asia, he wanted a new name. They said they chose the name Muaz, after an early Islamic scholar, and Tsarnaev adopted it. All of his friends in Dagestan know him as Muaz.
Also, as the Globe reported last year, a YouTube page apparently created by Tsarnaev in August 2012 adopted the user name Muazseyfullah, or “Muaz sword of God.” The Arabic-origin name Muaz is translated as glorified or esteemed.
Tsarnaev was killed in Watertown during a shoot-out with police days after the April 15 attacks, which killed three people and wounded more than 260. His brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is awaiting trial.
On the citizenship forms, Tsarnaev provided his Yahoo e-mail address and listed that he worked for four months at a Home Depot in Quincy and two different pizza shops in Boston. He wrote that he had traveled out of the country for 178 days, writing that he had been in Russia but not specifying Dagestan, according to the government official.
Tsarnaev submitted the naturalization application on Aug. 28, 2012, and at that time indicated he wanted to change his name. About three weeks later, the FBI ran a name check and indicated that Muaz was an alias for Tsarnaev, the government official said. As part of the application process, Tsarnaev was interviewed by immigration officials on Jan. 23, 2013.
The elder Tsarnaev, whose brother and alleged accomplice Dzhokhar is awaiting trial in Boston, also indicated at the time his anti-American feelings, the source confirmed. At the bottom of the form, where the applicant is asked to take an oath of allegiance to the United States, Tsarnaev did not sign that portion. Instead, he printed his name, “Tamerlan.’’ Then he scratched that out, and wrote, “Muaz.’’
“The bottom line is the issue that he has that name; there’s a story behind that, in retrospect, and we’re all analyzing that,” the government official said. “If I’m that guy who signed off on this form, I’m thinking about it now, but I’m not sure what I would have done differently.”
One portion of the application asked if Tsarnaev had been a member of, or associated in any way with a communist, a totalitarian party, or a terrorist organization. According to the government source who has reviewed the application, Tsarnaev answered “no” to all three.
Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for the US Citizenship and Immigration Service in Boston, said she does not have the authority to speak about the process by which immigration officers review citizenship applications or their level of interaction with other law enforcement agencies.
A government consultant who is working directly on the case agreed the revelation that Tsarnaev wanted a more Islamic sounding name brings into further focus his steady path toward militancy. But he cautioned that at the time, viewed in isolation, it would not necessarily have suggested anything sinister. “I think in retrospect it seems like a sign that he might have become more radicalized,” said the consultant, who was not authorized to speak about the investigation publicly.
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert at the New America Foundation, said there has been a pattern of Muslims changing their names after they have adopted terrorist aims.
Bergen cited the case of Carlos Leon Bledsoe, who opened fire at a military recruiting office in Arkansas in 2009, killing one and wounding another. Bledsoe, who had converted to Islam in 2004, changed his name to Muhammad in 2007.
At its hearing on Wednesday, the Homeland Security Committee lauded the efforts of local law enforcement officials during the manhunt to catch the Tsarnaev brothers.
They had six more bombs in their car and were on their way to New York City’s Times Square when they were stopped by police in Watertown, according to Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security.
McCaul asked Watertown police Chief Edward Deveau, Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, and several other Watertown officers involved in the shoot-out to stand up and be recognized. Former Boston police commissioner Edward Davis, who also testified, was praised for his leadership during the crisis.
“I can tell you one thing: For 8½ minutes, we were the best damn Police Department in the world,” Deveau said.
McCaul said the committee in its investigation had found that several “flags and warnings” had been missed and “sytemic problems” had led to Tsarnaev falling off “our radar.”
While some agencies have said that detecting Tsarnaev’s increasing radicalization would not have made any difference in the bombings, McCaul said, “It likely would have been clear that he was becoming more and more of a threat to the community.”