Death of Ibragim Todashev: Why did the FBI kill Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s friend?

The Strange Death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Friend, Killed by the FBI

The Strange Death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Friend, Killed by the FBI

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
April 5 2015 9:08 PM

The Third Man

The Boston bombing, a triple murder, a mysterious death at the hands of the FBI, and the end of an American dream.

Ibragim Todashev.
Ibragim Todashev trains at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center near Boston on March 31, 2009.

Photo by Thomas Brown/Getty Images

Excerpted from The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, by Masha Gessen, published on Tuesday by Riverhead.

Elena Teyer thought it was only slightly odd when her daughter, Reni, converted to Islam. That is, covering herself was a strange choice for a beautiful young woman with long thin legs. Riding her motorcycle in that getup could not have been comfortable, either. Other than the dress, though, converting seemed to have been easy for Reni, perhaps because her decision was driven primarily by love. She had fallen for a Chechen mixed martial artist, Ibragim Todashev, who moved from Boston to Atlanta to live with her; they married in July of 2010, after knowing each other a few months.

The union was not an easy one—Ibragim had trouble finding a job and Reni tired of supporting him while he did nothing but what she called the “brainless sports” in which he competed. They moved to Orlando, thinking that the Chechen community there would make it easier for him to find work, only to split up instead. Reni moved back to Atlanta, and subsequently they made up and split up and made up again, eventually settling into a comfortable pattern of talking on the phone every day and spending every other weekend or so together.

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Despite the couple’s difficulties, the marriage and Reni’s conversion had seemed logical to Elena: Ever since they moved to the United States from Russia, Reni had been in search of an identity, and if she had now found one through the love of a good man, so much the better.

Elena’s own story contained perhaps too little love, too few good men, and too much change. She was one of those Russian women who rely on no one but themselves. The Soviet Union collapsed while she was still in college, making her one of the millions who had to make their way without their parents’ help or guidance. Elena became a restaurant manager. She did well, raising two kids on her own. In 2004, she started corresponding with an American man. Within two years, 35-year-old Elena and her children moved to Atlanta to live with him, but the marriage lasted less than six months. She wanted to go back to Russia with her children, but three tickets would have cost nearly $3,000 and she could not imagine getting that kind of money. A local Orthodox church helped her rent a tiny basement apartment. Elena found a job as an on-call waitress for a catering business, then worked her way up to maître d’ at a fancy hotel restaurant. Two years after arriving in the U.S., she was making enough to pay rent on a good apartment and cover expenses. But she had no health insurance, and her permanent-resident status could be revoked now that she was no longer married to an American citizen. Elena was no stranger to hardship, but the uncertainty was starting to feel like too great a burden.

Elena Teyer walks to podium to address the media.
Elena Teyer, Ibragim Todashev’s mother-in-law, speaks to reporters following a pre-trial conference for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston on Dec. 18, 2014.

Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Someone mentioned that the U.S. Army was hiring. Elena failed the test administered at the recruitment office; her English was not up to par. But the recruitment officer gave useful advice on how to study for the test and—even better—told her that an English-language course for prospective recruits would be opening up soon.

Elena left the kids in Atlanta—by this time her daughter had graduated from high school and could be trusted to look after her teenage brother—and went to a base in Texas for the course. It was like English-as-a-second-language basic training. The students had to rise at 4 a.m., dress in uniforms, and stand in formation in the quad before spending the day studying English. Elena loved it. Giving up your personal freedom at the age of 38 is hard, as is getting up at 4 every day—but things had been difficult her whole life. What they had not been was fair. The Army offered a clear, transparent, and fair deal: Elena gave over her mind and body in exchange for training, job security, medical insurance, and American citizenship for her and her kids. Both partners paid up front. Then she would be set; there would be retirement benefits, too. Honesty and openness are inherently seductive qualities, especially for people who have rarely encountered them. Elena became a patriot of the United States.

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She completed the English course, then eight weeks of basic training in San Antonio. She served in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for 2½ years, then transferred to Germany; only her son, Alex, then 15, went with her. Her daughter was 20 by then, too old to be dragged around by her mother. Elena wished she had commenced the dragging around a bit earlier, in fact: Alex, who was 11 when they came to America, was doing very well. He was growing up American, while his sister, formerly called Nyusha, seemed to be struggling. While Elena was away for her initial military training in Texas, Nyusha legally changed her name to Reniya Manukyan, taking the last name of a family friend of Armenian descent who she believed was her biological father, despite Elena’s denials. Reni began referring to herself as not Russian but Armenian, and even taught herself the language. She had the ability and perseverance for these kinds of feats.

Although Elena continued to call her daughter Nyusha, she got it: The girl was looking for somebody to be. The conversion to Islam a couple of years later was the product of the same need. Reni took things a bit far when she tried reprimanding her mother for her insufficiently modest dress; Elena was not one to be told what to wear, except when she was at work in the Army. But Elena liked Ibragim. He was gentle, and he had been through a lot: fleeing the war in Chechnya with his family as a child; growing up in Saratov, a Russian city on the Volga, as an ethnic Other; returning to Chechnya when it was still in shambles. Ibragim returned to Saratov to attend college—he had studied to be a translator from English—and had come to the U.S. on a work-study program before what would have been his last year of college. He had stayed, getting political asylum. His family back in Chechnya was doing well—his father had a high-level job with the new administration—but most of the prospering had come after Ibragim left. Elena saw him as a boy alone in a strange country, and she had a pretty good idea of what that felt like. She was happy to accept him fully into her family, as long as he finally got a job and stopped relying on her daughter, who worked two.

Elena herself felt like she was finally settling into a good life. After two years in Germany, she requested a transfer to Georgia: She had spent only a few years in Atlanta, but she felt like the city was home, and Reni was there. She and 17-year-old Alex returned to Georgia in March 2013. She was now based at Fort Stewart, 230 miles southeast of Atlanta, and immediately set about house-hunting in Savannah, the beautiful historic town about 40 minutes away, toward the coast. A month later, she was closing on her first house. The date was April 15, 2013, the day of the Boston Marathon bombing.

* * *

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At 2:49 p.m. that afternoon, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 264 others. The bombs were planted by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, 19. A manhunt for the brothers ensued; it would span more than 36 hours and stretch across the city. By the time it was over, Tamerlan was dead and Dzhokhar had been captured.

the boat in which Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar A. Ts
The boat in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hiding is seen from a police helicopter on Franklin Street on April 19, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Photo by Massachusetts State Police via Getty Images

Elena did not begin to grasp the impact of the Boston bombings until two weeks after they happened, when her daughter was detained at the airport on the way home from a visit to Russia for a cousin’s wedding. Reni told her mother that Ibragim had been questioned and said that the FBI was following him everywhere he went.

Like Ibragim, the Tsarnaevs were Chechen immigrants. They had been living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a decade. The Chechen community in the Boston area was small, and Tamerlan and Ibragim had grown friendly when Ibragim lived there. Now, Ibragim told Reni, all the Chechens in Boston and Orlando were getting dragged in for questioning.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev during his boxing practice
Tamerlan Tsarnaev during his boxing practice at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center near Boston on April 27, 2009.

Photo by Thomas Brown/Getty Images

On May 10, when Ibragim came to see Elena in Savannah, he struck Elena as depressed. She was also surprised to see he was still limping, ostensibly a consequence of a knee operation back in March. It might in fact have been the result of a fight he’d had in an Orlando parking lot a few days earlier.

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Around 7:30 p.m. on May 21, two FBI agents knocked on Elena’s door. “What’s our fools’ psychology?” she ranted to me a year later. “If we haven’t done anything wrong, we fear nothing. I even kept telling them they were doing good for the country.” Obviously, she let them into her house.

“They spent two hours asking me the same questions over and over again: Did they sleep together? Did they sleep on the couch together when they spent the night at my place? How religious was he? Did he abuse her? I told them that if anyone had so much as touched my baby in a bad way, I would have killed them. That’s exactly what I said.” That is easy to believe. Elena is a large, shapely woman with long blond hair—the very image of an all-powerful Russian matriarch, as well as of the ideal Russian mail-order bride, and the very opposite of her own daughter, who is slight, dark-haired, and soft-spoken.

After a couple of hours of circular questioning, Elena asked the agents to leave. She called her daughter.

“I just had a visit from them,” said Elena.

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“So did I.”

Elena tried calling Ibragim, but he did not pick up.

* * *

Elena had a training session the next morning. She could not pick up when her daughter called or when an unknown number began showing up on her phone every few minutes. She finally picked up when the training ended, around 7:30 a.m.

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“Hello. We were at your house last night.”

This was when she lost her cool. “You are going to start calling me at work now? I told you everything yesterday. I have nothing else to say to you.”

“We have something to tell you. Ibragim Todashev died of gunshot wounds this morning.”

Elena hung up and called her daughter. Reni was screaming into the phone: “Mama, they’ve killed him!”

“Then I knew that they weren’t kidding,” Elena told me. She rushed to do the paperwork for an emergency leave; her commanding officer was understanding, but bolting from work at an Army base still requires a lengthy bureaucratic procedure. Meanwhile, the two FBI agents from the evening before came by.

“You don’t have to worry about your children,” said the one who usually did the talking. “Your family is safe.”

“Why? Why?” Elena remembers screaming, meaning, Why was Ibragim killed?

“He became aggressive,” the agent told her.

“What are you telling me that my children are safe for when you just killed one of them? Look at me—I’m being aggressive now, too. Are you going to kill me?”

What Elena remembers the FBI agent doing next is this: “He placed his foot up on the chair right next to where I was sitting, and he hiked his pant leg up. He had a gun strapped to his shin. He said, ‘If you touch my gun now, my partner can kill you. He has that right.’ The gun was just about level with my face. It’s a good thing I didn’t reach for it then. Or I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”

* * *

What exactly Ibragim Todashev did to get himself killed was not clear then and is not clear now. By the day of his death, he had been what the FBI called “interviewed” three times. The first time, on April 20, began with Ibragim on the ground on his Orlando condo complex’s bucolic lawn, with armed men crowded around him: This was the manner in which the FBI first ID’d him, though he was never arrested and all his conversations with the FBI were, technically, voluntary. From that point on, he was under constant overt surveillance. In addition, the FBI took all of his electronics, returning them a day later. At least at some points, the FBI appears to have had a drone follow him. And on May 16, his girlfriend, Tatiana Gruzdeva, was arrested.

The other women in Ibragim’s life seem to have had varying levels of awareness of Tatiana’s existence: Elena thought Tatiana was Ibragim’s roommate, and Reni thought she was the girlfriend of Ibragim’s best friend, Khusein Taramov. In any case, Tatiana was arrested for alleged visa violations, leaving Ibragim living in the apartment alone.

On May 21, Ibragim got a call from the FBI agent he had seen a few times over the preceding month. He said that a group of agents from Boston had come to Orlando and wanted to talk to Ibragim—and that this would be the last interview. Ibragim still did not want to make the trek downtown to the FBI offices, so the agents agreed to come to him. He wanted to meet at a hookah bar; they eventually settled on talking in his apartment. Ibragim was apparently scared of the FBI at this point: He asked Khusein, who was also from Chechnya, to come to his place and stay there during the interview.

The team from Boston consisted of one FBI agent and two state troopers. A Justice Department report later described them as a homicide team. They were in Orlando to investigate a triple murder in Waltham, Massachusetts, in September 2011, in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s best friend from high school, Brendan Mess, and two other men were killed.

Ibragim had been in Boston the summer of 2011, working as a van driver for an adult day care center after Reni demanded he find a way to make money. According to the law enforcement narrative that eventually emerged, Ibragim helped Tamerlan carry out the murders, then fled the city.

Reni told me Ibragim had actually left Boston earlier and was not there on Sept. 11, the day the three men were murdered. She said she could see that from the records of their joint checking account: The charges Ibragim was making using his debit card showed he was elsewhere. Reni has the kind of memory and attention to detail that make her quite certain of things like this. But the bank, she said, had already deleted records for 2011 by the time she tried to get proof of Ibragim’s alibi.

* * *

Ibragim’s friend Khusein was not allowed to be in the apartment during the interview; a Florida FBI agent kept him in the parking lot, talking. Ibragim lived in one of those Orlando planned communities that look like they have been airlifted from a place that never existed. The condos are small vertical affairs, but each has its own entrance and two levels. The facades are a combination of cheap texture paint and equally cheap siding, but the backs feature double- height windows and sliding doors that open onto a lake with bridges and a fountain. Khusein and the Florida FBI agent stayed in the working-class front; Ibragim spent his last hours sitting by the sliding door, looking out onto the aspirational back. At 7:30 p.m., the homicide team from Massachusetts began questioning Ibragim, just as the FBI agents in Atlanta and Savannah began questioning Reni and Elena. After the interviews in Georgia ended, the one in Florida went on—and on.

According to the report, around 10:30 Ibragim slowly began confessing to having been Tamerlan’s accomplice in the triple murder. In another hour, he agreed to write a statement about it. Around midnight, one of the state troopers went out to the parking lot to get Ibragim’s phone from Khusein. While he was out of the building, something happened. Early reports had the remaining two officers saying, variously, that Ibragim had grabbed a broomstick and charged the officers with it, and that he had run to the kitchen area to grab a knife. The final official report said that Ibragim jumped up from the mattress on which he had been sitting composing his confession, threw a coffee table up in the air, knocked the FBI agent out of his chair, ran into the kitchen area, grabbed a metal utility pole, raised it over his head with both hands, and charged the trooper, who raised his hands to his face to protect it. The FBI agent fired seven shots at Ibragim, killing him.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) evidence response agent ,A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) evidence response agent and an Orlando Police officer.
The apartment where Ibragim Todashev was shot and killed by the FBI on May 22, 2013 in Orlando, Florida.

Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

* * *

When she was at last able to leave the base, Elena drove to Savannah to change into civilian clothing. Then she drove the 250 miles to Atlanta, straight to the Holiday Inn where Reni worked as an assistant housekeeper. Reni was in one of the hotel rooms with the FBI agents and her manager; she was afraid to be alone with the agents. That afternoon Elena drove her daughter the 400-plus miles down to Orlando. Reni’s phone kept ringing, and she kept trying to tell people what she knew but finding herself unable to speak. She’d cried and screamed so much that morning that she still had not regained her voice. She phoned Ibragim’s mother, whom she called Mama. “Mama, they have killed him.” In Orlando, they met up with Khusein, who told them what he knew. They drove to the medical examiner’s office. “When I asked them how many bullets,” Reni told me, “I sure didn’t expect to hear that kind of number. I fell facedown on a table and I wailed. I said, ‘I want to see the body.’—‘Are you sure?’—‘I’m sure.’ They wheeled him in on a gurney, he had a sheet covering him up to his neck. They had us standing on the side where you couldn’t really see the wounds. His eyes were still open, and they were this murky gray color. His upper jaw looked clenched but the mouth was slightly open. And I started saying, ‘Mama, why isn’t he getting up? When has this ever happened that we are all standing around him and he is not getting up?’ It was like I knew everything but I couldn’t believe anything.”

* * *

On March 25, 2014 —10 months after Ibragim Todashev’s death—the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a Florida state attorney, Jeffrey Ashton, released separate reports, both of which concluded that the FBI agent who shot Ibragim had acted in self-defense and in defense of the state trooper, and that his actions had been justified.

Ibragim Todashev trains at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts center
Ibragim Todashev trains at the Wai Kru Mixed Martial Arts Center near Boston on March 31, 2009.

Photo by Thomas Brown/Getty Images

The 161-page Florida report included detailed interviews with the FBI agents and the Massachusetts policemen as well as neighbors who had noticed something going on in Todashev’s apartment during the wee hours of the interview. The image of Ibragim that emerges from the report is radically different from the image that Elena paints of a gentle, innocent man; in the document he is frightening. More to the point, the officers were frightened of him. Before traveling to Florida they had viewed five videos of Ibragim’s fights, studied the physical traces the fights had left on his body— his broken nose and the “cauliflower ears” deformed from being repeatedly boxed. The fights they watched are indeed scary: Filmed in poor lighting, from below, they show lithe, extremely muscular men attacking each other in a cage-like ring. The men wear shorts, boxing gloves, and nothing else, and what they do to each other looks as fierce as a street brawl. In one of the videos, Ibragim is knocked to the ground at the very beginning, then pounded by his opponent, but around minute three gets up as though possessed of some superhuman power—and the fight goes on for a couple of minutes more, until he loses.

The officers also viewed a video of the May 4 fight in the Orlando parking lot that had led to Ibragim’s arrest, his second. Ibragim had already been under surveillance for two weeks. The Florida FBI agents filmed him beating up two men until the police arrived. Ibragim, for his part, knew he was being watched, if not filmed. The agents who showed their Massachusetts colleagues the video also explained that they had interviewed people at the gym where Ibragim trained and had been told “they thought he might be retarded, ah, because of the level of force and, ah, injuries that he was taking and he wouldn’t submit.”

The officers were scared going in, but the interview went better than they could have expected. The report included text messages sent and received by one of the state troopers.

“He signed Miranda. About to tell is [sic] his involvement,” he wrote at 10:28.

“Amazing,” someone responded a minute later. An hour and 20 minutes later—4½ hours into the interview—the trooper grew positively giddy.

“Okay he’s writing a statement now in his apt,” he wrote at 11:53.

And two minutes later: “Whos your daddy.” And immediately after: “Whos your daddy.” And: “???”

And half a minute later: “Getting confession as we speak.”

In seven minutes, his mood shifted drastically. He texted the FBI agent and the other trooper: “Be on guard. He is in vulnerable position to do something bad. Be on guard now. I see him looking around at times.”

In another minute, whatever it was that happened that night began happening. Ibragim had stopped writing the confession and had gotten up. The trooper, who had gone from giddy to worried, was now apparently so terrified that he fumbled with his holster. The FBI agent shot Ibragim three times, and he went down. Then the trooper saw exactly what he had seen in one of those fight videos: Ibragim, wounded and bleeding, rose again, like some sort of deathless monster. The FBI agent fired four more shots, one of them hitting Ibragim in the top of the head and three of them hitting him in the back.           

The Florida report included a screenshot of the trooper’s phone with the text messages, but the messages following his warning one—“Be on guard”—were redacted, covered with rectangular bars applied to the graphic. A blogger then used simple decryption techniques to remove the bars and reveal the messages. (Several journalists successfully repeated the trick.) The next message the trooper sent to his fellow officers—the other trooper and the Massachusetts FBI agent—went out the evening of May 22, 19 hours after Ibragim died:

“Well done this week man well done joy some time at home and in will talk soon.”

A minute later: “That was supposed to say well done men we all got through it and are now heading home. Great work.”

FBI personnel walk through the complex surrounding the apartment
FBI personnel walk through the Orlando, Florida complex surrounding the apartment, where Ibragim Todashev was shot and killed by the FBI on May 22, 2013.

Photo by Phelan Ebenehack/Reuters

The un-redacting of the report also revealed the name of the FBI agent who shot Ibragim—and the Boston Globe then meticulously verified his identity. He was Aaron McFarlane, he was 41 years old, and he had been with the FBI since 2008. Before that, he had been a police officer in Oakland, California. While there, he was accused of falsifying a police report, and the Oakland Police Department was sued twice by former suspects who claimed he had physically assaulted them. The Oakland police settled each of the lawsuits for $32,500, and McFarlane left in 2004, with a lifetime annual pension of $52,000.

Of course they sent a killer to interview Ibragim, thought Elena. And look at those text messages in which they congratulate each other for killing him! Her view of America had changed radically in the months that passed between Ibragim’s death and the publication of the text messages and information about FBI Agent McFarlane.

Elena returned to Fort Stewart in late June 2013, after Reni finally left for Chechnya with Ibragim’s body. There had been a month of paperwork delays, and then an airline had to be found that would allow Ibragim’s body on board. Eventually, the Russian carrier Aeroflot agreed to fly the casket. Elena’s emergency leave had lasted a month. On June 26, she told me, she was at a doctor’s appointment on base when two sergeants from her unit came to fetch her. “They took me somewhere. A woman came out and, without introducing herself, started to search me and told me to hand over my phone and keys. She said, ‘You can’t take anything with you if you are going inside.’ I said, ‘I’m not planning to go anywhere, at least not alone.’ One of the escorts, a female sergeant, said she’d go in with me, so she was also frisked. When we went in, I saw one of the agents who came to my house before. He said, ‘We have received information that you are planning to buy a gun and shoot FBI agents.’ I said, ‘Tell me, is it illegal to have a gun in the house?’—‘No.’—‘OK, that’s the only question I have for you, and I have no answers for you anyway.’ ” The agent did not try to keep her in the room.

Elena told me she had never owned a gun and had no desire to have one.

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Three weeks later, the agent called again. Elena hung up as soon as he introduced himself, then recorded his number in her phone as “Terrorist.” But he did not call again.

In another month, Elena’s commanding officer summoned her to inform her, apologetically, that the FBI had flagged her as being under investigation. She would be placed on indefinite paid leave: She could neither carry out her work duties in the military nor be reassigned or promoted as long as she was so “flagged.” The next day, Elena accepted a medical discharge from the Army. She was now 44, retired, and, she felt, a lot wiser than she had been a few months earlier.

America’s promise of fairness, openness, and honesty had turned out to be a ruse, she concluded. It was not a better country than Russia; it was just a better liar. Elena had grown up and begun raising her own children in a country that was capable of anything: bombing its own cities out of existence, as it did with Grozny in 1995 and 1999; blowing up more than three hundred people in order to secure an election, as it did in 1999; killing its own citizens abroad and endangering dozens of lives in the process, as it did with a former secret agent in London in 2006. America had said it would be different—its laws were firm, its courts were fair, and its respect for human life was absolute. Nothing in Elena’s lived experience had taught her that a country could really be like that, but as both an immigrant and a new Army recruit, she had accepted the premise enthusiastically.

But the minute she heard her daughter screaming into the phone—“Mama, they killed him!”—she knew she had been fooled. The same rules applied in this country as in the old one. The secret police killed people when they wanted to; a reason could always be found later. The secret police could and would engineer tragedies to their own ends, or to the government’s; someone to blame could always be found later.

Elena became part of the online community of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defenders. The many online groups, with a combined membership in the thousands, were an odd conglomeration of left-wing doubters, right-wing conspiracy theorists, young women with crushes on Dzhokhar, and, increasingly, middle-aged women aghast at the too-apparent barbarity of keeping a young man alive in order to kill him after a trial with a preordained outcome. Elena fit in well among them, and the story of the killing of Ibragim naturally became the centerpiece of the movement’s narrative of the obstruction of truth and the lack of justice.

In December 2014, Elena flew to Boston, barely scraping together enough money for the ticket and one night in a hotel, to attend Dzhokhar’s final pretrial hearing—the first time he would be brought to court since pleading not guilty in July 2013. As the brief proceedings were wrapping up, she shouted out in Russian: “Dzhokhar, there are people here who love you! We pray for you and support you! We know you are innocent!” She told me later she had decided ahead of time she would scream in Russian “so he would know it wasn’t someone mocking him.” As the U.S. marshals moved in to usher Elena out of the courtroom, she screamed at them, too: “I am an American citizen and I have the right to say what I think!”

Excerpted from The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, published on Tuesday by Riverhead.