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Three College Friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Arrested for Roles After the Bombing

May 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Three men who attended college with Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were arrested and charged with disposing of evidence and lying to authorities. Gwen Ifill talks with Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, about the charges and the men's friendship.
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GWEN IFILL: The Boston bombings investigation took another new turn today with federal charges filed against three college buddies of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. They’re accused of trying to get rid of evidence or lying to investigators after the attack. Two of the three are from Kazakhstan.

Azamat Tazhayakov is on the left, and Dias Kadyrbayev is in the center in this undated photo with Tsarnaev taken in New York. The third new suspect was identified as Robel Phillipos.

We get more now from Dina Temple-Raston of NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston, give us a sense what we know, if anything, about these three.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, National Public Radio: Well, we know that, as you said, two of them are from Kazakhstan and the third one is American.

We also know that they — that two of them, the two Kazakhstan students, were arrested 11 days ago. They were arrested on immigration charges. And officials had some idea that they might be involved somehow with the main suspect in the Boston bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and so they basically kept them on these immigration charges until they could build a case that at least would give them some idea of what role they might have played.

It’s important to realize that the role they played is after the bombing, not before it.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: It appears what they did is tried to help their college friend.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s walk through the complaint that was filed today in Boston as these men were charged. It says that they intentionally obstructed justice. How did they do that, allegedly?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what they — what — there are two things that we think that happened, according to the criminal complaint.

The first is that when they first saw the photographs that were released of the suspects, remember, suspect number two is who authorities believe is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the one with the white hat. When they first saw that picture, they actually texted him and said, hey, dude, that looks like you. And he wrote back, LOL, laugh out loud.

And then when they started to realize that maybe it was in fact him, they went to his dorm room. And when they went there, they found a backpack that was filled with fireworks that had actually been emptied of their explosive powder. And apparently there was Vaseline in the backpack and I guess an assignment from the university, a homework assignment.

And so they grabbed the backpack basically and decided that they would dispose of it. From the criminal complaint, it seems like something that they did very much on the spur of the moment. This wasn’t something that they had sort of really thought through.

GWEN IFILL: And then they began to talk — when the authorities began to talk to these young men, they began to uncover a pattern of not only obstruction of justice, but also lying and concealment of their role after the fact?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, not exactly.

Robel Phillipos, the third person who was arrested today, this 19-year-old student also from this university, he is the only one who is being charged with lying to federal agents. He is not being charged with obstruction of justice.

And, apparently, when federal agents asked if he had had any contact with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after the bombing, he denied it. Then they asked him if they’d gone to the dorm room or if his friends had gone to the dorm room, and he denied that, too. And he was basically caught in a lie to federal agents.

GWEN IFILL: So the stories changed as the — in the days — it’s important to remember that the Tsarnaev brothers were at large for, what, four days, and during that period of time authorities were talking to these young men and we assume others?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, exactly.

And these young men, the other thing that was interesting that they mentioned in this criminal complaint that one of the young men went to the dormitory to meet Dzhokhar Tsarnaev just days after the bombing, like two days after the bombing, and he had given himself a short haircut, and he mentioned that to FBI agents.

GWEN IFILL: How did they get into his room? They showed up and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — this is his dorm room at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and his roommate let them him? Dzhokhar wasn’t there himself?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: That’s what we understand, that at least in the time when they took this backpack out that.

He was there the first time they went. He was not there the second time they went. The roommate let them in. And according to the criminal complaint, they took the backpack and they actually took his laptop as well, because they didn’t want it to seem like — rouse any suspicion of the roommate by just taking the backpack.

And authorities say in the criminal complaint that they found the backpack in a landfill a couple of days ago with these fireworks without the powder in them that backpack, but they didn’t find the laptop. And in fact that was why they had gone to the landfill to try and find this laptop. Presumably — it’s not mentioned exactly in the criminal complaint, but presumably these two students hung onto the laptop and that’s something authorities have now.

And that’s important because it gives them an ability to take a look at what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was doing before the bombing, because they can mirror that hard drive.

GWEN IFILL: Do we have any idea about the history of these young men, how long they have known each other, how close friends they are?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: It seems that they are very close friends.

Apparently, Dzhokhar spent a lot of time in the New Bedford apartment of these Kazakh students. And they took classes together and that sort of thing. And it sort of seems that they came together over the last couple of years, as foreign students often do when they are together in this sort of college environment.

I don’t think anybody necessarily thinks there’s anything particularly nefarious about their friendship. One of Kazakh students had actually gone to Kazakstan back in December and had come back. And there’s been some question about whether or not there was something nefarious or suspicious about that.

But a lot of foreign students actually go back home for the Christmas holiday. And there hasn’t been any real suggestion that that’s a problem, although what is interesting about these visa violations is apparently part of what was going on with these visa violations is that these kids didn’t attend class much. But, you know, there are a lot of college students who do that.

GWEN IFILL: But that can be used as a pretext to hold you.

To be clear again, in this charge today, they are not being charged with any complicity with the bombing itself. But for what they are being charged with, how stiff is the potential penalty?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they can get years in prison for this.

But I think what is important here is that we have understood from officials that they are following as many — or they’re tracking as many as a dozen people who might have something to do with this case. And what these arrests today shed light on is not what happened before the bombing, which is what they are really interested in.

How did they make the bombs? Did they test the bombs? Did someone help them put together this plot? What this sheds light on is what happened perhaps afterwards. And they seem to be having a lot more evidence on that than they do beforehand. And that’s what they’re really focused on now.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s fair to say the hunt is still under way.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: There’s more to come.

GWEN IFILL: Dina Temple-Raston of NPR, thanks so much.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You’re very welcome.