The FBI has confirmed that a friend of slain Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was unarmed and not waving a samurai sword when he was shot and killed last week by an FBI agent in Orlando, Fla., as earlier reports had indicated.
The FBI says Ibragim Todashev, 27, a Chechen immigrant and aspiring martial arts fighter, was about to sign a confession to a 2011 triple murder when he turned a table on an FBI agent, putting the agent in jeopardy. The agent then fired as many as 7 shots, hitting Mr. Todashev at least once in the head.
The agency is investigating the shooting, which has been listed by the Orange County medical examiner as a homicide. As county officials are not elaborating on that determination, the legal implications for the FBI are so far unclear.
But the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, has asked the Department of Justice for a separate investigation into whether the FBI violated Todashev's civil rights.
"We have confirmed through senior sources within the FBI that Ibragim was indeed unarmed when he was shot seven times in the head, what appears to be even in the back of the head," said Hassan Shibly, executive director of CAIR Florida. "That's very disturbing."
Mr. Shibly told reporters on Wednesday that the group wants "to make sure excessive force was not used against this unarmed individual."
On Thursday, Todashev's father, Abdul-Baki Todashev, showed Russian journalists a series of photos of his son's body that he says suggests he was executed with a shot in the back of the head. Max Seddon of the Associated Press writes that "it was not immediately possible to authenticate the photographs."
Given the high profile and high-stakes nature of the Tsarnaev investigation, as well as international and national security implications, the bureau has a compelling reason to have a thorough and transparent investigation into Todashev's death, terror experts say.
"This is going to be a smorgasbord for every conspiracy [theorist] out there," says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "This could be anything from a civil rights violation, to reasonable force, to suicide by cop.
"But," he continues, "it doesn't appear there's a motive for the bureau to have this guy dead. There's no institutional motive for that. That means that something happened with respect to two guys in that room at the time.
“Was this agent trigger happy? Was he in legitimate fear of his life with this martial arts guy in a room alone, flipping a table over, perhaps lunging for his gun? That's a split second amount of time to make a decision."
The shooting of Todashev became the latest twist in an investigation into the twin bombs set off at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding 260. One of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was injured and then killed during a firefight with police, and his younger brother, Dzokhar Tsarnaev, was found hiding, wounded, in a boat, a day later after a massive manhunt that shut down much of the Boston metropolitan area.
In a missive scrawled on the walls of the boat before he was captured, Dzhokar Tsarnaev reportedly suggested the attacks were in retaliation to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since the bombings, the FBI has sought to connect Tamerlan with a triple homicide in Waltham, Mass., on Sept. 11, 2011, and that investigation brought them to Todashev, a fellow Chechen and martial arts fighter whom Tsarnaev had met in a Boston gym.
But among the questions raised by Todashev's death, constitutional law experts say, is the extent to which the questioning was voluntary, why it was conducted at his home, and whether Todashev could have ended the questioning at any point.
"Did he feel he was free to leave, was this something voluntary, given that courts have said that even the presence of a fair number of officers means that there can be a coerceive context?" Mr. Levin asks.
Reports from anonymous law enforcement sources suggest that other agents, including officers from the Massachusetts State Police, had left the room briefly when Todashev attacked the FBI agent.
The Orlando NBC affiliate station has reported that a samurai-style sword had been moved to a corner of the room before Todashev was questioned, citing sources who said the agent may have thought Todashev was going for the sword. The Washington Post, however, cited two anonymous law enforcement sources who said Todashev was not in possession of the weapon when he was killed.
Todashev has not been linked to the Boston bombings, though police say he was friendly with the Tsaernevs when he lived in Boston. He subsequently moved to Atlanta, then Orlando.