‘American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing’ Explained: What Happened To Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

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It is easy to argue that true-crime documentary films and shows are among the best works on Netflix, and this is all the more true in the case of productions that mostly use real footage from events. “American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing” is another thrilling docuseries in the genre, which presents the police and FBI investigation into the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 and the manhunt that followed to catch the perpetrators in time. With questions and issues from every side raised and a journalistic style that covers sympathy and triumph, “The Boston Marathon Bombing” is a great watch.


What Happened During The Boston Marathon Organized On 15th April, 2013?

As the world’s oldest annual marathon, the Boston Marathon is an event of historical and cultural importance to the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts. While the event had always received media coverage and attention all across the USA due to its heritage, every news of it in 2013 was scary and devastating to watch. Starting at the nearby town of Hopkinton, the 26.2-mile marathon ends in the city center of Boston amidst great festivities and jubilation. Thousands of people flock to the city center to cheer on the participants or take part in some sections of the marathon, and the entire event has a very festive and celebratory air to it. Like every other time in recent years, the city of Boston had almost shut down on April 15, 2013, in order to make way for the marathon and subsequent celebrations.

It was almost three in the afternoon, around three hours after the winner had crossed the finish line, and the streets were packed with crowds enjoying the scene. All of a sudden, a loud explosion very close to the finish line was heard, and people standing on the sidewalk were gravely injured by it. Before the crowds and the authorities could react or respond properly, about fourteen seconds after this first explosion, another explosion took place just a block away from the first spot. Here too, people in the crowds were gravely injured, and hurt bodies lay on the streets. As the responding police members reached the two scenes, it was very clear that the people had been hurt by shrapnel and metal objects, making it evident that this was no accident but the result of two bombs. As panic spread all across the city, people with serious injuries were rushed to the hospitals, and within a day, three individuals were declared dead from the blasts. Further 281 were injured, with some having to get permanent amputations as well.

While the police and other emergency responders did their best to ensure safety, it was still not clear whether there would be more attacks. The Boston PD quickly got in touch with the FBI, and an investigation into the whole matter was started that very day. The evidence found at the two explosion spots pointed to the fact that the bombs were homemade pressure cooker bombs that had been remotely detonated. The objects, which had been left behind in two backpacks, had been stuffed with small metal pieces like nails and ball bearings. It was very evident that the perpetrator, or group of perpetrators, had meticulously designed the bombs to hurt as many people as they could and that it was all part of some well-made plan. The FBI and Boston Police Department now started a long search for the perpetrators while remaining cautious about any other subsequent attacks. “American Manhunt: Boston Marathon Bombings” chronicles the maddening 100-hour-long manhunt that was conducted to identify, find, and capture the perpetrators of the horrific bombings.


What Events Followed The Bombings At The Marathon?

Soon after the Boston city center had been cleared and scanned for evidence by the authorities, they started looking at the many security camera videos from the shops around the area. Since both bombs had exploded on the sidewalk, there were many storefronts near the spots, all of which had security cameras. After some careful monitoring, a young man was finally spotted in the footage, suspiciously leaving a backpack behind, which led to the second explosion. Backtracking the movements of the man, an accomplice of his was also seen carrying a similar backpack minutes before the first explosion. The FBI was sure that these two were the prime suspects, but running any facial recognition tests was not possible because of the circumstances, and the two were just named “White Hat” and “Black Hat.” Some of the authorities, notably the commissioner of Boston PD, Ed Davis, were of the opinion that they should release images of the suspects to the public in order to get help from the common masses to identify and locate them. But most, including the FBI operatives and the federal attorney, were against such a step, as it would take away the FBI’s ability to secretly approach the suspects since they would already know of the authorities tracking them.

However, the case was already understandably a very high-profile matter in terms of media coverage, and around three days later, the photos of the two suspects reached one of the media outlets in some unknown manner. While there remains some mystery about this, Ed Davis, the most prominent supporter of such public disclosure, continues to state that he had no role to play in this. In order to still maintain an advantage over the media, the FBI themselves released the photos of the two suspects and asked for public help in identifying them. That very night, at close to eleven, gunshots were reported on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the nearby town of Cambridge. When officers reached the place, it was found that a policeman of the MIT police department had been shot dead in his patrol car, and his service gun had also been stolen. While enraged and concerned authorities flocked to the scene, the incident had still not been linked to the perpetrators of the Boston bombings.

Around this time, a man named Danny Meng, who was driving around in Cambridge, was approached at gunpoint by one of the perpetrators and taken hostage in his own car. The two men, seemingly brothers, now told Danny that they were the same people who had caused the bombings and disclosed that they wanted to use his car to carry out some more terrorist activities. Although they claimed that they would not hurt Danny, the man was not ready to take any risks, and he managed to run out of his car and take shelter at a gas station. As Danny informed the police about all that had happened, the local police were alerted about Danny’s car, which was still being driven around by the perpetrators.

The officers who spotted the car in the nearby town of Watertown were aware that they were only apprehending a stolen car. They had no idea that they were actually in pursuit of the Boston bombers and, in fact, did not realize so even during what followed. As a police car ordered the perpetrators to stop, the two men got out of the car and started openly firing at the policeman. Very soon, more police cars rushed to the scene, and an immense shootout followed between the two sides, with the perpetrator brothers even hurling bomb sticks and one pressure cooker bomb at the authorities. While none of the police officers were killed or seriously hurt by the bullets or bombs, they could not bring down the perpetrators either. It was finally one of the off-duty police officers who flanked the two shooters and managed to hit one of them. The man was finally brought to the ground, and the other officers rushed in to arrest him. But what they did not notice was that the other perpetrator took this moment to get into the stolen car and drive it at full speed toward them. The lawmen did manage to jump out of the way just in time, but the other perpetrator, lying on the street, could not do the same. After a brutal sequence of events, one of the perpetrators of the Boston bombing ran over his accomplice, before fleeing the scene and going into hiding.


What Was The Identity Of The Perpetrators? What Was Their Motive?

As the injured perpetrator was rushed to the nearest hospital, he was declared dead from the impact of the car being driven over his body. With the second perpetrator still out in public and armed with bombs and ammunition, the FBI quickly used the situation to identify the two men. The two were indeed brothers—Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and they were Kyrgyz-American citizens of Chechen descent. The elder brother, Tamerlan, had been killed already, and the younger, Dzhokhar, was still at large. The Tsarnaev family used to be residents of Kyrgyzstan and then Dagestan, near the Chechnya region in Russia. In 2001, the Tsarnaev family pleaded for asylum in the United States and was granted the request, making them settle down in the vicinity of Boston.

Although Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were already of considerable age by this time, they started growing up as American kids. However, the unavoidable issues of racism and ethnic bias were always a part of their lives, especially for Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Being exceptionally talented at boxing, Tamerlan dreamed of taking part in the Olympics, but a rule change disallowed him from taking part in the trials even. The new rules stated that only American citizens could represent the country in the Olympics, and Tamerlan was not a US citizen. While this seems like an issue not serious enough to carry out terrorist activities, Tamerlan interpreted it otherwise—to him, this was a clear message that America was against his Muslim identity. It definitely seems like Tamerlan Tsarnaev already had a bias against the authorities in this regard, and this incident largely spurred it on.

Following this, Tamerlan reportedly started growing very religious and steadily creeping towards extremism as well. Soon he was convinced by the cause of Al Qaeda and reportedly got involved with one such militant group during his visit to his homeland, Dagestan. While no conclusive evidence of this has been found, the authorities claim that it was after his return from Dagestan that Tamerlan started planning the bomb attacks. During this time, the FBI had also been warned by the Russian FSB of Tamerlan’s possible terrorist involvement, but the FBI did not find anything severe and therefore stopped keeping track of him. By his side, Tamerlan found his younger brother Dzhokhar, who was quite a popular kid in school and the locality. Dzhokhar was never openly religious, but the divorce of his parents during his teenage years had a deep impact on the boy. Following this, his parents separately returned to Dagestan, and since then, Tamerlan had been his only family and had become almost like an idol to look up to. The two were convinced that a “jihad” was necessary to stop the oppression of Muslims by the United States of America, not just in their personal lives but also in the case of the country’s military actions in the Muslim countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. Motivated by these beliefs, Tamerlan started preparing homemade bombs with help from the Al Qaeda magazine “Inspire” and then, with his brother, orchestrated the whole bombing and eventual shootout.


What Happened To Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

While the FBI conducted large-scale search and rescue operations for Dzhokhar, the young man was ultimately found hiding in a covered boat in the backyard of a house only a few blocks away from the scene of the shootout in Watertown. When the authorities finally got wind of this, police officers and FBI officials flocked to the scene, and the situation almost got out of control. Many of the officers were not even on duty, and someone fired a shot, which led to many other officers shooting multiple rounds at the boat. But ultimately, Dzhokhar was indeed found alive, and after hours of negotiation, he was captured alive by the police. As celebrations broke out in the streets of Boston, the young man was detained, and a trial against him on the charge of terrorism was started. When the court trial for the case began, the defendants wanted to prove that Dzhokhar had only acted upon the orders of his elder brother Tamerlan and, therefore, could not be held guilty. A crucial piece of evidence to prove such a statement was that Tamerlan was believed to have been involved in the unsolved murders of three of his friends earlier in 2011. However, the court refused to listen to matters of another case, and therefore, Dzhokhar’s defense did not stand. The man was found guilty of terrorist activity and was given the death penalty.

While the most tragic consequence of the Boston Marathon bombings was the deaths of three victims, one of whom was just an eight-year-old boy, and also the death of the policeman at MIT, “American Manhunt” also focuses on the social repercussions as well. Muslims living in the US were already harassed and looked down upon by certain sections of society following 9/11, and now after this incident, islamophobia was greatly on the rise. The fact that such a gross misinterpretation of the Islamic religion, as done by the Tsarnaev brothers, also hurt other practitioners of the faith also finds its place in the documentary. Although some sides of the authority believed that the Tsarnaev brothers must have been helped by a bigger group, no proof of this was found, and no further investigation was carried out.

“American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing” ends with statements with regard to the present whereabouts of the people involved in the case and the documentary. Most senior individuals from Boston PD and the FBI who were involved in the investigation retired a few months after the incident. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence was challenged in an appeal, and the sentence was reversed in 2020. However, the Supreme Court later overturned this decision and reinstated the death sentence in 2022. As of now, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is held captive in a supermax federal prison, still awaiting his execution.


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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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