5 People Who Were Wrongfully Accused of being The Boston Marathon Bombers

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Boston Marathon Bombings raised many fears and questions.  Two notable questions emerged, “who is responsible for these attacks?” and “what/who is a reliable news source?”


In the aftermath of such a tragic event, it is understandable that people’s emotions would be running high.  And in a era in which technology, the Internet and social media make the public increasingly involved in reporting events, major media outlets often scramble to keep up with the speed of user-generated news and crowdsourcing.


The investigation of these attacks turned into what was described as a game of “racist Where’s Wally,” played by social media and mainstream media alike.  In the four days after the explosions took place, five different people were wrongfully identified as suspects. Here are their stories.


The Dark-Skinned Male

The first erroneous accusation occurred moments after the explosions, when CNN reported that a “dark-skinned male” was in custody. 


This “person of interest or suspect” was 22-year-old Abdul Rahman Ali Alharbi, a sports fan and, like 15 of the 19 hijackers in 9/11 attacks, a Saudi national. He was attending school in Boston to study English. 


For Alharbi, it was clearly a case of being the wrong color, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  He was so unlucky in fact, that he himself was amongst those injured by the attacks. But unlike the other victims, while he was being treated in the hospital, instead of being surrounded by friends and family, he was interrogated for five hours while his apartment was searched and his friends were questioned.


He was originally apprehended by a civilian spectator who tackled him because he thought Alharbi was suspicious for running away, injured, from the scene of the explosions.


The Bag Men

The next two “possible suspects” were identified through a combination of amateur investigating and bad reporting.  


Yassine Zaimi, 24, and Salaheddin Barhoum, 17, both Moroccan immigrants, had their photos published on the front page of the New York Post, with a headline labeling them ”Bag Men” whose identity was being sought by investigators.  Photos of the two men had been widely circulated online by amateur sleuths who believed them to be suspicious persons. 


As it turned out, Barhoum was a high-school track runner who, unable to run in the marathon himself, had gone to Boston to watch the race with his coach, Zaimi.  Once he became aware that his photo was being linked to the bomb plot, Barhoum told ABC, “It's the worst feeling that I can possibly feel… I'm only 17.”  CBS reported him saying, “I'm going to be scared going to school…everything is going to be scary.”  In a Facebook post, he assured his 1,776 friends, “Going to the court right now!! S*** is real. But u will see guys I’m did not do anything,” adding later, “I’m just going to tell them that it was not me.”


The Missing Student and his Unknown Companion

The final wrongfully targeted “suspects” were Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi.  The events that lead to this mistake are unfortunate at best. 


Once clearer pictures of the latest suspects began circulating online, someone tweeted that she thought suspect #2 looked like her friend, Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had been missing for three weeks.  Reddit users then flagged her tweets and it became the leading theory on the subreddit devoted to investigating the bombing.  


Meanwhile, on a Boston police scanner, which was being closely monitored by reddit users, an officer said, “Last name: Mulugeta, M-U-L-U-G-E-T-A, M as in Mike, Mulugeta.”


Now this is where it gets tricky, because somehow along the way, whether through reddit or twitter, the two names get tied together.  In the early hours of Friday morning, a certain Greg Hughes tweeted “BPD has identified the names: Suspect 1: Mike Mulugeta. Suspect 2: Sunil Tripathi.” In fact, there was no mention of Sunil Tripathi in the police scanner audio preceding Hughes’ tweet. 


This did not prevent the information from being retweeted and spreading like wildfire across media outlets until NBC’s Pete Williams’ sources began reporting that the suspects were actually two Chechen brothers. Mike Mulugeta may not even be a real person.  Sunil Tripathi however, is a real person. The real victims in this situation were the members of his family, whose son became the center of media attention in the most negative light and who is still missing.


FBI Reaction to Public Involvement

FBI officials have mixed opinions on the matter.


After the first wrongful accusation of Alharbi, which had been picked up by a number of major news outlets, the FBI issued this statement: “Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.”


On the other hand, Timothy Ryan, a former high-level FBI official, suggested that modern data collection, or crowdsourcing, may have helped pinpoint the suspects.  A trove of photographs and videos from people’s smartphones and cameras emerged on social media websites, data which the FBI used to focus their search. “In every investigation, it's better to over-collect than to under-collect,” Ryan, now a managing director of the cyber-investigations practice at the global security firm Kroll told The Huffington Post. 


While the search for the suspects was still going on, FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers, who led the investigation, stated “Assistance from the public remains critical.”


After the misdentification fiasco regarding Sunil Tripathi, there was a wave of apologies from reddit users and even NBC News. However some observers worried that in the long run nothing will change. In the words of Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in India, “social media users will still believe in a God given gift to tweet/post first & confirm much later.”  This is an attitude that the mainstream media seems to be following as well.

-Aaron Wallechinsky


To Learn More:

The Saudi Marathon Man (by Amy Davidson, New Yorker)

Meet The Two Immigrant Runners Wrongly Fingered As “Possible Suspects” In The Boston Marathon Bombing (Smoking Gun)

Boston Marathon Bombing Morrocan Suspects Denies Involvement After Lynched by the NY Post (Scallywag and Vagabond)

It Wasn't Sunil Tripathi: The Anatomy of a Misinformation Disaster (by Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic)

Boston Bombing: How Internet Detectives Got It Very Wrong (by Dave Lee, BBC)

Social Media As Breaking-News Feed: Worse Information, Faster (by Molly Wood, CNET)


HD 5 years ago
Also sunil tripathi was found dead in a river or something recently, i feel horribly for his family that had to deal with these unfounded accusation.
Ken C. 5 years ago
For Al Harbi it was clearly a case of him actually being related to known Al Qaeda members, including Ayman Al Zwahiri.
Justin G. 5 years ago
Great article!!

Leave a comment