About a boy

Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s six months in Dagestan were less about a man on a mission,more about a confused teen

Written by New York Times | Russia | Published: April 23, 2013 1:04:41 am


Tamerlan Tsarnaev had already found religion by the time he landed in Dagestan,a region in North Caucasus that has become the epicentre of Islamic insurgency in Russia and a hub of jihadist recruitment. What he seemed to be yearning for was a home.

“When he came,he talked about religion,” said his aunt,Patimat Suleimanova,who saw him a few days after he arrived in January 2012.

It was 15 months before Tsarnaev would be killed during a bloody standoff with the police,who believe he and his younger brother planted bombs that hit the Boston Marathon.

He had already given up drinking alcohol,grown a close beard and prayed five times a day. The reunion with his aunt and uncle was a happy one,marked by contrasts with his life in America. “He said,‘The people here are completely different. They pray different’,” Suleimanova recalled.

“Listen to the call to prayer—the azan—that they play from the mosque,” Tsarnaev said,according to his aunt. “It makes me so happy,to hear it from all sides.”

“What,you can’t hear the mosques there in America?” she recalled asking.

Tsarnaev stayed for six months in Makhachkala,the capital of Dagestan,where he had spent most of his teenage years and where his parents had returned to live after several years in the United States. Those six months have become a focus for investigators who are trying to understand why he and his brother might have carried out the attack in Boston.

But the emerging portrait of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s time here seems inside out. Dagestan,which is known for exporting terrorists like those who carried out the deadly 2010 bombings in the Moscow subways,seems in this case to have been a way station for a young man whose path began and ended somewhere else.

On Sunday,the most feared terrorist group in the Caucasus,the Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate,issued a statement dismissing speculation that Tsarnaev had joined them and denying any responsibility for the Boston Marathon attack. “The mujahideen of the Caucasus are not fighting against the USA,” the statement said. “We are at war with Russia.”

The continuing strife between Islamic militants and the Russian authorities receives little attention outside Russia,but it has yielded a long string of terror attacks that have caused many more deaths than the three in Boston.

Yet,during his six months in Makhachkala,according to relatives,neighbours and friends,Tsarnaev did not seem like a man on a mission. Rather,they said,he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late,hung around at home,visited family and helped his father renovate a storefront.

“The son helped his father,” Vyacheslav Kazakevich,a family friend,said. “They started at 8 in the morning. When I passed by,they were working on the inside of the store. He didn’t go anywhere; no friends came to see him.”

Even so,his life’s narrative had been one of constant motion. He was born in Kalmykia,a Russian territory along the Caspian Sea. His family moved to Kyrgyzstan,a former Soviet republic in Central Asia,then to Chechnya,his father’s ancestral home. Then Dagestan,and then to America,where Tamerlan finished high school,married and had a daughter.

Wherever he went though,he did not quite seem to fit in. He was a Chechen who had never really lived in Chechnya,a Russian citizen whose ancestors were viciously oppressed,a green-card holder in the US whose path to citizenship there seemed at least temporarily blocked.

By January 2011,he somehow had attracted official attention in Russia,which thought he might be a follower of radical Islam and asked the US for information about him. The FBI interviewed Tsarnaev and his family in Boston but found no sign of terrorism activity at that time.

Dagestan may have made him feel more at home than the US,but it was a strange place to find comfort,given the nearly non-stop violence there. In the days just before he visited,a 13-year-old was wounded after picking up a package booby-trapped with a hand grenade. Two weeks after his arrival,a grenade was tossed in a residential area. It was apparently meant to draw the police into an ambush,because several minutes later,in a pattern eerily similar to the marathon bombing,a larger bomb hidden in a garbage pail went off,killing a small child.

And so it went all the time he was in Dagestan: Two or three deadly bombings a month on average,constant “special operations” in which the federal police killed dozens of people they said were Muslim insurgents,and numerous other attacks.

Dagestan is a place where the graffiti outside one mosque says,“Victory or Paradise”.

Living in such circumstances may have had an impact on Tsarnaev even if he did not join any organised militant group,said Mairbek Vatchagaev,president of the Association of Caucasus Studies in Paris. “It is very obvious there is a burst of Islamic self-identification and deepening radicalism,” Vatchagaev said.

Still,Vatchagaev and others noted the numerous crosscurrents in Tsarnaev’s profile: the sleeping-in that could conflict with morning prayers,for instance,or his desire to leave the US but also to become an American citizen.

Something,it seems,may have driven Tamerlan Tsarnaev to violence. But relatives said they could not fathom how the boys they knew could be the terrorists who bombed the Boston Marathon. Their aunt,Patimat Suleimanova,said,“They couldn’t commit an act like this.”

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